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.