Arts

Adapting Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ required patience — and good timing

Screenwriter Sarah Polley (left) and author Margaret Atwood on the set of “Alias Grace.”
Sabrina Lantos
Screenwriter Sarah Polley (left) and author Margaret Atwood on the set of “Alias Grace.”

It’s been a banner year for Margaret Atwood. In September, Hulu’s red-hot adaptation of the renowned novelist’s dystopian parable “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which premiered in April) became the first streaming series to win the Emmy for best drama; on Friday, Netflix is taking its turn with “Alias Grace,” a six-episode adaptation of another Atwood novel.

Set in 19th-century Toronto, the partly fictionalized mystery-drama is a “whydunit” focused on the life of real-life Irish immigrant and maid Grace Marks, who became an infamous, near-mythic figure at the time after being convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper.

Like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s a harrowing vision of female identity fracturing under psychological, physical, and ultimately existential threat from systems of patriarchal oppression. Comparisons between the two are understandable, even inevitable. Sarah Gadon, who plays Grace, sees them as “coexisting in opposition.”

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By phone, the actress explains that both series, while distinct, can be juxtaposed along thematic lines.

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“ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is this look forward at this dystopian cautionary tale of where we could go in terms of gender politics,” says Gadon, 30. “ ‘Alias Grace’ is a look backward at where we’ve come from. Right now in our world, we’re sitting between the two.”

That both projects are seeing release in the same year, Gadon says, speaks to a growing cultural appetite not only for politically charged storytelling but for projects that explore hot-button issues from a feminist perspective.

Sarah Polley, who wrote the adaptation, agrees, adding that “Alias Grace” benefited from a spike in demand for female-driven stories and ambitious limited series.

“The time was really right to get this show made,” she explains by phone. “In a way, I feel like if we’d made it at any other time it would have been an uphill battle.”

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Despite sharing an author and thematic elements with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” emphasizes Polley, 38, “Alias Grace” is no mere rejoinder building on its success. On the contrary, it’s been more than two decades in the works for the writer-director, who first read the novel at 17 and, stunned, contacted Atwood in hopes of securing film rights. At the time a child star known for Disney’s “Road to Avonlea,” she got turned down, but lost none of her passion for the property.

In 2012, at that point an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director with dramas like “Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz,” and “Stories We Tell” to her credit, Polley approached the author again. Emphasizing her desire to paint a layered, ambiguous portrait of both Grace and her time period, she finally won Atwood over.

“My interest in the story was looking at what it means to be a young woman in a predatory world, where you’re prey and harassed and abused from every side,” recalls Polley, who came of age in the film industry.

“That was always the angle I wanted to take tracking her story over the six episodes, what happens to a person when they’ve been abused, assaulted, and harassed with no recourse, no voice, and no way to respond ever, what happens inside a person,” she says. “There’s a splitting off that happens when you have to keep the response to that to yourself, pretend things are OK and that nothing has happened, or accept that you can’t do anything about it; there’s a splitting off in a psyche that happens when you’re forced to do that even once, let alone over and over again.”

Originally, she tried scripting “Alias Grace” as a feature film before realizing that the depth she sought would be better served by a miniseries format. The story was a mystery, but also a tragedy — and, she realized, not just Grace’s. In broadening its scope, the series could take the time to flesh out its male characters and establish a setting in which their inability to understand Grace (and women generally) led them to project onto her what they wanted to see — or, more often, could use.

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Getting “Alias Grace” right also meant finding an actress who could not only understand but inhabit her complexities. Polley and director Mary Harron (“American Psycho”) turned to Gadon, with whom they’d worked before, and put her through a demanding audition process aimed at testing her ability to illuminate contrasting sides of Grace’s personality.

‘My interest in the story was looking at what it means to be a young woman in a predatory world.’

“There are so many different versions of ourselves that coexist in one body, and we’re aware of them,” Gadon says. “Often we play them off one another or we’re in conversation with them, our outer self versus our inner self. And there’s this notion [with Grace] of not just someone telling you who you are, but you understanding what they’re telling you.”

The physical and emotional challenges of the role, which included performing the kind of intensive farmhouse labor Grace actually performed during her lifetime, proved invigorating to the actress. “It’s as if it fired up every cell in my body,” she says. “All the brain power I had went to playing Grace Marks.”

Both Polley and Gadon say their personal experiences in the film industry informed their understanding of “Alias Grace” as still socially relevant in how it examines female oppression and subjugation. As such, they’ve observed Harvey Weinstein’s seismic fall from power in recent weeks and reflected on how his victims have only recently felt empowered enough to publicly address what happened to them.

“It’s interesting these conversations are starting now, because they’re not conversations I ever thought I’d see in my lifetime,” says Polley. “But it’s incredibly important that there’s now a will to listen and understand the experiences of these women.

“My hope is that this reaches well beyond the film industry, because certainly it’s much easier for women who are known and who are affluent to come forward, though I still think it takes enormous courage and it’s incredible that these women have done so,” she adds. “I hope that a world is coming in which women from every socioeconomic background and every race feel that they can do the same thing. I think that will take time. But this is a start.”

Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.