Just like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood is more ubiquitous than ever in the twilight of her career. Her classic feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale saw a wildly popular television adaptation earlier this year, and her 1996 novel Alias Grace has just hit Netflix as a miniseries.
Atwood is known for her speculative fiction that imagines thought-provoking what-ifs about the near future, but Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction. Here are nine things to know before you start your binge-watch.
1. IT'S ONE OF THREE ATWOOD ADAPTATIONS HITTING THE SMALL SCREEN THIS YEAR.
Atwood's classic 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale of course already came out on Hulu and garnered several Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series. But Alias Grace follows another Atwood adaptation of a children's book she wrote in 2011 called Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop's Wunderground Washery, which aired in Canada this spring as Wandering Wenda. (It will air in the United States in December.)
2. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.
Alias Grace tells the story of a young Irish servant named Grace Marks, who kills her employer and his mistress in 1843 Canada with the help of a male servant. The male servant hangs for the crime; Grace is institutionalized for years and becomes an object of societal curiosity as a young and beautiful "murderess." The story follows a young psychologist as he talks to Grace years after the crime, trying to determine her level of culpability. It frequently jumps into the past, following Grace's life leading up to the murders. Although Atwood invented the psychologist character, Grace and her murder victims were very real.
3. NOBODY KNOWS HOW THE STORY ENDS.
Although Grace Marks really existed, nobody knows the rest of her story. Following the crime, she was sentenced to death in 1843. It was then commuted to life, and eventually she was pardoned in 1873. After that, she disappeared from history. Nobody knows how she spent the rest of her life, which gave Atwood free rein to imagine her ending.
4. EVEN IN THE 1800S, PEOPLE WERE DRAWN TO THE STORY'S SEX AND VIOLENCE.
The stereotype of the 1800s is of a buttoned-up era in which a lady showing her ankle was considered racy. But society had the same interest in sex and violence as it does today. “The details were sensational," Atwood wrote in the novel’s afterword. "Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and also extremely young; Kinnear's housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was Thomas Kinnear's mistress; at her autopsy she was found to be pregnant. Grace and her fellow servant James McDermott had run away to the United States together and were assumed by the press to be lovers. The combination of sex, violence and the deplorable insubordination of the lower classes was most attractive to the journalists of the day.''
5. MARGARET ATWOOD GOT THE IDEA FOR THE BOOK WHEN SHE WAS STILL IN COLLEGE.
Although Margaret Atwood was 57 years old when Alias Grace was published, she had been thinking about the idea for many years. She first came across Grace Marks's story in Susanna Moodie's 1853 book Life in the Clearings, which she read while studying at Harvard, where she got her master’s degree and pursued a doctorate for two years.
6. ATWOOD’S GOAL WAS TO FOCUS ON HOW SOCIETY VIEWS MALE VERSUS FEMALE MURDERERS.
As with all of Atwood’s work, Alias Grace is sharply focused on gender politics. In this case, Atwood wanted to explore the differences in how society views male murderers versus female murderers. Throughout the story, Grace is alternately an object of pity, desire, fascination, fear, revulsion, and mystery. While promoting the series at the Toronto International Film Festival, Atwood explained that she wouldn’t have been interested in Grace if the truth about the murder was absolute.
“There were so many different, contradictory stories about Grace Marks; nobody actually ever knew whether she had killed anybody or not,” Atwood said. “There were four people in the house. Two of them were murdered, the third one was hanged, and she was the one left. And she never told. If I had known the truth, I probably wouldn’t have written a book … The interesting thing is the way everybody projects their ideas onto Grace.”
7. ATWOOD FIRST EXPLORED THE STORY IN A PLAY THAT CAME OUT 22 YEARS BEFORE THE BOOK.
Atwood’s play The Servant Girl also tells a version of Grace Marks’s story. It was filmed for CBC-TV and aired in 1974, more than 20 years before Alias Grace was published.
8. THE NEWSPAPER EXCERPTS IN THE BOOK ARE REAL.
Atwood wanted to stick to the truth as much as possible even in a story with spotty facts. "If you're dealing with things that actually are known, you can't arbitrarily change that to suit yourself," she said. Because of this approach, she didn’t have to invent the newspaper quotes and excerpts that appear in the book; they come from real sources.
9. ATWOOD WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY A MORE RECENT FEMALE MURDERER WHO IS STILL ALIVE.
Between 1990 and 1992, Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo raped and murdered at least three young women—including Karla's sister, Tammy. Though both were convicted of the crimes, Karla struck a plea bargain and was only charged with manslaughter; she was released from prison in 2005. Atwood has mentioned Homolka when talking about Alias Grace.
"In murders in which there are a man and a woman involved, public opinion usually goes in the following fashion: everybody is agreed on the man but opinion is usually split about the woman," Atwood explained in an interview with CBC. "One side: 'She instigated it all. She's the female demon.' The other side: 'She is an innocent victim coerced by force, circumstance and fear.' That's how it split on Karla and it was certainly how it split on Grace."