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Is Jill Soloway’s ‘I Love Dick’ the Most Unlikely TV Adaptation of All Time?

Peak TV takes on ’90s feminist autofiction

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

There’s something remarkable about I Love Dick, the Jill Soloway–directed, Kathryn Hahn–starring dramedy whose pilot is debuting on Amazon this Friday. Somehow, it’s not that the pilot might lead to an actual television series called I Love Dick. (After all, Starz just announced a stripper drama called Pussy Valley. It’s a brave new world!) No, the wildest thing is that the challenges of adapting I Love Dick, the novel on which the would-be series is based, barely even begin with the title. But Amazon is doing it anyway, and creating the archetypal 2016 TV project in the process: a wildly niche moonshot, and a passion project that would have been unthinkable just five years ago — let alone when the book first came out.

Published in 1997, I Love Dick is rooted entirely in the perspective of writer Chris Kraus, or at least a thinly fictionalized version. Kraus introduces herself at the book’s outset as an experimental filmmaker; in real life, she was also a performance artist and, of course, a novelist. And the circumstances of “Chris Kraus” are almost identical to Kraus’s: In December 1994, the real-life Kraus was 39, married to Columbia professor Sylvére Lotringer, and entrenched in an obsessive, largely one-sided correspondence with critic and sociologist Dick Hebdige, first in conjunction with Sylvere and then, following their separation, by herself. In December 1994, “Kraus” is 39, married to an older theorist named Sylvére Lotringer. Then she meets an English cultural critic identified as “Dick ____” over dinner with her husband.

From there she writes, and writes, and writes, first to express her feelings, and then to analyze and own them. Gradually, she fights her way from a position of fundamental powerlessness — a rejected suitor, and worse yet, a female one — to a confident author of her own story. “Her living is the subject, not the dick of the title,” poet Eileen Myles writes in the foreword of the 2006 reissue. “She’s turned female abjection inside out and aimed it at a man.” Dick’s real-life identity, never revealed in the actual text, starts to matter far less than his status as what Kraus later called a “perfect reader.” Sounds … conceptual, right? So how in the world is it becoming a TV show?

The first adaptive challenge lies in the fact that much of I Love Dick is pulled directly from these real-life letters. It’s useful, if criminally reductive, to frame the difference between books and film/television as one of subjectivity versus objectivity: Books place you squarely in the perspective of the narrator, while film and TV pan outward, giving us an external look at a whole cast of characters. Exceptions to the rule are no harder to find than chanting “Elliot Alderson” three times in the mirror, but that’s the challenge of I Love Dick in a nutshell. The book narrates Chris and Dick’s semi-relationship entirely from Chris’s perspective; Dick himself is less a person than a cipher, a receptacle for Chris’s infatuation and eventually, her contemplation. A potential show would have to transform Dick into a full-fledged character — one played by Kevin Bacon, no less — without diluting the central thesis of the book: that a woman can overcome her own debasement by documenting it, and thus exerting control over it. “Why do people think that we’re degraded when we’re examining positions of degradation, or examining the cycle of our own degradation?” Chris asks.

Then there’s the matter of plot. Frankly, not much happens in I Love Dick. The story goes something like: girl meets boy, girl pursues boy, girl pursues boy from different location, girl’s pursuit of boy turns into meditation on said pursuit, interspersed with lengthy tracts on the history of feminist theory and art, plus occasional thesis statements like, “I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” It’s possibly the least sustainable premise for a television series on record. Catastrophe, You’re the Worst, and Love are based on a single relationship. I Love Dick is based on a non-relationship.

That’s just the beginning. Epistolary novels can and have been turned into movies — and iconic Buffy-does-coke-out-of-a-cross teen dramedies, too. Feminist autofiction carefully and lovingly resurrected by a tiny cluster of mostly New York–based literati has less of a track record.

When it was initially released, I Love Dick was greeted less as a work of literature than as a gossip rag. An artwork’s ambiguous relationship with real life is now accepted as a marker of ambition, intelligence, or even MacArthur-recognized genius. Back then, it was a lowbrow act of kissing and telling — and, like all gossip, déclassé in a specifically feminine way. Hebdige gave an interview to New York calling the book “beneath contempt,” something that “gets read only because it exploits a recognizable figure”; Artforum called it “not so much written as secreted.” In hindsight, though, I Love Dick reads as prescient in not just its form, but its themes.

I Love Dick derives much of its power from Kraus’s ability to shamelessly inhabit the role of the desperate, unrequited lover — one of the most pathetic and two-dimensional a woman can occupy — and steadily reclaim it through nuance, persistence, and a refusal to qualify or apologize for her passion. Many of Kraus’s critics, though, simply stopped at “pathetic,” and I Love Dick the TV show would be working from a similarly tough starting position. As a culture, we’re certainly more sympathetic to openly feminist art than we were in the identity-politics dark ages of the ’90s; that’s why we’ve spent so much of the 2010s revisiting old wounds through everything from The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story to Hillary Clinton’s firmly cookie-less presidential campaign. But I Love Dick doesn’t fit as easily into this process of reclamation as one might think.

That’s because I Love Dick’s emotional progression is a gradual one, requiring the reader to sit through Chris’s humiliation in order for her to reclaim it. (Again: subjectivity!) As a protagonist, Chris resembles a version of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s irrational, erratic, but ultimately winning Rebecca Bunch. Except Kraus is even less appealing on the surface: middle-aged to Rebecca’s wide-eyed twentysomething, married to Rebecca’s single, ignored by the object of her desire to Rebecca’s strung along. Even Crazy Ex-Girlfriend walks a thin line, and has struggled to find an audience even when it does so successfully. I Love Dick will be an even tougher sell outside the small but vocal circle of writers who’ve championed it in recent years, including Leslie Jamison, Emily Gould (who started a Tumblr called Selfies with I Love Dick), and Myles, who also happens to be Soloway’s girlfriend.

All this adds up to a tremendously unlikely series — or rather, unlikely under any other circumstances but our current moment of Peak TV. After the critical and awards success of Transparent, Amazon clearly wants an ongoing creative relationship with Soloway; in addition to I Love Dick, which she will also produce, the company is also developing an L.A.-set musical comedy (there’s that Crazy Ex connection again!) from a Transparent writer. It’s the same arrangement that’s led to unprecedented projects like Whit Stillman’s still-pending The Cosmopolitans, also at Amazon, or even the delayed return of Curb Your Enthusiasm: creators’ skyrocketing leverage meeting the space and money to accommodate it. Whether I Love Dick represents the best or worst of this remains to be seen — but it’s definitely the most out-there example of How We TV Now.