Ok, so, Octavia E Butler… Lately I’ve been reading her Patternist series, and now I’m reading Kindred and it’s touching me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. The other night when I went to bed, I couldn’t sleep because of anxiety over what was going to happen with one of the characters (I won’t spoil anything, but I had stopped reading at page 185 of the 2023 Headline edition, for anyone who knows). And now I just came out of a 2 hour bath because I couldn’t figure out how to stop reading it to get out of the tub. I have 20 pages left, and fuck Disney+ completely if their adaptation isn’t a good one!
The above was written a few days ago. I’ve since finished the book and seen [enough of] the TV version and here’s what I think:
They’ve made some weird choices.
Right from the start, with the choice of the opening scene, it feels like they were going to set this up as a long-running series instead of the finished story it should have been. That feeling seems to have been correct, considering the first season is an unfinished story of 8 episodes, which would have continued if it hadn’t been cancelled.
I’m trying not to spoil anything of the book (I don’t care as much about the TV series), so I won’t go into details, but…
Hang on. My comments on the TV series are kind of meant for people who read the book and are trying to decide if they should try the TV version, but let me be a bit user-friendly and start by introducing the story a little bit.
It’s a time-travel story. 26-year-old Dana goes back in time to save the life of Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner. It gets complicated since Dana is black and Rufus’ family owns slaves and black people need paperwork to prove they’re not slaves. Dana’s husband is a bit older and white and also goes back with her some of the time. I’m not even sure I’m going to say much more about the story itself, you should just read it, but as you can imagine it deals with a lot of complications. It has a clear perspective on power-relations while at the same time blaming the times rather than necessarily the people who live in them. By which I mean that all the characters in the book are believable and have motivations that can be understood (if not sympathized with), even when they act monstrously. The book also does something that feels far too unique, which is treating everyone, from slaves to slave-holders, as people. It feels like most of the time when this period of US history is depicted, black people are portrayed as victims only, with little to no agency. Or their agency is almost exclusively defined in relation to white people (actually, don’t quote me on this. I haven’t done any thorough research with statistics or anything. It’s more of a feeling I got when reading Kindred, that this was something that’s often been missed). And, as I mentioned in the beginning, Butler has a way with storytelling that I have a hard time defining with any word other than captivating.
So with that said, here are some more thoughts on the TV series:
Some of the choices I can kind of see how they could have made them work. Like having Dana be an aspiring TV writer rather than a novelist. Having her want to write things like he favorite show Dynasty feels a bit infantilizing, however. It could have made sense for an adaptation. If done right. But no.
Some were just bad choices, probably meant to make things more exciting but instead rendering some important points in the book impossible to transfer to the screen. For example, Kevin isn’t her husband and fellow novelist, but some musician guy she just started dating, by which I mean that their first date ends with both of them visiting Maryland of 1815. And there are some discussions they have in the book about their experiences, which really need to be between two people who have a long-standing relationship, not two persons who just met and hardly know each other. But I guess it’s supposed to be more exciting if they can get to know each other under these extreme circumstances? Or maybe it’d be too controversial to have an interracial married couple in a 2022 TV series (but not a 1979 book)?
They’ve preserved some scenes from the book, but put them in a weird order in a way that takes away what could have been both subtle and/or powerful scenes. Instead we get watered-down versions.
I read a review that said the TV series delt gratuitous in its depictions of the brutality of slavery, with increasing degrees of torture in the episodes I haven’t seen. This also feels wrong to me, because the book managed to get the wrongness of slavery across even without a constant barrage of black people being whipped. That part of it makes it much worse, of course, but it’s also important to remember that even the more benign slaveholders were part of a system that absolutely needed to be abolished.
In general, it kind of felt a bit dumbed-down, which is always a bad sign. I saw the first two episodes (almost). Then I jumped to the 8th to see if it seemed to get better. It didn’t. It’s just as well that it got cancelled, especially if it means someone else can have a proper go at making an adaptation.
Having written a version of the above as a comment on facebook, the app decided to die on me and it blinked what I’d written out of existence. I’m going to end this review of the TV series with the same thing I decided to write in my comment instead:
Stay away from it, it failed.
But also: read the book, for fuck’s sake!