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

Advertisements

“I Sing the Body Electric” – Walt Whitman

Hi guys! So I had do a little poem reading for a class I’m taking and really enjoyed this one that I’d never read by Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric.” It’s from his Leaves of Grass collection of poems, and is just absolutely fantastic.

Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” begins in the 19th century (which is when this was written) at a slave auction, and discusses how he views slaves/people of color as exactly the same as white people. Whitman takes the time to verbalize every aspect of the human body to compare how alike the slave body and the white body are, and makes sure to convey to the reader that there is absolutely no difference between one body and the next, despite skin color. Whitman is obviously vehemently against slavery, and also is very pro-women’s rights, and uses this poem to express that message.

Whitman communicates this idea by discussing his view of what a female and a male (in terms of body and essence) are made of. For instance, when he describes women he explains that the proverbial “She” is something of beauty, something that produces life in more ways than one, someone who “contains all qualities, and tempers them – she is in her place, and moved with perfect balance.”  He mentions that women are “the gates of the body, and [women] are the gates of the soul.” In other words, he gives the reader a full description of what his view of the Female is – powerful, life-giving, beautiful, strong, capable, and “divine.” As he continues, he mentions that he sees this slave woman up at auction as just Female; he does not see a slave, he sees a woman who is just as capable of life-giving, just as female, as the other women he was describing. To him, white, black, or any other color – they are all equally woman, and thus equally divine.

But he doesn’t just talk about women – he discusses men as being powerful, defiant, passionate and prideful. He tells the reader, “the male is not less the soul nor more, he too is in his place,” which lets us know that he views men as equally as he does women.

Although I must say that I am genuinely impressed at his progressive views on women and equality, I also, in my own way, feel like Whitman might respect the female form more than he does the male form. I’m not saying he views them as unequal, or thinks that one should be valued over the other. Instead, what I mean is that Whitman is a man, and thus would be familiar with the male body and the strength and power that comes with it, but as a man I think he’s infatuated with the idea of what a female body can do.

Whitman even mentions, “I am drawn by [the female’s] breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor, all falls aside but myself and it.” He sees the beauty in the form, the power in what it can do, and the mysteries of it he will never know. He appreciates that the life-cycle is dependent on the woman, and not that a man does not have a part in it, but he seems to truly respect and value the power of women.

He also, interestingly, discusses immigrants very briefly. Whitman says,

“The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred;

No matter who it is, it is sacred;

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere, just as much as the well-off—just as much as you;

Each has his or her place in the procession.”

I was very taken aback at reading this since he not only mentions how he feels about immigration at the time, but also of how he equates slaves and immigrants. To start, I think it’s important to mention that starting around 1850, and going until the first World War, immigration was pouring in to cities. According to The Norton Anthology of American Literature, large cities were becoming even larger due to the influx of immigrants. For instance, New York City grew sevenfold going from 500k to 3.5 million, and Chicago went from 29K people in 1850 to more than 2 million in 1910. This is a monumental gap. This is so important because as a country we get so wrapped up in the romanticized idea that America was founded by and built by/for immigrants, and yet those in that time period did not necessarily view immigrants in a kind way.

In the 19th century (and prior), America gained a large amount of wealth from slavery and the trade/selling of goods that came from it. But at a certain point, immigrants began to understand that they may be able to leave the poverty and horrific regimes that they were experiencing and took the risk to come to America. Those immigrants were not seen as important, they were not seen as welcome. Much like the immigrants of today, many people told them to leave, and made their lives difficult if they did not; this made it extremely difficult for immigrants to make a living and for them to build a solid foundation for their families. Whitman, on the other hand, understood how the immigrants were being treated and viewed that treatment as inequality. Despite the majority of the immigrants being caucasian, he viewed their treatment as unequal, just as he viewed slavery as unequal.

Whitman also uses an interesting set of stanzas at the end of his poem that encompass what he was trying to express in the rest of his poem. He sets off to give an extremely in depth look at every single part of the human anatomy; he makes the connection that every body has these parts equally, and if we have all of the same parts, how can we not be equal? How are we truly different from one to the other? In order to make this point very clear, Whitman describes individual body parts, and his use of imagery here is remarkable. He mentions “the ample side-round of the chest,” “Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,” and “the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes.” It gives the reader something to envision perfectly as you read along.

The way he begins with body parts everyone has (i.e. nose, mouth, tongue, cheek, eyes, etc.) and then moves on to the individual parts of man and woman truly spark a very distinctive picture in the mind when reading it. At least for me, I had no particular color of person in mind when reading it (since Whitman does not use skin color to describe anatomy).  I think that was his point: to make simply being a human being indistinguishable from race.

Whitman also equates the Soul and the Body. He tells the reader that every Body has a soul, and that soul is equal to all other souls. Thus, no matter what skin color, religion, language or social class, we are all equal. No one has the right to forcibly take another person’s body, to take another person’s dignity, to steal their rights.

Which brings me to my last point: Whitman’s writing of this poem is of extreme importance; particularly for the people of the time he wrote this. At the time this poem was published, approximately five years before the Civil War began, there was obviously an incredible divide between North and South. This poem simply explains that divide  from the point of view of just an average observer. He can see the differences between these two groups of people: those who believed that there is nothing different from one body to the next, that it is a human right to be free, versus those who viewed slaves as property, as meat and cattle, as something that could be collected and sold, exploited and overused.

Whitman’s writing of this poem shows just how progressive he was at the time. While of course there were abolitionists and groups that sympathized them, there were certainly still divides concerning whether or not black people were equal. In my research I’ve found that there were more people who disagreed with slavery, but still viewed black people and other people of color as beneath them than there were people who viewed all bodies as equal.

So while it may seem like Whitman is simply appealing to abolitionists alone, it seems like this poem would have reached people who were against slavery but still did not see how people of color could possibly be equal to white people. Whitman even publishing this poem could have put him in hot water (and it did), but he published it anyway knowing that maybe someone who was on the fence might now be converted, and at the very least he’s gotten his opinions onto paper and out there for others to use and criticize.

I really enjoyed this poem, and thought Whitman did a truly wonderful job of capturing the truth about race, slavery, gender equality, and equality in general.

If you guys have read it, or would like to read it (I highly recommend you do!) let me know in the comments below or via email! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, and what you inferred from reading it yourself.

If you have any other comments or questions, you can leave them below or you can email me at rachel@booksandcleverness.com! I hope to hear from you soon!

Until next time,

Rachel

email: rachel@booksandcleverness.com