The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace: How to do voiceover well

Thomas Messner /
Nov 28, 2017 / Film & TV

In the annals of storytelling devices, the track record of voiceover is – well, to put it bluntly – not the best.

For every argument that could be made in its favour as a necessary expository device, there is another ten asserting it’s perversion of the ‘show-don’t tell’ ethos. However, what distinguishes recent series The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace is the extent to which voiceover is ingrained into their narrative fabric. The device doesn’t texturise the series so much as it forms their entire structure, to the point where neither would likely survive the journey from page to screen without it.

What makes these two dramas so effective in this regard are the limitations impovsed upon their story and characters. Made slave to an oppressive patriarchal regime, The Handmaid’s Tale’s protagonist Offred uses her inner monologue not just as a narrative shortcut, but a lifeline. Through its implementation, we are made privy to thoughts and feelings (the only things she as a character can still lay claim to as her own) that she is rendered incapable of articulating through action. She may not be able to outwardly express her need “to scream, to grab the nearest machine gun”, but – at the very least – she can tell us. The voiceover becomes essential to the overarching narrative as the only true means of rebellion on hand, while also trapping viewers within the confines of a single subjective experience.

On the one hand, visualising Margaret Atwood’s source novel can’t help but detract from the suffocating intimacy of its first-person prose. The transplantation of Offred’s viewpoint from page to screen is positioned as perhaps the greatest adaptation challenge facing the series. In this regard, The Handmaid’s Tale’s voiceover once again trumps expectations. It both retains its source’s subjectivity (“I wish it wasn’t me telling this story, I wish it showed me in a better light”), while also being more personalised – and even bitterly humorous at times.

This sets The Handmaid’s Tale firmly apart from fellow TV literary adaptations, Starz’s Outlander being one. The narration in the latter also borrows wholesale from the mind’s eye view taken by its source texts; however, much of it appears to exist for the sole purpose of fealty to the source, with large chunks of author Diana Gabaldon’s prose gratuitously read aloud. For instance, “sex was our bridge back to each other”, hardly brings much to a plainly visible sex scene. By contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale’s inner monologue pulses with purpose and personality. It exists not as exposition, but as a means of channeling a deep well of internalised fury.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace: How to do voiceover well

That brings us to the year’s second Atwood adaptation: Alias Grace, a six-part Netflix miniseries. also intent on situating us within a single POV. However, in this case it’s to an entirely different end. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale’s voiceover gets us intimately acquainted with a headspace that would otherwise be withheld, Alias Grace holds us at a carefully calculated distance. Both voiceovers declare themselves at the outset to be stories the titular heroines are telling, but whom the stories are being told to is a different matter entirely.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s voiceover is directed at an imagined listener, as stated in the source novel, “you don’t tell a story only to yourself… I’ll pretend you can hear me… I know you can’t”. This removes much of the need for pretence and performance. In contrast, Alias Grace sees ‘celebrated murderess’ Grace Marks recounting her troubled tale to the greedily attentive Dr. Jordan, who is carrying out an assessment.  The fact that Grace’s thoughts have an audience reshapes them as inherently performative; the addition of a second monologue (one spoken by Grace at an indeterminate point in her future) shows her as keenly aware of the wants and expectations of said audience.

She likens her various listeners to “a child being told a fairytale” – while she means Dr Jordan, she could just as easily be referring to us viewers. Like the doctor, we have played the part of spectators. Telling a story is one thing, while accommodating eager listeners is another. Sure enough, Grace’s story has been fashioned to be satisfying to the ear. The casually expressed notion that she has “changed some of the details of my stories, to suit what you wanted to hear” immediately exposes the inherent unreliability of her narration.

Offred’s bluntness thus stands at a firm remove from Grace’s obfuscation. Where Offred’s monologue is largely reactive and possessed by the immediacy of the present moment, Grace has had years to perfect the tale she has told us. Differences aside, both voiceovers offer almost equal insight into the means through which these prisoners wrest back control of their narrative. Through her voiceover, Offred proves that whatever else the state may have taken, her inner life remains her own. Through hers, Grace plays off of the myriad perceptions the public directs her way, moulding her story into it’s most titillating and palatable shape. Come the end of these two stories, the device does not appear so cumbersome as we may have thought.

The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace: How to do voiceover well

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Words by Thomas Messner

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