Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale: two series, one powerful message

Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is one of the year's most talked about series. Now, Netflix delivers its own powerful portrayal of strength in the face of female oppression

Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale (Netflix/Premier comms, EH)

“The Handmaid’s Tale offers us a window into a possible future when women’s rights are eroded. Alias Grace offers a look at what it was like before women had any rights,” the showrunner behind Netflix’s new Margaret Atwood adaptation told The New York Times. “To look back and forward is very important at this moment when women’s rights are incredibly precarious and fragile.”

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Sarah Polley’s Alias Grace is a Netflix series based on Atwood’s 1996 novel of the same name. It chronicles the true story of a teenage Irish servant, Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), who was convicted of murdering her Canadian employer and housekeeper in 1843.

The six-parter is told through the lens of a fictional psychiatrist, Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who is hired to ascertain whether or not Marks is sane. He becomes utterly obsessed with her tale but Marks is determined not to make life easy for him. “I will not be his plum to be picked,” she says decisively.

Alias Grace
Edward Holcroft as Dr Simon Jordan in Alias Grace

Throughout the series, there is a creeping sense of dread: Alias Grace can be brutally graphic, but Sarah Gadon as the celebrity “murderess” is very watchable, the show dangerously binge-able.

There is a strong link between the two Atwood adaptations, Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale. In Hulu’s Emmy Award-winning series, women are forced into surrogacy by a regime run by men, made to wear vision-restricting winged bonnets, ceremonially raped and subject to institutional torture for the smallest of digressions.

In Grace Marks’ era, meanwhile, women didn’t have the right to vote, to own property, to separate economy or to divorce – most developments in women’s rights were made in the latter half of the 19th century. Marks grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father; during her stint in an asylum she is molested by “doctors” and in prison she is beaten by guards. Abortion is completely illegal and the reality of backstreet terminations is viscerally depicted in the series.

The two stories are also incredibly poignant in 2017. Both deal with themes strikingly relevant to our time. In Handmaid’s there is religious extremism and the question of reproductive rights; in Alias Grace there are issues of anti-immigration sentiment, abortion and class warfare.

Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred in The Handmaid's Tale (C4, EH)
Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale

Barbaric methods of “curing” people also feature in both Alias Grace and Handmaid’s. Throughout the former, Marks is frequently confronted with doctors carrying medicine cases full of knives who place large metal contraptions over her head in a bid to determine her sanity. And lest we forget the awful scene in Handmaid’s where Alexis Bledel’s character Emily has shocking surgery to “cure” her of her lesbianism.

This is another case of a very current issue surfacing in Atwood’s work: Emily’s punishment for being gay is female genital mutilation. Though nothing is explicitly stated or shown, the audience is led to understand that Emily’s clitoris has been surgically removed against her will. She is told that she can still bear children – all that she was ever good for in the eyes of the regime – but that she “won’t want what she can’t have”.

Even stylistically, the two shows are similar. Shots are characterised by the haze of dusty sunlight seeping through windows, and the historic bonnets in Alias Grace are reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale’s iconic dress. Also, Marks is a voiceover on the series – just as Elisabeth Moss’ lead, June, was in Handmaid’s: serving as a portal into the protagonist’s mind.

The extent to which Atwood’s historical and dystopian tales overlap is not incidental. When Handmaid’s was released earlier this year to critical acclaim, Atwood pointed out time and time again that every aspect of Gilead’s culture has really happened at some point in history, somewhere in the world. “When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched,” she told the Guardian. “However, when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.”

Atwood’s works and their adaptations for television are a sobering reminder that history should always be read as a cautionary tale.

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Alias Grace is released on Netflix on Friday 3rd November