In her book, The Power, recently adapted into a series on Prime Video, Naomi Alderman invites you to imagine: “What it would feel like if you didn’t live in a world where you were afraid all the time?”
Naomi Alderman published her fourth novel The Power to widespread critical acclaim in 2017. Now, it’s been adapted into a poignant television series for Prime Video and the first season is fully available to stream. (Besides her other writing, you may also know Alderman from her debut novel, Disobedience, which was adapted into a 2017 film starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.)
A speculative, dystopian dive into the depths of social norms and the complexities of political corruption along the lines of gender and global conflict, The Power asks a deceptively simple question: What would happen if, overnight, girls and some women worldwide gained the ability to administer electric shocks at will?
The way the novel’s characters confront this question may challenge readers’ assumptions about gender, power and the efficacy of violence as a foundation of social change long after the last page is turned.
Prime’s adaptation is no different—at times provocative and thrilling, at others, troubling and incendiary. For each victory won by women on the show, turning the tides of gendered discrimination in their favor, there are equally damning reflections on the inherent corruptive potential of power regardless of gender. The show features a dynamic, multi-racial, and multi-national cast of characters, including runaway foster teen turned messiah, Allie (Halle Bush); Seattle mayor Margot Cleary-Lopez (Toni Collette); the mayor’s disaffected teen daughter, Jos (Auli’i Cravalho); the daughter of a British mob boss, Roxy Monke (Ria Zmitrowicz); the first lady of Carpathia, a fictional Balkan country, Tatiana Moskalev (Zrinka Cvitešić); and a Nigerian journalist who gets the scoop of a lifetime, Tunde Ojo (Toheeb Jimoh).
I had a chance to speak with Naomi Alderman about her novel and how she sees its television adaptation resonating in the years since the book’s initial release.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn: I’ve read the novel, and certainly many viewers who are watching the show will have read it, too, but for those who haven’t: What are you hoping the show will convey about the narrative in this new format?
Naomi Alderman: My hope is that I have some interesting questions to ask and some interesting conversations to start.
I don’t feel like it’s my job to have all the answers to all of the questions about gender relations, power dynamics, and the way the world is. I’m hoping people can sit down, watch the show, and start going, “I don’t know what my life would be like if I could suddenly electrocute people at will. Would that be good?” To really think it through. And for men to go, “Oh. I wonder what the world would be like if women could electrocute people at will.”
Fingers crossed that we get more than one season—otherwise we left it in the middle there for people who’ve read the book. But hopefully we go on a journey together where we have a conversation about what it means to be in a world where one sex is more physically powerful than the other, on average, and whether we are satisfied and happy with how that has shaped the world that we live in.
At the end of the day, there will be some people who watch the show and indeed read the book who go, “I don’t believe any of this. This was not what would happened. Women are wonderful. They would do everything perfectly,” and, you know, it’s fine. If, at the end of the day [people] watch the show or they read the whole book and then they go, “I disagree with you.” That’s cool. I’m here for the conversation, not to foist my outcome on anyone.
Dove-Viebahn: I want to take off from the relationship between women and power. The power that the girls and women have has this great liberatory potential, right? But also, very quickly has a potential for corruption and violence.
Do you feel like this is the case for all forms of power—or just this as an explicitly physical power?
Alderman: All sources of power have the potential to be used for very bad things.
I have a terrible, terrible, visceral analogy, but it does come from the show: It only takes one person to shit in a swimming pool to really fuck it up for everybody. The fact that the majority of people do not use their power for bad things in all sorts of ways—I think actually most people are really trying their best—doesn’t help us because there’s a tiny minority of not great people who come along and accumulate power and are willing to use it in horrible ways. And when you use it in horrible ways, that enables you to accumulate more.
The only answer, I think, is rigorously upheld checks and balances. You can’t have a capitalist system without having a social safety net and other checks and limits. You can’t have political power without checks and balances. You can’t have journalistic power without fact-checking and checking the effects of what you’re doing. All unbridled power will destroy us.
Dove-Viebahn: This may be going beyond the scope of your story just a little bit—but do you think that there are forms of, not power, but perhaps ways to liberate from, say, gender oppression, that don’t have these inherent possibilities for exploitation?
Alderman: I think it is possible for us to put systems in place to prevent that from happening. I think that has very successfully happened quite often in human history in lots of different ways. So that’s one thing. I’m trying to think. Have you got a something in mind where you’re like, “No, but I think this would be okay—this one would be fine”?
Dove-Viebahn: No. That’s actually why I asked!
Alderman: I’m also very disappointed, by the way, by this conclusion. I want it to be possible for us to just give tons of power to women, and that would be okay.
Dove-Viebahn: I’m asking because I really enjoyed the novel, but I’ve been very troubled ever since I read it.
Alderman: I’m sorry!
Dove-Viebahn: No—in a good way. I think this is actually the sign of a good story. That one you keep thinking about. It’s not just, “Oh, okay, that was nice, and then you shelve it away.” That’s why I’m asking.
There’s this concept of flipping the script, which is in some ways is what your novel and the television show does, but that leads to cataclysmic results. Even though it’s speculative, it’s a confluence of very believable political and social factors.
Alderman: If you reach the end of the book and you go, “I don’t believe a single fucking thing in this, Naomi,” then fine. But I feel like most people reach the end of the book and they go, “Oh, shit.”
Dove-Viebahn: Yes! And, so, it’s very troubling—but we can talk about other things because I know there’s no good answer to this question.
Alderman: You can’t make a system more fair by introducing greater potential for violence. If we were to decide that we were going to privilege other kinds of ability—like we were going to decide as a culture that the ability to speak peacefully is going be our top thing, things would be very different. That’s currently not how we operate on any level. We give people power and allow them to accumulate more and more of it. So, that’s what we need to stop doing.
I should write a book where I go, “Okay, this is how to do it”—shouldn’t I?
Dove-Viebahn: That doesn’t have to be your job.
Alderman: I get asked this question a lot, so maybe it does!
Dove-Viebahn: Well, maybe that could be at your next project!
I also want to talk about the show. This comes up in the novel, too, but I was really struck in the show how Margot uses the language of reproductive rights as a way to undergird the believability of her argument about women’s bodily autonomy in relation to the electrical discharges. Can you just talk a bit about how that functions in our society today as a reflection of this idea?
Alderman: When I was a young woman, really when I was a schoolgirl, I heard about feminism. I thought, “Oh, this is great because it means all these problems will be solved by the time I get into the workplace.” What one discovers is that any kind of rhetoric that has an emotional pull can end up being used by bad actors to shore up their own positions—which are somehow often totally diametrically opposed to the original thing.
I think Margot’s arguments about women having bodily autonomy are obviously correct. She’s also using that subtly to gain a certain kind of advantage for herself. God knows it’s possible these days to use the title ‘feminist’ and mean something really quite radically different to what I would understand by an interest in women’s freedom.
All unbridled power will destroy us.Naomi Alderman
Dove-Viebahn: The novel was published in 2017 and this show is coming out in 2023. That’s not a huge gap, but a lot has happened in the past six years.
Alderman: And it was published in the U.K. the week before Trump was elected. When it was published, I still thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president.
Dove-Viebahn: Ah! So even more instructive. How do you see the television show resonating differently in the last six years?
Alderman: A bunch of things have got worse, right? That’s where we are right now.
Britain is not such a religious country as America. We tend not to have the rhetoric around abortion and around the control of women’s bodies in that way, but, you know, we’ve got our own nonsense going on in Britain. There’s been a real backlash from the right wing. I mean, in a way, all these things are perfectly predictable. If you have an economic crash in 2008, then you expect a right-wing pushback against women and immigrants and anybody who’s different about 10, 12 years later.
I would’ve loved it if the book had become less relevant in these six years. That would’ve been great. Actually, this is what Margot is in there for, because I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president, and I wanted the book to be able to speak to that and to say, it’s not necessarily going to be great just because you have a woman in charge. I grew up under Margaret Thatcher in the U.K.; that doesn’t mean that everything’s wonderful forever.
Dove-Viebahn: Earlier, you said something about the ways we define power—that power is about control and domination, that often those are the ways power is framed and there’s a need not to switch who has power, but how we enact power.
Alderman: Both things. Both who has power and how we enact it. And how we limit it. Just notice that power exists.
One of the things that I figured out when I was writing the book, which I hope has communicated itself to readers, is that power is a force that wants to accumulate itself, almost without any conscious will of any person. That’s how power works in human societies. Once you have some, it tries to collect more kinds of power to itself.
People who are powerful are attracted to other powerful people. Even if they all started off incredibly diverse, and in the lowest rungs of society, and really understanding the needs of the majority, eventually it doesn’t take very long for powerful people to cluster together and work as a unit. So that’s terrifying—and it’s good to know.
Dove-Viebahn: All the characters have very different relationships to the specific electrical power, but also to power as a structure. Can you speak to that?
Alderman: I set them all up almost programmatically—although I hope it doesn’t come across that way—as relating to different kinds of power. Roxy comes from a crime family. Crime seemed to me to be the obvious place where you can turn violence into money as directly as possible. Margot is political power. Tunde is media power. And Allie represents religious power. Each of those kinds of power is fungible. You can turn one into another, into another. You can turn money into religious power. You can turn religious power into media power. You can turn media power into violence, all of those things.
All of the characters also have very different experiences of the electric power. Roxy has absolutely tons of sheer brute force. Allie has a very subtle, not particularly strong, but very directed kind of power. Is that a comment on religion, who can say? Tunde, obviously, as a man, does not have any power. Margot has what you would call the bog standard. She’s got the normal level of power, but her daughter, Jos has a power that fluctuates; it comes and goes.
This is to represent the genuine physical, biological differences that exist between humans. It’s not like all men are six foot four and hugely muscled, and all women are five foot two and tiny. That’s not how the world is. And yet the average power differentials come out as if that were the case. We are not as dimorphic as many species, and yet we behave as if we’re quite dimorphic.
Dove-Viebahn: I would love to know what you hope people will take away from the narrative, specifically now that we have this television adaptation?
Alderman: First of all, genuinely one of my aims is to make some images of women being powerful that women can enjoy. I feel like there are so many of those images of men in the world and so many images of women suffering and men being strong. I wanted to create some visual images that are the opposite of that. There’s a bit right towards the end of the show where Tunde gets onto a bus full of women and he’s terrified and he gets off.
I’m hoping for more than one season, but the job of season one is to go: This is what it would feel like if you didn’t live in a world where you were afraid all the time. Really inhabit it in your imagination for five, 10, 15 minutes. Be with us in that world and see how you feel.
When we come out of the show into the real world, it’s still the same, I’m afraid. I want to say to all women here, have a taste of what it feels like to have male privilege, and here, men, just have a taste of what it feels like not to have it anymore, and then go about your lives with a little bit more understanding, empathy and rage maybe.
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