Reading Resolution: “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood

16. A book you’ve seen adapted: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

List Progress: 3/30

So adaptations are a tricky beast. As a child, I wanted film adaptations to be as loyal as humanly possible to the books I loved and I went on many a rant when they were “wrong”. (The Harry Potter Years were trying for my parents.) But as an adult and a writer, I’ve come to appreciate how incredibly difficult it can be to shift a story from one medium to another and how many changes can and should be made to make something fit, and how adaptations can even improve stories through changing what didn’t work in the original.

Or you can just have a voice over deliver huge amounts of text from the book verbatim.

This will be a review of the novel Alias Grace, written in 1996 by Margaret Atwood, not the 2017 mini-series adaptation by Mary Harron and Sarah Polley, but for me the two cannot really be untangled. Not only did I see the mini-series first, and rewatch it many times, but so much of the book text was used verbatim in the show, that the things that had not been adapted were the ones that felt “wrong” to me, like they were extraneous bits. I think the adaptation does a great number of things right and I greatly enjoyed it, but if you are at all interested in the story, I would say it is better to read the book first to save yourself this cognitive disconnect. (Plus a lot of the text works better in prose and feels stilted in dialogue.)

But on to the actual book! Alias Grace is a highly fictionalized telling of the real life case of Grace Marks, a young maid in Canada who was accused of being an accomplice to the murder of her employer and his housekeeper in 1843. It was a sensationalist news story at the time, with plenty of sex, violence, class and gender politics, and multiple contradictory stories from everyone involved. Alias Grace meets Grace fifteen years into her prison sentence as she unwinds the story to the (fictional) Dr. Simon Jordan who wishes to study her supposed amnesia for the time of the murders. It is a great set-up, letting the reader meet Grace at multiple points in her life and providing an outside perspective to judge how her actions and story fit into the rest of the world around her. Unfortunately, none of the rest of this world is nearly as interesting as Grace, which does leave the Dr. Jordan chapters a little lacking.

Margaret Atwood’s prose is very absorbing and rich, though not particularly immersive; it can feel like she is holding the reader at arm’s length, having every character analyze their own thoughts and emotions so much that the reader rarely gets to feel them. But meta thoughts about immersion aside, I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the ride. Atwood’s work always has a way of feeling ever so slightly unsavory at all times, like the whole world is just a little bit more skeevy than our own, and for a story about a young woman caught in a web of violence between several manipulative men, that works really well. Even if you want to take a bath after reading some of it.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

(Just a few more notes about the show: Wow did the TV show ever give Mr. Kinnear’s character more meat than the book did, even giving a couple of Jeremiah’s moments to him. Developing Kinnear and trimming some of the fat from the ending are two things I think the show absolutely did better. It struggled a lot with the text and no one other than Grace felt fully realized, but it is a very solid adaptation.)

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