• The Kindred Adaptation Reclaims Octavia Butler’s “Grim Fantasy” for a New Era

    Gabrielle Bellot: “No matter how long ago slavery might seem, it is always disquietingly close to us, both in time and memory.”

    For years after writing Kindred, her seminal novel about a modern-day Black woman who finds herself thrust back into the slavery-era past at unpredictable moments, Octavia Butler would be asked the same question by interviewers and curious readers alike: was her novel science fiction? To Butler, the answer was simple. “There’s absolutely no science in it,” she told Frances M. Beal, the editor of Black Scholar, in 1985—a statement she would repeat almost verbatim to many others—and, ergo, Kindred “obviously was not science fiction.” Instead, Butler would famously note, the novel might better be thought of as a kind of “grim fantasy.”

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    Butler’s insistence that the novel—which has recently been adapted by FX into an eight-episode series, streaming on Hulu—was not science fiction was more than a gripe about genre. From a young age, Butler yearned to write science fiction. Her origin story, as she relayed it, was realizing that she could tell a better story than a remarkably mediocre film she had watched as a tween in 1959, Devil Girl from Mars, and deciding to become a writer to do just that—but she had been told, time and time again, that her race would prevent her from becoming a writer. “Negroes can’t be writers,” her aunt informed her a year after her formative experience with the B-movie.

    Determined to prove everyone wrong, Butler would indeed go on to write some of the most strikingly iconoclastic fiction of her time, much of it drawing from elements of sci-fi and fantasy, yet when she tried to earn recognition in these genres, she was frequently pushed aside by the white men who then dominated both. Over and over, she would be told that writing about Black characters made her story about race (as if writing about white ones did not) and that this prevented her from fitting into the norms of SFF.

    Ironically, Butler would find herself occasionally pigeonholed later in life as exclusively a sci-fi writer, such that readers would reflexively expect and publishers might market her body of work accordingly (including more frangible cases like Kindred), and so it’s tempting to read her rejection of the term as a kind of reclamation of her work, an acknowledgement that the label matters less than the subject matter.

    Even so, her nomenclatorial choice—“grim fantasy”—was also curious. Kindred isn’t simply grim; it’s often outright traumatic, forcing a Black woman married to a white man in the 1970s to directly experience the horrors of slavery she had only read about in books. The time travel element, which forces the protagonist, Dana, back into the past whenever one of her ancestors—a white boy named Rufus Weylin—is in danger of dying, and returns her to the present when she believes she may die, is presented without any grand scientific explanation, and so it becomes more akin to fantasy.

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    But the past that Dana is sent back to is anything but a fantasy; it is harrowingly, horrifically real. Over the course of many trips, Dana attempts to educate Rufus to be less bigoted as he grows up, only to be forced to witness her own family legacy through a ghastly spectacle: an adult Rufus raping Dana’s other ancestor, a Black woman named Alice. Beyond this, Dana must work alongside the slaves, is attacked by white patrols whose organization predates the KKK, is savagely whipped, and even loses a portion of her arm. It is nothing if not brutal.

    But Butler didn’t write the novel as a kind of fetishization of trauma, and she was well aware of the way that Black writers in any genre were expected to write about slavery and its tortures—or, at least, to focus on the pains of racism above all else. While many of her novels are wide-ranging in their focus, she wanted Kindred to center explicitly on that ancestral horror. “Kindred was a kind of reaction to some of the things going on during the 60s when people were feeling ashamed of, or more strongly, angry with their parents for not having improved things faster,” Butler told Randall Kenan in 1991, “and I wanted to take a person from today and send that person back to slavery.”

    Dana’s torment was intentionally difficult to read, even if Butler ended up softening certain aspects of the novel out of the fear that it might be too bloody to sell otherwise. “I couldn’t let [Dana] come all the way back,” she told Kenan in a nod to how Dana loses part of her arm on her final journey to the present. “I couldn’t let her return to what she was, I couldn’t let her come back whole… Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.”

    But beyond that, Butler composed Kindred out of a fear of historical amnesia. She had been concerned by how many young African Americans she heard dismissing the severity of slavery and arguing that if they had been enslaved, they would have simply fought back harder, refusing to accept the slave masters’ punishments. Butler realized that this attitude stemmed partly from an ignorance of just how terrifying the past had been, and so she set out to write a novel that would sear that phantasmagoric violence into her readers’ psyches, a novel they could not ignore—and, more critically, could not forget. Its brutality, then, was central to its teleology, even if that made it difficult to read.

    Butler composed Kindred out of a fear of historical amnesia.

    FX’s adaptation, then, had rather large shoes to fill: it needed to be faithful, in some ways, to the admonitory spirit of Butler’s work, but it also would have to try to avoid committing the very sin that Butler was afraid of: simply retraumatizing viewers with an unending display of Black people being beaten and brutalized. And, by placing Dana in the present day, rather than the 1970s of the book, it would have to contend with the new technologies that have come to define the American present for those with the means to afford them, and how this might interact with the spectacle of a Black woman appearing in the present with grievous wounds on her body, especially when facing white cops—whose white faces remind her all too awfully of the slave masters she had temporarily escaped.

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    Overall, I think the new show succeeds in trying to walk an almost impossibly difficult line between on-screen trauma and fidelity to a number of core aspects of the book, with scintillating performances by its main actors—but there are also a few peculiar, if not outright inscrutable, changes, which I’m still unsure how to feel about.

    Perhaps the strangest aspects of this adaptation are the ones we encounter early on. In the novel, Dana is an interracial marriage with Kevin, and they are both writers, though Kevin is further ahead in his career. When Dana vanishes into the past, then returns with wounds on her body soon after (the length of time she spends in the past doesn’t equate with her disappearance from the present), Kevin is mortified to see the woman he loves in pain he can do little about. When he unexpectedly goes to the past with her, they must now also deal more explicitly with Kevin’s whiteness and the privileges this affords him, as well as the question of how Dana can feel safe in Kevin’s arms, given how unsafe she is with nearly every other white person she encounters. One of the powerful, poignant emotional stakes in the novel is watching how Dana’s relationship both with her own body and with Kevin shifts through these disorienting torments.

    In FX’s Kindred, however, Dana has just moved to Los Angeles, and she meets Kevin for the first time at a restaurant, where he is a white waiter who hits on her. They briefly get to know each other, and then Dana’s time-traveling begins, eventually engulfing Kevin, too, who must figure out how to navigate both the past and his obligations to a woman he has just met. This is an interesting shift in some ways, but it bothered me as a long-time fan of Butler’s book. Since Kevin no longer has this long relationship history with Dana, the emotional stakes between them never felt as viscerally powerful.

    Dana’s chaotic jumps from modern-day present to slavery-era past echo the chaos and uneasy veneer of peace that underlie so much of American society.

    These new versions of Dana and Kevin also feel dissimilar from their literary counterparts in certain subtler respects, though this may have been inevitable, given the starkly different techno-social realities they start in. Mallori Johnson, who resonantly portrays Dana onscreen, acknowledged something similar in an interview with ELLE earlier this month. “Eventually, there were two Danas in my head—there was Dana in the book and there was Dana in the show, and they were intertwined with each other,” Johnson said. “When I needed to draw from something, like a fundamental piece of who this person was and the way that this person would react or feel about something, I always went back to the book and I always tried to see it from that perspective. The book was like an encyclopedia for me to go back to whenever I needed to connect to something deeper than what I was seeing on the page.”

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    Johnson’s Dana comes from a world defined by the rise of technologies that, when Butler was writing, might still have seemed like science-fiction inventions: ubiquitous smartphones, surveillance apps, social media, and the internet more broadly. Even if the show’s plot was more faithful to Butler’s novel, the Dana of the adaptation still couldn’t be the Dana of the novel, because the technologies available to this new Dana are so interwoven into the philosophical assumptions of this new era: the expectation that someone who can afford a smartphone will be glued to it and, in turn, to how they are presented on social media, or the prevalence of apps that allow people to track or surveil others, like the “Find My Device” function on an Apple product or Panoptic neighborhood-focused apps in which people talk about “problems” in their areas, often in ways that imply racial bias. These technologies create a profoundly new world in which this adaptation can unfold.

    In the present-day timeline, these devices and societal attitudes work surprisingly synergistically with the inexplicable terrors Dana and Kevin endure in the past, exacerbating their pain and problems dramatically. Obsessive, uptight white neighbors spy on Dana after hearing her screaming upon her first return from the past, and her shrieks and visible injuries soon become understandable talking points on a neighborhood app about whether or not Kevin is hurting her, though—also expectedly—this discourse eventually devolves into racially charged assumptions by the white neighbors that Dana might be taking drugs. (Kevin, ironically, does have a history of substance abuse.)

    The new Dana and Kevin also differ somewhat in how they react to being trapped unceremoniously in the past. In the novel, both know more about the history of slavery and appear to be quicker thinkers, adapting on the fly to the social shifts their time travel forces upon them. Obviously, they aren’t fully equipped to live in this new-old world, but they know enough about the behaviors, language, and attitudes of the Antebellum South to attempt to blend in. By contrast, the show’s Dana and Kevin seem more discombobulated, making historical faux pas that feel even more awkward than in the novel (though some are intentionally comedic in a show that is usually anything but, offering viewers a brief pause to laugh before returning to feeling tense).

    Butler’s Dana seems to adapt quickly to the degrading fact that she is expected to work as a slave so as not to attract additional suspicion, as well as to hopefully pass on knowledge, like her ability to read; it takes the show’s Dana a bit longer to make this psychological leap, though this is partly because of the unexpected presence of her mother, Olivia, in the past, which understandably makes this situation even more disorienting to Dana.

    At the end of the day, the best way to consider this new Kindred is as just that: something new, inspired by Butler’s masterpiece.

    This is the biggest—and, to me, most bewildering—change in the show: that Dana’s mother, who Dana had long thought had simply disappeared, had actually been thrown back into the past in order to protect Rufus, just like Dana—and, the show implies, perhaps also like Dana’s missing grandmother. Olivia lives as a free Black woman near the Weylins’ plantation house, offering medicinal services to those in need. At first, I found Olivia’s presence haunting and intriguing in equal measures. I enjoyed seeing Dana learn more about her family history, a core aspect of Butler’s novel, and it was revelatory to see how deeply Olivia had integrated herself into the past. Olivia’s presence cements the idea that this is a story about intergenerational trauma.

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    Ultimately, though, this addition feels incompletely realized and, as a result, unnecessary. The show, while retaining its focus on Dana, tries to also make this Olivia’s narrative, but never finds the perfect balance. The core story already has a metaphor about generational scars, the way the horrors of the past are imprinted upon the generations that follow, which is made clear through the pain that Dana’s ancestor Alice is forced to endure.

    Because the show’s core plot still tries to hew closely to Butler’s, Dana’s mother never actually becomes essential; I began even wondering if anyone would notice if she was written out entirely. Given that these eight episodes only cover a portion of the book’s plot, and the cliffhanger revelations about Olivia, I’m curious to see where this element goes, even as it remains what made me the most uncertain about this adaptation.

    Still, even if these tweaks are significant, the adaptation manages to remain faithful to the spirit of Butler’s novel in many other ways. It captures perhaps the scariest part of the book, scarier even than the back-slicing whips or the rapacious gaze of the white men upon the bodies of Black women: that no matter how long ago slavery might seem, especially to someone at least partially shielded by financial privileges, it is always disquietingly close to us, both in time and memory. It is set in the modern day possibly to echo this very point, just as Butler, decades earlier, wanted to drive it home for the young people she feared did not understand the nightmarishness of slavery or how tenuous any new racial progress really was, given how recently those chains had come off.

    Dana’s chaotic jumps from modern-day present to slavery-era past echo the chaos and uneasy veneer of peace that underlie so much of American society, forcing readers and viewers alike to wonder what, really, could stop slavery from returning if a certain number of white people decided to stop politely smiling and showed their true colors. It may seem implausible, absurd, and yet that deep-rooted fear of the return of slavery is anything but, a trauma that has taken root—sometimes almost literally—in the descendants of the transatlantic trade’s social and emotional depredations.

    Kindred has long been a special book to me—painful but pedagogic, a text from which I can never quite forget certain images. Like Dana, the reader can’t reemerge as they were when they started; instead, the story leaves an eerie, phantasmal what if in you, unsettling as a whisper you hear in an empty room. FX’s adaptation doesn’t resonate as deeply with me, but it’s undeniably trying, overall, to speak to Butler’s memorializing work. At the end of the day, the best way to consider this new Kindred is as just that: something new, inspired by Butler’s masterpiece. In its own way, this series is reclaiming that grim fantasy for a new era. And while I have some reservations, I’m excited—and necessarily bracing myself—to see what painful wonders may come next.

    Gabrielle Bellot
    Gabrielle Bellot
    Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, The Guardian, Guernica, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first collection of essays and a novel.

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