Book vs. Show: Alias Grace

Hellooo! I have a lot to talk about, so let’s jump into it.

A couple weeks ago my sister asked if I had seen any new shows recently. I told her that I hadn’t, because I’ve been growing farther and farther away from television – other than Mindhunter on Netflix because that show is GREAT. To which she replied, speaking of Netflix, you have to see Alias Grace, it’s about a servant woman in the 1800s who supposedly killed her masters but has amnesia, so a doctor tries to get her to remember if she killed them or not… and it’s based on a true story.

Well, once she said it was based on a true story I was sold. I’m a history person, and I can’t refuse a based on a true story movie. Hell, I can’t even refuse a documentary.  So I hopped over to Netflix to start watching, but first I viewed the trailer. Well, the trailer said it was based off of Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name. For those who don’t remember, Atwood is the woman who wrote the bestselling book turned series The Handmaid’s Tale. I LOVED The Handmaid’s Tale book – but was lukewarm on the TV show. So I figured, you know what, before I watch the show I’ll read the book.

And holy crap.

I have some pros and cons here, but honestly the book was spectacular, and the show was phenomenal.

Let’s start with the book:

Basically, the story is all about uncovering what really happened the day of the murders. As I mentioned, Grace Marks is a woman who was accused of a double murder, that of her Master Mr. Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. She was accused along with the stableman, James McDermott. He was convicted of the murders and hanged, spouting his tale of how Grace was not only a willing participant in the murders, but the one who had the idea in the first place.

Unfortunately, Grace remembers nothing of the murders, and despite her testimony from the trial in which she admitted to helping McDermott, she claims her innocence and says that her lawyer told her to admit in order for her to get a life sentence instead of a death sentence, which she agreed to. Flash forward some fifteen-twenty years later where Grace is living in a Canadian penitentiary.

Dr. Simon Jordan, a doctor who deals with the mind (i.e. somnambulism (aka sleepwalking) and amnesia) is commissioned by a local Reverend, who is convinced of her innocence, to come and do a study on Grace to find out what truly happened on the day of the murders.

So, that is the premise of the book. For fear of spoilers, I’m not going to go into detail on what happens in the story because it’s an emotional rollercoaster that is best left a surprise. However, I have some problems with the book.

To start, it’s actually an interesting read. What I mean by that is it’s written very differently from other books, and that made it absolutely enticing and exhilarating, but it also made it very dull and honestly a bit of a slog.

The first 80 pages or so I almost just put the book down and said screw it, I’ll just watch the show. I’m really glad that I didn’t, but I do have to put that warning out there. The book is written basically from three angles:

  1. Grace Marks’ story itself;
  2. Dr. Jordan’s perspective and life whilst in Canada (he’s an American);
  3. Letters between Dr. Jordan, the Reverend, Grace Marks’ lawyer, someone from the insane asylum she was in before the prison, etc.

To be perfectly honest, while the parts about Dr. Jordan, as well as the letters, are certainly integral in understanding what happened to Grace, it was really, truly, a slog to get through. First of all, I had a personal battle when it came to Dr. Jordan because sometimes I liked him and other times I wanted to punch him in the face, which made it very difficult to read his sections of the story. Second, the letters were fine and all, but seeing as it did all happen in the mid 1800s, the letters reflected the writing style of the time, which is to say: super formal. For me, it was really only interesting to a point, and I found myself skimming certain paragraphs to get to the good stuff.

However, Grace Marks’ part of the story was PHENOMENAL. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire story, and thought that Margaret Atwood did an absolutely spectacular job at creating a fictionalized version of the woman, and in really reflecting the problems and social structure of the time period.

Now for the TV mini-series:

Here’s where I have some problems, not because the show wasn’t great, because it was. But because I think the show was both better and worse than the book itself.

To give you an idea – every single thing (minus a couple liberties) that is shown in the series is almost exact to how it happened in the book. That is so rare!! It was actually really surprising to me at first, because I wasn’t sure how they were going to fit everything in, but they did it spectacularly. The scenery was great, the acting was great, the clothing was spot on, even certain scenes were almost exact to how I pictured it in the book. Everything aligned perfectly. And even the little liberties they added didn’t subtract from the story, it actually added to it.

However, my problem is not what they added but rather what they left out.  The book talks about so many more little things that were heart wrenching that I couldn’t believe they left out. This is where it gets tricky for me, because if I think about it, those little heart wrenching scenes didn’t actually need to be in the show in order to understand what happened, but at the same time I can’t see how it would have hurt the series to have included it.

You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you leave it thinking “you know, if they had taken out 30 minutes of crappy exposition in that movie it would’ve been perfect?” It was almost the opposite for me. Those little, almost trivial, pieces of the story may have been viewed as trivial exposition, but they were all something that I felt lifted the story into a higher plane of artistry rather than hindering it.

Keep in mind, almost everything that I’m thinking of that I feel should have been added would probably have only taken up about 3-5 minutes within the show itself, and almost always the series actually did bring it up at some point within the show, they just didn’t spend that much time on it (and in some cases it was literally only mentioned in one sentence and then never spoken of again). So it’s not like these were big plot points that they didn’t bring up, it was just flavor text that I absolutely loved within the book that was not there in the series.

Overall: READ THE BOOK FIRST!!!!!

I have one big favor to ask of you: If you plan on reading the book AND watching the series, read the book first!!!!

Why, you might ask? Because those first 100 pages are going to be boring as hell for you. The show really jumps right in to the action, which is great, but it means that your expectations are going to be that the book will jumps right in as well, which it does not. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read this book, because I actually think that reading the book in conjunction with watching the show is amazing because the book gives you a LOT more information than the show does and really does pique your interest. However, if you plan on watching the show first, keep in mind that it is extraordinarily different in terms of language, and for some people that will be a deal breaker.

All in all, though, I honestly think the book and the show are tied here. Both have their faults, but both have amazing pieces to them that the other does not have. The two of them paired is something outstanding, and I highly recommend that you enjoy BOTH of these in that order: book then show.

Let me know what you guys thought of both the book and the series – I’m really curious to hear your opinions. As always, if you want to contact me please feel free to comment down below or to e-mail me at rachel@booksandcleverness.com!

Until next time,

Rachel

e-mail: rachel@booksandcleverness.com

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