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9 Things You Might Not Know About Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Sabrina Lantos/Netflix
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Just like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood is more ubiquitous than ever in the twilight of her career. Her classic feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale saw a wildly popular television adaptation earlier this year, and her 1996 novel Alias Grace has just hit Netflix as a miniseries.

Atwood is known for her speculative fiction that imagines thought-provoking what-ifs about the near future, but Alias Grace is a work of historical fiction. Here are nine things to know before you start your binge-watch.

1. IT'S ONE OF THREE ATWOOD ADAPTATIONS HITTING THE SMALL SCREEN THIS YEAR.

Atwood's classic 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale of course already came out on Hulu and garnered several Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series. But Alias Grace follows another Atwood adaptation of a children's book she wrote in 2011 called Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop's Wunderground Washery, which aired in Canada this spring as Wandering Wenda. (It will air in the United States in December.)

2. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY. 

Alias Grace tells the story of a young Irish servant named Grace Marks, who kills her employer and his mistress in 1843 Canada with the help of a male servant. The male servant hangs for the crime; Grace is institutionalized for years and becomes an object of societal curiosity as a young and beautiful "murderess." The story follows a young psychologist as he talks to Grace years after the crime, trying to determine her level of culpability. It frequently jumps into the past, following Grace's life leading up to the murders. Although Atwood invented the psychologist character, Grace and her murder victims were very real.

3. NOBODY KNOWS HOW THE STORY ENDS.


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Although Grace Marks really existed, nobody knows the rest of her story. Following the crime, she was sentenced to death in 1843. It was then commuted to life, and eventually she was pardoned in 1873. After that, she disappeared from history. Nobody knows how she spent the rest of her life, which gave Atwood free rein to imagine her ending.

4. EVEN IN THE 1800S, PEOPLE WERE DRAWN TO THE STORY'S SEX AND VIOLENCE.

The stereotype of the 1800s is of a buttoned-up era in which a lady showing her ankle was considered racy. But society had the same interest in sex and violence as it does today. “The details were sensational," Atwood wrote in the novel’s afterword. "Grace Marks was uncommonly pretty and also extremely young; Kinnear's housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, had previously given birth to an illegitimate child and was Thomas Kinnear's mistress; at her autopsy she was found to be pregnant. Grace and her fellow servant James McDermott had run away to the United States together and were assumed by the press to be lovers. The combination of sex, violence and the deplorable insubordination of the lower classes was most attractive to the journalists of the day.''

5. MARGARET ATWOOD GOT THE IDEA FOR THE BOOK WHEN SHE WAS STILL IN COLLEGE. 

Although Margaret Atwood was 57 years old when Alias Grace was published, she had been thinking about the idea for many years. She first came across Grace Marks's story in Susanna Moodie's 1853 book Life in the Clearingswhich she read while studying at Harvard, where she got her master’s degree and pursued a doctorate for two years.

6. ATWOOD’S GOAL WAS TO FOCUS ON HOW SOCIETY VIEWS MALE VERSUS FEMALE MURDERERS.

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As with all of Atwood’s work, Alias Grace is sharply focused on gender politics. In this case, Atwood wanted to explore the differences in how society views male murderers versus female murderers. Throughout the story, Grace is alternately an object of pity, desire, fascination, fear, revulsion, and mystery. While promoting the series at the Toronto International Film Festival, Atwood explained that she wouldn’t have been interested in Grace if the truth about the murder was absolute.

“There were so many different, contradictory stories about Grace Marks; nobody actually ever knew whether she had killed anybody or not,” Atwood said. “There were four people in the house. Two of them were murdered, the third one was hanged, and she was the one left. And she never told. If I had known the truth, I probably wouldn’t have written a book … The interesting thing is the way everybody projects their ideas onto Grace.”

7. ATWOOD FIRST EXPLORED THE STORY IN A PLAY THAT CAME OUT 22 YEARS BEFORE THE BOOK.

Atwood’s play The Servant Girl also tells a version of Grace Marks’s story. It was filmed for CBC-TV and aired in 1974, more than 20 years before Alias Grace was published.

8. THE NEWSPAPER EXCERPTS IN THE BOOK ARE REAL.

Atwood wanted to stick to the truth as much as possible even in a story with spotty facts. "If you're dealing with things that actually are known, you can't arbitrarily change that to suit yourself," she said. Because of this approach, she didn’t have to invent the newspaper quotes and excerpts that appear in the book; they come from real sources.

9. ATWOOD WAS PARTLY INSPIRED BY A MORE RECENT FEMALE MURDERER WHO IS STILL ALIVE.

Between 1990 and 1992, Karla Homolka and her husband Paul Bernardo raped and murdered at least three young women—including Karla's sister, Tammy. Though both were convicted of the crimes, Karla struck a plea bargain and was only charged with manslaughter; she was released from prison in 2005. Atwood has mentioned Homolka when talking about Alias Grace.

"In murders in which there are a man and a woman involved, public opinion usually goes in the following fashion: everybody is agreed on the man but opinion is usually split about the woman," Atwood explained in an interview with CBC. "One side: 'She instigated it all. She's the female demon.' The other side: 'She is an innocent victim coerced by force, circumstance and fear.' That's how it split on Karla and it was certainly how it split on Grace."

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Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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15 Wonderful Things You Might Not Know About L. Frank Baum
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In 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book that has never been out of print and that has been produced as movies, theatrical plays and musicals, and led to further cultural phenomena like The Wiz and Wicked. In honor of his 162nd birthday, here are 15 facts about the actual man behind the curtain.

1. HIS HOMETOWN HOSTS AN OZ-FEST (BUT NOT THAT OZZFEST).

Lyman Frank Baum was born on May 15, 1856 in Chittenango, New York, to a wealthy family and raised on an estate called Rose Lawn in Mattydale, New York, just outside Syracuse. In honor of Baum, Chittenango holds an annual festival of all things Oz called Oz-Stavaganza.

2. THE FIRST ANIMALS HE WROTE ABOUT WERE CHICKENS.

Baum was a sickly child and his father indulged his hobbies, including buying him a small printing press that he used to produce a newspaper. Another hobby was raising fancy chickens called Hamburgs. At 23, he started his own chicken trade journal, which he soon sold to a rival. He stayed on as a column writer, and contributed a long, serialized article on breeding and rearing Hamburgs. Later, when Baum was 30, the magazine (supposedly without Baum's knowledge) published that original article in full, making it Baum's first published book.

3. DOROTHY'S "YELLOW BRICK ROAD" MIGHT HAVE BEEN BASED ON A CHILDHOOD MEMORY.

When he was 12, Baum was sent to the Peekskill Military Academy in Peekskill, New York, for two years, where he was absolutely miserable. But it is also where he may have first seen a yellow brick road—at that time many of the streets of Peekskill were paved with yellow Dutch bricks. And for a young teen who just wanted to go home, the memory might have provided future inspiration. An alternative hypothesis is that when he was living in Syracuse, a plank road was installed made out of a yellow colored wood.

4. BAUM HAD A BRIEF CAREER AS AN ACTOR.


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Baum’s first ambition as a young man was to be an actor and playwright. He wrote several plays, including The Maid of Arran, which was successfully produced and in which he acted. The only time that Baum was known to have been in Kansas was when he toured in this play in 1882. However, his love of and involvement with the theater lasted throughout his life.

5. BAUM WAS A FEMINIST, AS WERE HIS WIFE AND IN-LAWS.

L. Frank and Maud Baum on a trip to Egypt
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In 1882, Baum married Maud Gage, daughter of the noted feminist and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. He had a warm relationship with his mother-in-law, who, along with his new wife, helped him become a lifelong suffragist and feminist. According to biographer Katharine M. Rogers, Baum was "a secure man who did not worry about asserting his masculine authority." In fact, most of his books had girls as the heroes. Matilda Gage was the person who convinced Baum to write for children, having listened to him tell his children the stories that he created.

6. MOST OF HIS CAREER PATHS, INCLUDING RUNNING A NEWSPAPER, FAILED.

After several financial reverses—Baum failed as an actor, as a salesman, and in other careers—he moved his family in 1888 to Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, in what is now South Dakota. He opened a store (which failed) and a newspaper (which failed, too). In his newspaper, he strongly supported women’s suffrage, but he is also thought to have written two racist editorials calling for extermination of Native Americans. (In 2006, two of Baum’s descendants apologized to the Sioux Nation for the editorials.) In 1891, Baum lost the newspaper and he and his family moved to Chicago.

7. HE STARTED WRITING CHILDREN'S BOOKS IN HIS FORTIES.


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In 1897, at the age of 41, Baum published his first book for children, Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish (his first big commission; Parrish went on to become a top illustrator for books and magazines). It was a success. Baum followed it up in 1899 with Father Goose: His Book, which also sold very well. He then wrote two alphabet books, and publishers began to consider him an important children’s author.

8. THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST TRUE AMERICAN FAIRYTALE.

In 1900, Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with illustrations by William Wallace Denslow. It was an instant hit. Although there have been many theories on how the book is an allusion to the politics of the United States in the late 1800s, there is no conclusive proof that Baum intended any such connections. But Baum did create the Land of Oz as a distinctly American utopia, making it the first truly American fairytale.

9. THE LAND OF OZ WAS NAMED FOR A FILING CABINET.

Baum’s original title for the book was “The Emerald City,” but publishers had a superstition that a jewel in a book title was bad luck and asked Baum to change it. Baum got the name for his fairy country off a drawer on a file cabinet that was marked “O-Z.” He named his plucky heroine Dorothy Gale after an infant niece named Dorothy Louise Gage who died while he was writing the book.

10. WICKED WAS NOT THE FIRST OZ ADAPTATION ON BROADWAY.

In 1902, Baum collaborated on a stage version called The Wizard of Oz that ran on Broadway for two years and toured until 1911. The plot was decidedly different from the book, with Toto being replaced by a cow and more people from Kansas traveling to Oz along with Dorothy. Because of the success of the play and subsequent Oscar-winning movie, the book has often been published without “wonderful” in the title.

11. THERE ARE 40 OFFICIAL 'OZ' BOOKS.

Baum continued writing Oz books—14 in total—until the end of his life, with a new book usually coming out in time for Christmas. In his later years, he answered children’s letters on letterhead that proclaimed him as the "Royal Historian of Oz." He often used suggestions from children when creating the Oz books. The series was continued after his death by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote an additional 19 Oz books, and several other authors who added seven more.

12. BAUM WROTE UNDER A VARIETY OF PSEUDONYMS.

In addition to the Oz series, Baum wrote other books for children and teenagers, including romances and science fiction, under an assortment of pen names. Under the name Edith Van Dyne, he wrote a successful series of books called Aunt Jane’s Nieces that were as popular as the Oz books. Other pseudonyms included Laura Bancroft, Floyd Akers, Schuyler Staunton, and Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald.

13. BAUM LOST THE RIGHTS TO HIS MOST FAMOUS BOOK BECAUSE OF FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES.

Baum created a stage show in 1908 called “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays” that combined a lecture by him with live actors, a movie, and projected slides. Critics and audiences loved it, but it cost more to produce than it brought in. Baum declared bankruptcy, which caused him to lose his royalty rights to his earlier books, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

14. BAUM WROTE AND DIRECTED A NUMBER OF OZ FILMS HIMSELF.

In 1914, Baum started a film company. The Oz Film Manufacturing Company lasted only for a few years, but it produced several Oz-related movies, including His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. For once, Baum didn’t lose any money on this business venture.

15. HIS FINAL WORDS WERE IN REFERENCE TO OZ.

Baum’s health began to fail in 1917, and he died two years later after suffering a stroke. Just before he passed, he had some interesting last words for his wife. In his books, the land of Oz is cut off from the rest of the world by impassable wastelands, including a desert called the Shifting Sands. As Baum lay dying, he supposedly referenced the work that made his legacy: “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands.”

Additional sources: The Making of the Wizard of OzThe Oz Scrapbook.

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