With the current wave of popular true-crime series on TV, Alias Grace, the 1996 novel from Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, seemed a natural choice for adaptation, at least in terms of its plot: Alias Grace follows Grace Marks, a real-life notorious Canadian murderer who was convicted when she was 16 before eventually being pardoned. While most of the novel is based on factual events, Atwood invents a few fictional characters and imagines Grace’s internal life from her childhood onward.
The six-part miniseries currently streaming on Netflix adheres to Atwood’s original text almost exactly. Its deviations are more omissions — even in six hours, it’s almost impossible to capture the full scope of a nearly 500-page book.
Atwood’s story dips from the main narrative to include nursery rhymes and long excerpts from books and poems. While most of the story is told in first person, as Grace relays the story to Dr. Simon Jordan, the (fictional) man assigned to aid in granting Grace a pardon, Atwood also uses the third person — in addition to letters to and from Dr. Jordan — to reveal his life outside his interactions with Grace. The show hints at Jordan’s internal life — namely fantasies of him and Grace — but his story is given far more time and weight in the book; he corresponds with other experts to try to get to the bottom of Grace’s story, and he engages in a one-sided romance with his housekeeper Mrs. Humphrey that is only briefly alluded to in the television story.
Mrs. Humphrey gets a full, tragic arc in the book. She’s a married woman whose husband left her destitute, who throws herself at the mercy of Dr. Jordan and becomes infatuated with him. Her story’s ending is heartrending: a letter from Dr. Jordan’s mother telling Mrs. Humphrey to cease the pleas and letters to her son (“P.S. Any further communication from you, will be destroyed unread”).
Much of the voiceover from Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) is lifted directly from the text: The miniseries’ opening scene in which Grace contemplates the various labels the press and public have assigned her — demon, idiot, “a good girl with a pliable nature,” that she “has the appearance of a person rather above [her] humble station” — comes from the book’s third chapter.
The show’s final sequence, in which Grace describes the quilt she’s made of the Tree of Paradise, using fabric that belonged to the dead Nancy, her late friend Mary Whitney, and her own prison garb, is also how the book ends. The final sentence of the book, Grace’s internal monologue, becomes voiceover for the screen: “And so we will all be together.”
Alias Grace is now streaming on Netflix.