A still from Kindred shows the protagonist — a Black person dressed in modern clothing — sitting pensively at a table which appears to be from a time period in the past.

Observed Online Reviews

‘Kindred’ Comes to the Screen, Losing its Defining Tensions

Where the famed novel revels in complexity and interiority, its adaptation offers a slave narrative with surprisingly little at stake.

By Mary Retta

From Kindred (2022). All images courtesy Hulu, credit: Tina Rowden/FX


Famed novelist Octavia Butler once said that if her 1979 novel Kindred was ever
made into a movie, she wouldn’t be involved.

It won’t be my movie, and I suspect it won’t look much like my book,”
she wrote in 2000.


Unsurprisingly, Butler was correct: FX’s recent adaptation of her novel strays quite far from her original prose. Kindred’s literary premise is both simple and deceptively complicated: Dana (Mallori Johnson), a Black writer living in California in the 1970s, is mysteriously forced to travel back in time between her home and a plantation in Maryland circa 1815 in order to save the life of her ancestor, a young boy named Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan). Though the series stays fairly close to the plot of the book—the biggest change being set in 2016 rather than 1976—its implications are entirely different. Where the novel propels the narrative forward through posing complicated questions of kinship, identity, and belonging, the series strips the original story of its central tension, leaving behind an unconvincing plot, underdeveloped protagonist, and a slave narrative with surprisingly little at stake.

Take for example, its inaccurate depiction of slavery. In one episode, a young white girl asks Dana if she can slap her, to which Dana replies “do I get to slap you back?” In another scene, an enslaved man takes a gun away from an overseer and demands he get back to work in the field. Both of these actions are largely glossed over, and neither warrant any punishment, causing the plantation to feel more like an aesthetic background than a historical site of unfathomable violence and horror. Similarly, the way Dana interacts with Kevin (Micah Stock) on the plantation—her white lover from the present day, who she occasionally brings back in time with her— dangerously rewrites the lived experiences of Black people in the Antebellum South. While stuck in 1815, Kevin lives on the plantation and takes a job with the Weylins, the plantation owners. In one of the most frustrating scenes of the whole season, Dana and Kevin spend the night in Kevin’s room, intermittently having sex and listening to love songs on an iPhone they brought with them from 2016. At one point Kevin opines that “if you ignore the fact that this is happening in a horrible time and place, it’s almost like we’re staying in a resort,” and Dana giggles coquettishly in agreement. It’s a horrific observation, both because it is so inaccurate to the experience of chattel slavery and because, within the universe of the show, this sentiment is often true. By making enslavement seem not only tolerable but even enjoyable for Dana, the series rewrites history and effectively negates the novel’s central tension: returning Dana to safety in the present.


A white man, dressed in a suit, stands next to a Black woman dressed in a worn blue dress, hair frizzy. They both appear to be in a time in the past.
From Kindred (2022)

This borderline nostalgic view of slavery is further demonstrated in several characters’ reluctance to leave the plantation and travel back to the present-day. While Dana’s mother is dead in the novel, in the series she has also traveled back to the 1800s and is living as a free woman near the Weylin plantation. Given the novel’s aim to toy with notions of family ties, this deviation from Butler’s work could have proved promising. In practice however, the series furthers the idea that plantation life was tolerable. When Dana discovers her mother and asks her to travel back to 2016 with her, Olivia (Sheria Irving) decides she would rather stay in 1815 because 2016 felt like a scary, foreign time. Throughout much of the season, Kevin also seems more pressed to travel back to 2016 than Dana, who often speaks with excitement about certain elements of her day-to-day on the plantation such as finishing Robinson Crusoe with Rufus, who, while not as racist as his father, routinely disrespects Dana and calls her racial slurs. Given the show’s commitment to expanding Dana and Kevin’s universe in the present—replete with a suspicious neighborhood watch couple and a cop following their every move—it at times feels as though the characters have more danger awaiting them in 2016 than on the plantation.

Butler’s novel succeeded largely due to its focus on Dana’s interiority, which the series rarely explores. The book sits with Dana’s complex feelings about the plantation: she befriended several enslaved people and even felt affection for young Rufus, who she hoped to shape into a less racist and violent man than his father. However, Dana’s priority was always to get back to the present, and Butler made it clear that Dana was saving Rufus’ life not out of a particular devotion to him, but because it was necessary to save her blood line and ensure her own life as well. This tension—that Dana owed her suffering, her family trauma, but also her very life to Rufus—is barely referenced in the series, yielding a confusing and often regressive protagonist.


From Kindred (2022)

While I’m disappointed in the Kindred adaptation, I’m ultimately not surprised that its politics veer so far from those of the novel. Much like Butler herself recognized decades ago, when the work of an avant-garde or progressive thinker enters the mainstream, their ideas are often altered and diluted to make them palatable to a wider—and in this case, whiter—audience. This phenomenon has particular relevance for Butler, given the many plans to adapt her other books into movies and TV shows in the coming years. I can only hope that later seasons of Kindred, as well as any future adaptations, imbue their plots with all the nuance and realism that makes Butler’s stories shine.

 

Kindred is now streaming on Hulu via FX.