Spoilers ahead for the book and the series.
Netflix’s new Margaret Atwood adaptation Alias Grace is remarkably faithful to Atwood’s original novel. It’s not just a representation of the novel’s plot and characters, although it certainly does that. More impressive, as a TV series Alias Grace hews closely to the structure and tone of the book, which is no simple feat for a book as knotty and intricate as this one. The series is close enough to its source text that several passages come directly from Atwood’s original language. More important, Sarah Polley’s adaptation is remarkably effective at translating the form of Atwood’s novel into a visual language. That form is vital to Alias Grace, and it would’ve been so easy to lose in the adaptation.
It’s a massive novel, though — inevitably, some things have been trimmed in order to cut the 450-page tome into a six-part mini-series. It’s also a stubbornly textual work of fiction. While Polley’s series is amazingly good at re-creating much of Atwood’s narrative world, some of the Alias Grace project gets stuck on the page and can’t quite make it to the screen.
Here are some of the ways Sarah Polley’s Alias Grace draws from its source text, and a few of the things that got left behind.
The voice-over and the narrators
Like Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, voice-over plays a crucial role in Polley’s Alias Grace. It’s fundamental (and perhaps unavoidable) for both series because Atwood’s novels are so intent on representing the gap between exteriors and interiors. One of the central questions of Alias Grace is that of Grace Marks’s innocence or guilt, and Dr. Jordan’s inability to figure it out. He can rely only on what he sees in Grace’s face and what she’s willing to tell him, and can only guess what’s happening inside her head. Atwood’s novel represents this conundrum by splitting into different narrators — some portions are narrated by Grace herself, while other parts of the story are told by a third-person narrator who gazes down on Dr. Jordan. For the series, Grace’s voice-over allows us to understand the contradictions between what she says aloud to Dr. Jordan and the thoughts actually running through her head.
The series can’t quite re-create the distance between Atwood’s first-person and third-person narrative voices though — while we’re trained to feel a sharp difference between first-person and third-person narrators as readers, we’re less familiar with thinking of the camera as a type of omniscient narrator. Still, the series is adept at capitalizing on the underlying effect: Grace, in her role as an unnerving, unknowable raconteur, weaves a story for Dr. Jordan while also doing the same for us. She speaks to the viewer directly, and knows full well that she’s entertaining us. Dr. Jordan, meanwhile, is only seen from a remove. Much though he’d like it, he has no control over the story being told.
The quilt is one of Atwood’s dominant metaphors in Alias Grace. It’s literally representative of the minute, obsessively neat needlework Grace spends her life doing, and the various quilting patterns all hold thematic weight within the story. The quilts are images from the Biblical story of Eve, or are meant to represent the home — the parallels to Grace’s story are pretty obvious. But more broadly, Atwood’s novel is constructed like a quilt. Grace’s story is built out of pieces, each of them snippets from completely unrelated things, sewn together to create a new image. In the novel, those pieces are different narrative voices — we get Grace’s point of view, the narrator who tells us about Dr. Jordan, letters the characters send to one another, snippets of newspapers, song lyrics, book excerpts, court records, and bits of other literature.
In the Netflix series, the piecemeal, mosaic structure that’s so important to Atwood’s text becomes snippets of scenes, intercut with one another in startling ways. Dr. Jordan holds up an apple and we see a brief startling clip of an apple peel falling onto the floor, long before we know where that scene actually fits into the story. As Grace tells Dr. Jordan her life story leading up to the murders, brief shocking frames from the crime interrupt her story. We see some of those images many times over the course of the series. Like a quilt, there are patterns and familiar repeating shapes. Like a quilt, it’s hard to grasp the whole image without stepping back and trying to put all the pieces into one coherent design.
The historical Grace Marks
One thing Atwood makes clear that Polley does not: Grace Marks was a real woman, who was really convicted of murdering her employer Thomas Kinnear and his pregnant housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. The historical facts of the case are an important part of Atwood’s quilt, providing more pieces in the puzzle of Grace’s guilt or innocence — fiction and fact are all sewn together. The Netflix series presents exactly the same facts and suppositions and fictionalizations as Atwood’s novel, but the historical basis for it all remains hidden.
While there are few significant plot changes between the book and the series, Dr. Jordan has a much bigger role within Atwood’s novel. We get more of his experience outside of Grace’s narrative, more of his correspondence with other experts trying to understand her case, and generally more of his confusion and frustration with himself — he’s drawn to Grace and repulsed by her and wants to protect her and doesn’t know if he wants her to be innocent. It’s not that the Dr. Jordan character on the screen is an inaccurate version of the novel’s Dr. Jordan, it’s just that Atwood’s story gives him much more space to be a mess. The Atwood novel also spends much more time on his relationship with his landlady.
Ah yes, Dr. Jordan’s landlady. As with Dr. Jordan, it’s not that the series misrepresents or dramatically changes what we know about Mrs. Humphrey from Atwood’s text. It’s that we get much less of it. The short and unhappy relationship between the two in Polley’s series is a much more drawn-out affair in the novel. Mrs. Humphrey is more directly, explicitly in pursuit of Dr. Jordan, and Dr. Jordan is even more willing to use her for his own needs. One of the series’ biggest departures from the novel is Mrs. Humphrey’s final fate. In the series, Dr. Jordan leaves and it’s the last we hear of her. Atwood’s novel has Dr. Jordan abandon her abruptly after Grace’s hypnotism is performed, not just because Grace’s case is so upsetting, but because Mrs. Humphrey learns her husband plans to come back.
Atwood’s novel makes her fate even more pathetic — the final portions of the novel are letters, many of them from Dr. Jordan’s mother to Mrs. Humphrey, requesting she please stop writing to her son. (“To threaten to do yourself an injury, by jumping off a bridge … might carry weight with an impressionable and tender-hearted young man, but it does not, with his more experienced mother,” Mrs. Jordan writes.) The final letter in the series is from Grace to Dr. Jordan — it’s a neater and more direct ending. Atwood’s novel lets the end be sadder, and messier.
For the most part, Grace’s ending in the novel resembles the one in the series. She ends up married to Jamie Walsh, running a farm with a cat named Tabby and a dog named Rex. Some passages of her description of her life with Walsh make it into the series’ voice-over script nearly unchanged, especially as they relate to Jamie’s morbid interest in Grace’s past. Atwood includes one closing detail that Polley omits, however. As she sits considering her life, Grace tells the reader that even though she’s 45 and imagined she’d be too old, she now thinks she might be pregnant. “Unless I am much mistaken, I am now three months gone,” she says “…but then it might as easily be a tumour.” It’s one final instance of Atwood’s repeating motif in Alias Grace: pregnancy and death woven together in the same thought.
The Netflix series dispenses with this detail; instead, Polley concludes with an image of Grace and a quilt. At the end of the series, we see Grace, speaking to herself, to her alter egos, to Dr. Jordan, and to her viewers, about the fate that awaits them all. “And so,” she says, looking at the quilt where she’s patched all the pieces into one design, “we will all be together.” It’s also the last line in the book. Like Grace and her two dead companions, both Alias Graces end together.