The Power and the glory

The Power and the glory

Tuesday, 4th April 2023
Auli’i Cravalho walking towards camera
Auli’i Cravalho as Jos Cleary-Lopez. Credit: Prime Video
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Caroline Frost talks to the key creators behind Amazon’s adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s best-selling novel that foresees the end of male supremacy.

In many ways, what inspired The Power was my whole life,” is how author Naomi Alderman begins her roller-coaster tale. “I had just had a really bad break-­­up – one of those break-ups where you wake up every morning crying – and, having had this terrible break-up, I got on the Tube and saw a poster advertising a movie, which had a beautiful woman crying. I thought, ‘What would the world have to be for me to get on the Tube and see a film advertised with a beautiful man crying?’ She shrugs and smiles, without even having to say out loud what we’re both thinking – “and the rest is history”.

Inspired by her heartbreak, Alderman began writing her book in 2011, with, latterly, some guidance from Margaret Atwood, creator of The Handmaid’s Tale, through a mentorship programme.

After it was published in 2016, it was named one of 2017’s 10 best books by The New York Times and scooped the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which triggered a battle for adaptation rights. Six years later, following production delays caused by lockdown and casting changes that have included the departure of Leslie Mann and the arrival of Toni Collette, The Power is finally making it to the small screen. The nine-part series has been produced by Sister Pictures for Amazon.

Having made the widely acclaimed British medical drama This Is Going to Hurt, based on Adam Kay’s bestselling memoir, Sister’s co-founder and CCO, Jane Featherstone, has demonstrated a sure touch when it comes to spotting the potential of a good book.

Both Amazon’s deep pockets and Alderman’s hand on the creative tiller (she was an exec producer) are in evidence throughout the series. The Power is a portrait of a society where there has been some undescribed social collapse. Individual stories take place across the world: the illegitimate daughter of a London gangster; an American teenager suffering at the hands of her abusive adoptive father; a high-school student with a social media obsession; and a US politician, Collette, who becomes a figurehead for revolution.

Where these stories unite is these young women’s discovery that they can impart powerful, sometimes fatal, electric shocks through their hands. At a stroke, patriarchy is turned on its head – for good and for… otherwise. The sci-fi premise is grounded in thought-provoking material and moving performances from its mostly young, mostly female, leads – including Ria Zmitrowicz and Auli’i Cravalho – as well as familiar faces John Leguizamo and Eddie Marsan.

Ria Zmitrowicz as Roxy Monke in The Power. Credit: Prime Video.

Featherstone is quick to offer “speculative fiction” or “global thriller” as an alternative description of the show, as she is keen to ensure it reaches audiences beyond sci-fi fans.

Alderman’s input was key to the process: “I was involved all the way through,” she says. “Everybody felt, ‘This is a show with a lot going on’ and ‘We’d like Naomi to be here’. And I wanted to be there. You have these experts coming in with all their talent. And it moves fast. Writing the book felt like I was going uphill on my pedal bike. Then, [making the show] someone gave me a Ferrari.”

Clearly, she feels nothing has been lost, only gained in the transfer from page to screen: “It’s the process of taking it from ideas to an exciting, high-octane show. I work across ­genres anyway. I write novels but I also make video games.

“You can’t just translate something directly – you have to find the ways to do what it is you’re trying to do in the grammar of a new medium. And, when you’re working with experts who know that medium, you learn a huge amount.

“It made me feel proud of my book. The show that we’ve ended up with is both a translation and an evolution of what I did in the book. It’s grown.”

That expansion is down to Sister’s determination to create a show that can hold its own in a market full of big-budget sci-fi titles. For Featherstone, the biggest challenge was “the scale of it”.

She says: “It’s such an epic piece and [we have to] make sure we do service to all of the characters in a multi-­stranded way, making sure those stories talk to each other and connect, so that they have resonance and relationships between them which are emotional. It has to work as a piece of emotional entertainment and not just as a thesis.”

Despite all this, and the money being spent, she never had any doubts that she wanted Sister to produce The Power: “When taking on projects, I don’t think of them as risky or not. I think other people interpret them in that way; I just say, ‘I really love this, I’m excited to make this.’ It’s instinct.

“I don’t think this is risky, because it’s so profoundly about human beings and the way we live. It’s also funny, cheeky, inspiring, wish fulfilment.... I just think it needs to be out there.”

Alderman was warned that many people wanted to work on the show simply because they had loved reading her book. These included producer Tim Bricknell, who reveals: “An ex-girlfriend once told me I wasn’t a feminist and it bugged me for years. I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do this show.’ A world where women are going to take the reins of power? What a kinder, more egalitarian place that would be. I found it really provocative and exciting.”

Toni Collette as Margot Cleary-Lopez. Credit: Prime Video.

While Alderman is heartened by the response to her book – and, hopefully, the show – she is aware that there is work still to be done. She says: “I sat down and watched the whole series in one go the other day. Then I turned on the TV and I thought, ‘Why is the rest of the world like this? Why are there not women doing exciting roles in all these different stories?’ I hope that, at the very least, it changes that.”

Indeed, one of the reasons she responded to Sister’s invitation to collaborate on the show was: “I thought, why not work with someone who’s ambitious for other women?”

For sure, since its launch in 2015, Featherstone’s company has made a mission of pushing under-represented voices. The CCO says: “Yes, it’s absolutely about that, and about diversity and championing voices. The statistics for female directors, writers and showrunners are still shocking and much lower than what they ought to be.

“In [Sister titles] Flowers, The Bisexual, This Is Going to Hurt, writers were given an opportunity to tell the stories they wouldn’t tell.

“Because I’ve been doing it so long, I have some trust from some of the buyers, and they would let us do that. I can say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got that covered, we’ll help nurture this person.’ And that’s a responsibility and a privilege.”

Including another series of The Power? “Well, yes, hopefully.”

It’s what Alderman wants, too. She reflects: “Every generation moves us on a bit and we can look back to women who fought for the vote and education. There’s still more to do. It’s not solved. In my lifetime, I’ll have plenty of material.

“As for The Power, there’s a lot more story to tell, more to get into with these characters. It’s all in the hands of the Amazon gods, but I definitely want to do more.”

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