The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace Make Margaret Atwood the Most Unexpected TV Star of 2017

Netflix's Alias Grace is the second Atwood adaptation on TV this year

By Lauren Piester Nov 06, 2017 8:00 PMTags
Watch: What Is Netflix Series "Alias Grace" About?

There are a lot of ways to describe 2017, especially when it comes to TV.

The year of the Military Drama. The year Archie Comics got sexy. The year of a thousand reboots. But you could also call it the year of Margaret Atwood.  

The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu's adaptation of Atwood's 1985 novel starring Elisabeth Moss, won the Emmy for outstanding drama series, and this weekend, Netflix (in partnership with Canadian network CBC) released Alias Grace, a miniseries starring Sarah Gadon and Anna Paquin, based on Atwood's 1996 novel. One is set in a dystopic modern day and the other is the true story from the 1800s, but both are timelier than they should be in 2017. Both are also extremely good.

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We all know the premise of The Handmaid's Tale by this point. The book was already arguably Atwood's most well-known, and the story's main image of a woman in a bright red dress and white bonnet is so striking that it's hard to miss/ignore. It's a dystopic vision of the U.S. where all women have been stripped of money, jobs, and property, and the few remaining fertile women are reduced to breeding machines for the all-important men. The show (and the book) tell the story of women both surviving and fighting back against their physical and emotional abuse.

Atwood based everything that happens to the women in her story on things that had actually happened, which was one of her rules for writing the book (a rule the TV show kept). "All of the details have precedents in real life," she told Emma Watson in an interview for EW. "People knew I wasn't just making up horrors to be entertaining."

Netflix / WireImage / Hulu

Alias Grace is also based in truth, but the details are where the fiction comes in. The miniseries is based on the true story of a teen named Grace Marks who immigrated to Canada from Ireland in the 1800s with no option for work other than as a servant. She was eventually and controversially convicted of murdering her master and his mistress/housekeeper, then pardoned 30 years later.

The show and Atwood's book follow a doctor who has come to interview a much older Grace to get her side of the story, a side that involves endless hardships, including the loss of her only friend to a botched abortion, in a world where she never even had a chance to do anything but struggle. It's a fictionalized guess at what Grace might have been thinking and feeling, but the important parts of Grace's story are based in reality, and that's kind of the magic of both of these Atwood stories.

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The Handmaid's Tale could happen and, in smaller ways or other places, has happened. Alias Grace did happen. It's all based in reality, about women surviving these unfathomable but equally fathomable realities, which is what Alias Grace star Sarah Gadon hopes people take away from the series.

"Grace Marks was a real person," she reminded us. "She's somebody that came to Canada and was subjected to all of these hardships, but they never really broke her and she survived through them, and she shouldered them. I find that instinct to survive is so strong in women, and I find that really inspiring."


Of course, it's not as if feminism, reproductive rights, and immigration haven't been issues since Atwood first started writing, and it's not as if they weren't issues last year, when both Hulu and Netflix greenlit their series. But both shows arrived at a time when those issues were even more at the forefront. Politics were changing rapidly during the first few months of the new presidency as The Handmaid's Tale premiered, and now, as Alias Grace arrives, huge numbers of women (and men) are finally getting to tell their survival stories and fighting to believed.

It's that mix of timeliness, timelessness, and reality that makes these Atwood stories so compelling, and it's hard to imagine we won't be seeing more of her work on screen in the next few years. 

The Handmaid's Tale will return to Hulu in 2018, and Alias Grace is now streaming on Netflix.