Books · Film & Television

Alias Grace, Another Revolutionary Series from Margaret Atwood

In 1971, Gil Scott-Heron, the American spoken-word performer and self-described “bluesologist” declared that, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The poem, recorded by Scott-Heron accompanied by bongo drums and congas, took its title from the 1960s Black Power movement. With nearly countless references to white entertainment, culture, and establishment, the underlying message was that something was changing whether the media chose to cover African-American issues or not. The poet, who died in 2010, explained, “The revolution takes place in your mind. Once you change your mind and decide that there’s something wrong that you want to effect that’s when the revolution takes place … It’s about going to war with the problem and deciding you can effect that problem. When you want to make things better you’re a revolutionary.”

Thirty years later, the celebrated playwright and actress Sarah Jones wrote and performed a “re-mix” that she called, “Your Revolution.” Her piece delivered a decidedly feminist take on the interpersonal politics of sex. “Your revolution,” she warns the patriarchy — and every smooth-talking seducer she’s ever encountered — “Will not happen between these thighs.” The FCC fined a Portland radio station for playing the song, citing that it was “indecent.” Jones, along with the NYCLU and ACLU appealed and won their case two years later.

Historically, the concept of “indecency” has often been used to denigrate women’s rights movements (and still is in some places). As Australian author Susan Magarey points out in Passions of the First Wave Feminists, “Feminism was indecent because men treated women asking for rights as though they were prostitutes. Feminism was indecent because it made men think of sex in the wrong places. Feminism was indecent because it took women to the wrong places. Feminism was indecent because it made women seem odd and oddly behaved. Even women found questions about rights for women distasteful.”

In Margaret Atwood’s novels, heroines grapple with their rights (or utter lack thereof), and with the so-called “indecency” of their sexuality.

Earlier this year, Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s feminist classic The Handmaid’s Tale made television history when it became the first on-demand original series to win the Emmy Award for Best Drama. Season two (under the artistic guidance of Atwood herself) is in production and will air in 2018.

An eerily natural extension of this year’s women’s marches, the series focuses on a handmaid, Offred (played to perfection by Elisabeth Moss), who endures monthly ritualized rape in order to bear children for the Republic of Gilead. Disturbingly, in Atwood’s dystopian cautionary tale, subjugation and religion are intertwined. The only way Offred avoids being indecent is by unquestioning obedience. She does not own her sexuality. The state does.

In Atwood’s less-known but equally powerful historical novel Alias Grace, the heroine Grace Marks doesn’t own her sexuality either. It is the property first of her drunken father, then the sons of her employers. When she is arrested and convicted for a brutal double-murder (which she may or may not have committed; she has no memory of it), she is molested by asylum attendants and prison guards. Even her seemingly kind gentleman psychiatrist grills her on the abuses she may have suffered. “Did Mr. Kinnear force himself upon you? Did you have relations with him? Did he lie with you in your bed?” Grace’s answers, whether truth, lies or a cunning trick to convince Dr. Jordan of her innocence, provide the key to a fascinating character study — as well as a powerful condemnation of all the ways in which men abuse women.

Grace Marks was a notorious figure in nineteenth century Canada. (You might think of her as that nation’s Lizzie Borden.) She was just sixteen when she was convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper. Her story polarized the public, some calling for her pardon, others for her death. It also inspired Atwood who published the novelized Alias Grace in 1996. Under the superb direction of Mary Harron (American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol), and the watchful eye of Atwood (as in The Handmaid’s Tale, the author appears on screen in a small role), Alias Grace has now been adapted as a six-part mini-series for Hulu’s competitor Netflix.

The intensely intelligent screenplay is by Canadian writer, director, and actress Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell), and the project was long in the making. As a teen (and young star of Anne of Avonlea), Polley read Atwood’s novel and asked if she could buy the film rights. The author, understandably, declined the offer, which was disappointing to Polley at the time, but fortuitous in the long run. “Thankfully, I didn’t get them at 17,” she recalls with some humor, “Because I wouldn’t have done a very good job.”

With those rights at last secured, the success (or failure) of Alias Grace truly hinged on the actress chosen for the leading role. Polley and Harron, after a lengthy audition process, cast Sarah Gadon (Belle), who had worked with both women on challenging projects in the past. “She has an old-soul quality that you needed for Grace,” explains Herron. “She can do very delicate shifts of emotion, even when listening or reacting, even when being still.”

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