- 14 Nov 17
With two TV adaptations of her work gaining swooning reviews it has been the year Margaret Atwood became the most influential author in the world. Words Ed Power
It has been the year of Hollywood scandal, of American “carnage”, of the unmasking of Big Tech as enabling tool of dystopian takeover. So it is both quixotic and absolutely appropriate that 2017 should also have seen Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood hailed as the great seer of our time, with two television adaptations of her work taking the temperature of a troubled world.
The first of those was obviously The Handmaid’s Tale, the future-shock patriarchal parable in which women are recategorised as reproductive chattels. Produced by the obscure American streaming network Hulu – and aired on Channel 4 in this part of the world – it was not a comforting watch but it was absolutely the show we needed.
The Handmaid’s Tale duly swept the boards at the Emmys, becoming the first streaming series to gain the coveted best drama gong (from under the outraged nose of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos – who promptly ordered his minions to bring him “the next Game Of Thrones”).
“It is first and foremost a feminist story,” said Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, who executive produced the series and played audience surrogate Offred. “I play a woman who has had her child and her family taken away from her, and all of her rights as a woman stripped and who is essentially a prisoner. … it was also a human story in the sense that there are other groups – other races, colours and creeds – who are punished and maligned and are not given the right to be heard as well.”
Now comes a six part retelling of Atwood’s 1996 true crime meditation Alias Grace. Based on a real life Nineteenth century murder mystery, it tells of a downtrodden Irish servant girl alleged to have bumped off her Toronto master and mistress. The killings were a sensation in Canada – not least because of the gender of the alleged perpetrator. Could a woman have committed so “masculine” a depravity?
Sarah Polley’s adaptation is as beautifully rendered as you would expect of a “peak TV” drama airing on Netflix (having originally gone out in Canada on CBC). However, there’s a sticking point, for Irish audiences at least, as the “Irish” accent of Grace (Sarah Gadon) is cringeful with rocket-boots on.
That’s ironic as Polley has spoken of the resonances between anti-Irish sentiment in 1800s Canada and the demonising of migrants today. Irish viewers will feel that the message might have resonated more strongly if the lead character – played by a Canadian – didn’t sound as if she was choking down on a bowl of Lucky Charms.
Still, there’s no arguing with the dramatic punch of the show – or of the story’s contemporary parallels.
“To be a woman in that time, or any time, there are parts of your personality and responses to things that you’re expected to suppress,” Polley told the New York Times. “So what happens to all that energy and all that anger? What do you do with powerlessness? The idea of having more than one identity, the face you show to the world and the face that’s deep within, captivated me.”
The series is directed by Mary Harron, best known for her adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. She agreed with Polley that it was important to portray the past as unflinchingly as possible. Whatever else, Alias Grace was never going to be Canada’s version of a British costume drama.
“Both Sarah and I are interested in what is true and what is not true. I think she liked that a lot of my films have characters crossed with madness. And she knew I wouldn’t try to make Downton Abbey. I didn’t want to prettify but to really show a brutal, ruthless, class-driven society.”
Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale have given renewed prominence to Atwood, who, at age 78, is happy to be a lightning rod for debates about gender and politics.
“I often get asked to be a spokesperson for a very simple reason, and that reason is that I don’t have a job, “she told Entertainment Weekly. “So I can’t be fired. A lot of people would like to say those things but they have jobs and they may have families, and they would put themselves in jeopardy if they said some of the kinds of things that I do. So that’s why artists and writers are so often picked. They can’t be fired. They can vilified, people can call them names…but they can’t actually be dismissed.”
Alias Grace is on Netflix now.