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How to Adapt the Impossible

‘I Love Dick’ started as a theory-heavy, semifictional novel. Now, improbably, it’s a television show starring Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon. Cocreators Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins explain how they pulled off an adaptation no one thought was possible.

(Amazon/Ringer illustration)
(Amazon/Ringer illustration)

“I just felt like the novel hit me so hard that I had to try.”

When it came to the daunting task of adapting I Love Dick for television, cocreator Sarah Gubbins was almost nonchalant: Of course she’d take an experimental work of memoir-essay-fiction and try to channel it into a TV show. “It seems an impossible thing,” she admitted when we first spoke, back in August 2016. But I Love Dick, she reasoned, just follows a more intricate version of the usual pipeline from idea to finished product — a path the novice TV writer has frequently traveled as a playwright: “You can’t even begin to understand how you’re going to decipher that [emotional] response that you carry around into a coherent narrative structure,” she told me before the first episode was posted to Amazon as part of the streaming service’s pilot season. “So that never really stopped me from thinking about how to do something that’s seemingly impossible, because my attraction to the material was so great.”

In September 2016, I Love Dick was officially ordered to series. Seven months after that, Gubbins and I are speaking once more — except this time, we’re in a hotel room at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills; Gubbins’s cocreator, Jill Soloway, is with us; and we’re talking not about a 29-minute trial balloon, but a full-blown, eight-episode season of television called I Love Dick, which will premiere all at once on Friday.

They can’t believe this is real, either.

“I just think about that one little tiny decision for her,” Soloway says. She’s talking about Chris Kraus, the author who turned an unrequited, potentially humiliating infatuation into a published manifesto on sexuality, art history, and her own maturation as a creative force. “Now here we are, and there’s a poster that says I Love Dick on it, and there’s a show that’s going to come out, and all of these women in 250 countries are going to see this show from that one act of bravery.” A ’90s feminist cult novel that members of its own cast hadn’t heard of is now a globally distributed entertainment product from a company that also supplies bulk packages of dish soap. It’s a strange world Peak TV has wrought.

Soloway is known to most as the creator of Transparent, the Emmy-winning breakthrough series that paved the way for getting I Love Dick made. The Pfefferman family saga certainly has its out-there moments: a laughing-gas hallucination brings a gender theory textbook to life; a character discovers a penchant for BDSM at a women-only music festival. But where Transparent is ultimately a straightforward family drama, I Love Dick is much less grounded in a recognizable narrative — and much more forward about its ideological ambitions. It has to be, given its roots in a book that includes lengthy passages on the work of performance artist Hannah Wilke and Guatemalan genocide. Transparent proved Soloway’s ability to communicate knotty and potentially preachy ideas in astonishingly organic fashion. Adapting I Love Dick put that skill to a much steeper test — which makes it all the more remarkable that the final product succeeds. Where Transparent unpacks the marvelous, mystifying fluidity of gender and sexuality, I Love Dick tackles the fraught, powerful force that is female desire. Together, they indicate that Soloway is gaining ground in her full-frontal assault on the entertainment industry.

Before you ask: Yes, Dick (Kevin Bacon) is an actual person, and no, the title is not quite as literal as it sounds — just a double entendre that makes for some awkward eye contact with strangers should you bring the book on the subway. In the book, Dick is a cultural theorist (based on Dick Hebdige) who catches the eye of Chris (based on Chris Kraus, and played by Kathryn Hahn) when she meets him at dinner with her husband, Sylvere (based on Kraus’s then-husband, the academic Sylvère Lotringer, and played by Griffin Dunne). Chris writes Dick a series of letters expressing her attraction, then reflecting on her attraction, then reflecting on the long chain of female artists of which she finally considers herself a part. The letters make up the text of the novel; Sylvere coauthors a handful of them until he and Chris separate about halfway through. Dick is essentially a receptacle for the feelings he inspires in Chris. He isn’t important — Chris’s reaction to him is. Neither he nor Sylvere could honestly be called characters. In fact, their non-personhood is part of the book’s project: This is Chris’s story, told in Chris’s voice, set in Chris’s world.

If the whole purpose of the book is to immerse you in one woman’s perspective — if the whole point of it is that nothing matters outside her experience and what it means to her — how do you translate that to a medium built on three-dimensional people interacting with each other? “I don’t know how Sarah wrapped her head around that,” marvels Dunne. “What divine inspiration hit her, what vision came across that made her say, ‘I know how to do this.’”

(Amazon Studios)
(Amazon Studios)

For such an imposing task, the origin story of I Love Dick’s adaptation is surprisingly straightforward. Gubbins first came across I Love Dick through Leslie Jamison’s 2015 New Yorker appreciation of Kraus and her work. At the time, Gubbins was collaborating with Soloway on Ten Aker Wood, the upcoming Amazon feature about a woman who leaves her marriage to work on a Northern California pot farm; the two had been set up by their shared agent. “I gave [the book] to [Soloway] because I feel like it was something that our main character would be thinking of and loving,” Gubbins recounts, “and we just started talking about making it into a television show.” TV as opposed to film was an intentional choice. “I thought for a bit about whether it would fit more comfortably adapted into a feature film, but I think it was because of the honesty of the characters that I could see them in a television show,” says Gubbins. “Having Chris Kraus really come into this complete ownership of her voice and her desire — that’s a big enough subject for television, it seemed to me. That kind of journey is something I wanted to watch.”

While Kraus’s novel provides a solid thematic foundation, it offers little in the way of narrative guidance. To that end, Soloway and Gubbins assembled an all-female writers’ room, many of them — including Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker — playwrights like Gubbins. “It wasn’t an intention for us to say, ‘We must get playwrights,’” Gubbins explains. “But I think all of the writers in the room brought a sensibility that was very character-driven, that was very attracted to complex psychology.” They also recruited directors like Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Peirce and American Honey’s Andrea Arnold (who directed fully half the season). “I will say this of Jill’s work,” Gubbins says of what they looked for in potential contributors. “She knows how to take a moment between human beings that is uncomfortable, awkward, maybe even despicably honest, and you think you’re as far as you can get with that, and she will push it further. I felt like the [collaborators] we were working with also had that same sensibility, and would work well on this show.”

I Love Dick makes countless changes to its source material: The action now takes place in Marfa, Texas, the desert town turned into an unlikely arts mecca by renowned minimalist Donald Judd. Dick is no longer a theorist, but an artist modeled after Judd. (His last name is now Jarrett, giving the two men the same initials. They also share an alma mater and a vocal passion for straight lines.) The first and most significant change, though, is turning Sylvere and Dick into actual people — while maintaining the primacy of Chris’s point of view.

Dunne’s Sylvere, in this telling, has come to Dick’s artistic/academic institute, an analog for Judd’s own Chinati Foundation, to further his work on “trauma and the implications of multidirectional memory in contemporary acts of violence.” (I Love Dick takes Transparent’s already fine-tuned ear for self-important jargon and elevates it to high art.) Chris tags along, earning her the unfortunate moniker of “Holocaust wife.” Of the two men, Sylvere proves the more natural addition to a Chris-centric show. By observing his and Chris’s relationship, we come to understand Chris and the state her life was in before Dick came crashing through it.

The real Chris and Sylvere’s relationship is “something beyond a marriage, beyond a friendship,” Gubbins says. “They really walk through the world in this way of being parts of each other. And that connection was something we definitely wanted to bring into our Chris and Sylvere’s relationship, because if you’re going to understand how this couple can include this fascination and desire for another man, you really have to make sure the marriage is something that’s explored and understood.” When Chris writes her first letters and reads them aloud to her husband in the pilot, they’re not a betrayal — in fact, they end a months-long dry spell for the couple. Sylvere’s response of arousal and encouragement, not envy, fits into their decades-long history of supporting each other’s creative endeavors and priding themselves on living outside the norm.

(Amazon Studios)
(Amazon Studios)

Dunne is matter-of-fact about the complicated dynamic between his character and Hahn’s. “I just had to react to my wife, who [my character] knew to be a volatile, highly neurotic, frustrated artist to begin with, so [the letters] wouldn’t be that surprising to me. Having it be an art project and a fantasy and something we could contain within our bedroom” made emotional sense to him. Hahn agrees: “That relationship is her everything,” she says of Chris. “It’s not like she’s been abandoned in her marriage and she’s flailing. They have a very codependent, enabling marriage, for sure. They think they’re much hipper than they are, and they think they’re open to polyamory and they’re all with it and they’re going to redefine marriage and all this crap.”

Dick was a tougher nut to crack. Like much of Soloway’s work, I Love Dick is dedicated to the concept of the “female gaze,” a reversal of the phrase coined by British film theorist Laura Mulvey to describe the presentation of the female form from an implicitly male perspective. (The press materials for I Love Dick come with a dictionary definition of “female gaze” on their cover, as if playfully owning potential charges of didacticism by engaging in some light self-parody.) As the object of Chris’s attentions, Dick is an all-important test case for the show’s ability to translate the book’s philosophy intact while introducing detail and empathy that threaten to subvert it — to make him, somehow and simultaneously, a person as well as a projection.

When I spoke to her last summer, Gubbins guided me through her thought process: “We have this opportunity to either wipe him out, which seems insensitive and uninteresting, or to make him a compelling human being who can participate in a new way in this female gaze.” She conceived of the show as an opportunity to drive the book’s themes home from a slightly different angle: By showing Dick both as Chris sees him and how the rest of the world sees him, the show can emphasize what Chris has both elevated and flattened him into. “Men have been doing that with women for centuries,” Sylvere points out to Dick when the two men finally sit down to hash out their bizarre love triangle. “Using them as a source of their creativity. What’s the matter? You don’t like being a muse?”

In addition to being a sex object, Dick is also what another character calls “everything anyone has ever wanted from a late-20th-century alpha-male artist and scholar.” He wears a cowboy hat. He day-drinks. He’s a strong, silent type who works very hard to ensure that “strong, silent type” is the image he projects to the world. And his work — he makes monumental, angular sculptures strongly reminiscent of Judd’s — is undeniably, almost confrontationally masculine, making him the perfect foil for Chris’s chaotic, sensual style of expression.

That distinctly male strain of creativity is latent in Kraus’s work, but making it explicit is one of Gubbins and Soloway’s strongest additions to I Love Dick. The contrast adds another dimension to Chris and Dick’s clash of wills. They don’t simply occupy different power positions within their relationship; they hold completely opposite, deeply gendered views on art, and therefore life. Marfa, with its collision of art-world scenester vibes and blue-collar Wild West environment, proves a uniquely conducive setting for such a conflict and the more lighthearted parody that springs up around it. Soloway recounted a work she saw on a tour of the Chinati Foundation with a telling mix of humor and straight-faced analysis: “It looked kind of like a giant piece of shit made of iron. And I just started thinking about all of the people who had to do things so that that thing could be made. The people who had to work so that one great man could say, This. These cement boxes, this sculpture, this land.” Gubbins adds: “There was an impetus that Donald Judd had to make his work permanent. I remember feeling, that’s a great idea. And I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never had that feeling. I’ve never thought I could have that feeling.’ That made me really angry. It made me put my running shoes on and think, ‘We’ve gotta get to work.’”

Which brings us to Chris, whom the show develops into both a stark individual and a self-appointed surrogate for frustrated female artists through the ages. To Dick, the live-action version of Chris is a struggling female filmmaker who piously aligns herself with a legacy of repression. Her stalled career provides crucial context for her obsession with Dick: Chris winds up in Marfa when a film of hers gets pulled from the Venice Film Festival over a music licensing issue, and most episodes open with an abstract clip (a woman lies in bed with a black-and-white picture of a man; another woman vigorously makes out with a leaking milk bottle) implied to be excerpts from Chris’s own work. The very first extended conversation Chris and Dick ever have is an absurdly reductive argument over whether female filmmakers can be any good. Dick, true to his name, is firmly nay. Chris is reduced to a stammering grandstand: “If all it took was desire, Dick, there would be a trove of amazing films by women!” She’s right, but she’s also the clear loser of the exchange.

One of the most striking aspects of the original I Love Dick is how Chris’s self-documentation prompts her to confront her shortcomings head-on, even as she begins to move past them. The series communicates this process via frequent voice-over, often accompanied by a helpful visual aid of white block text against a blood-red background. Though they risk developing into a crutch, voice-over and text alike are used sharply enough to shock the viewer to attention whenever they reappear. “I want to own everything that happens to me now,” Hahn intones in one episode. “My obsession with you has made it easier to accept my failures: My failure as a filmmaker and the failure of my marriage.” The device is the show’s only (and only possible, given that the book takes place entirely in Chris’s brain) example of literal adaptation — taking Kraus’s voice and transplanting it directly into Gubbins and Soloway’s interpretation.

(Amazon Studios)
(Amazon Studios)

That admission of failure and assumption of responsibility make Chris something rare in a TV-and-film landscape awash in autobiographical accounts of fledgling creatives: the bad artist. For Chris to improve, she and her show must (and do) acknowledge that there’s room for improvement. “I certainly don’t think it’s just the patriarchy that’s keeping her from her own [best work],” Hahn says of Chris’s artistic development. “She was just stuck in this cycle, having these ambitious, huge ideas, and then not having the resources financially or just creatively to actually get them out. That tube between her unconscious and conscious hadn’t been formed yet.” It takes Dick, equal parts goal to strive for and foil to define herself against, to help form it.

From that newly forged connection come Chris’s letters, and a purity of artistic expression she hadn’t previously been able to achieve. Taken as a whole, they completely reverse the power dynamic between Chris and the famous, acclaimed object of her desire. She doesn’t merely send the letters to Dick, thereby enraging Sylvere; she posts them all over town for everyone to read. Where he was once dismissive of Chris (“I don’t find you interesting — not now, not ever”), Dick is downright chastened once she makes her feelings common knowledge: “She stole my name,” he thunders to Sylvere. Then, quietly: “It’s kind of humiliating.” Two wrongs don’t make a right, and Chris’s inversion of a storied form of artistic exploitation doesn’t make it ethical. But Hahn’s charisma allows her to sell Chris’s callous, reckless, oblivious neurosis anyway. That balance is crucial to the character, with Hahn’s charm replacing Kraus’s voice as the X factor that draws an outside observer into an otherwise cringeworthy story. “You gotta just love Kathryn Hahn as just the funniest, most awkward, sexy clown in town,” Soloway laughs. Hahn’s Chris is a hyperverbal tornado ripping through Marfa without heed for who she offends or how she looks. The show grounds Chris’s journey in physical as well as literary acts of transgression: Chris dancing with abandon in a honky-tonk bar; Chris devouring 16 tacos in one sitting.

Chris’s disregard for anything resembling politesse calls attention to a major point of distinction between I Love Dick the book and I Love Dick the show. Onscreen, we witness something a first-person novel couldn’t show us (and in fact was designed not to): Chris not just as she presents herself in writing, but as other people see her. We watch the shock and curiosity register on other people’s faces; we see just how far outside the norm Chris’s behavior is in the real world, beyond the confines of her nontraditional marriage. And we see the real, liberatory effect Chris’s highly public lack of inhibition has on those around her.

“Everybody gets kind of turned on by each other,” Soloway says. “It’s a little bit of a metaphor for [how] each time one woman gets awakened or gets that revolutionary feeling, it affects the people around her.” Those people include Paula (Lily Mojekwu, a curator stifled by Dick’s tyrannical vision), Toby (India Menuez, an ambitious millennial artist coming for Dick’s throne), and Devon (Roberta Colindrez, a queer Marfa townie employed by Dick’s institute). Together, they push I Love Dick beyond the worldview of a middle-class white woman: “We wanted as many voices and as many bodies and as many representations of class, sexuality, gender as possible,” Gubbins says. At one point, Devon calls out Toby for a self-indulgent stunt on a construction site: “[You’re] inflicting your privilege on these working-class, mostly brown dudes so you or someone like you can see what happens. You realize this is their livelihood?” (Soloway says she fought for that exchange in the writers’ room: “People were saying, like, ‘It’s pedantic!’ And I was like, ‘That’s why we should do it!’”) The cultivation of a broad supporting cast also constitutes I Love Dick’s strongest link with Transparent: Just as Maura’s coming out unleashes a tidal wave within her family, Chris’s shift resonates throughout her adopted community. In the show’s strongest standalone episode, each of the women writes her own letter to Dick, relating their own personal and sexual histories through the lens of the powerful, omnipresent male artist. As with Chris, their accounts slowly develop into a show of defiance, pushing back against Dick and the forces he represents.

Dick, Marfa and its residents, the Chris that exists outside of her letters: All of these were savvy additions to I Love Dick, building an intellectual tract into a recognizable, well-populated world. They were also likely necessary to make a sustained adaptation possible. (Soloway and Gubbins anticipate multiple seasons, with the finale of the first leaving the door very much open to more instead of offering a definitive resolution to the love triangle.) That I Love Dick merely exists is remarkable enough. The question, now that it does, is whether it works.

Throughout the eight episodes, I kept asking myself whether newcomers to the show who hadn’t read the novel — likely the vast majority of its audience — would come by its themes in a way that felt natural as opposed to force-fed. It’s likely they will, whether through Hahn’s voice-over or Soloway’s vision of what the female gaze means (ample Kevin Bacon crotch shots). The show has adjusted the book’s form — sometimes drastically — but refuses to tone down the radicalism of its ideas. That I Love Dick got made demonstrates TV isn’t entirely hostile to a lengthy consideration of our double standards of sex, love, and the lengths we go to express them. But it’s not yet friendly to those ideas, either. This is a successful adaptation not because Soloway and Gubbins made I Love Dick work for television, but because they somehow made television work for I Love Dick.

I Love Dick is ultimately more a faithful vehicle for the book’s ideas than a capitulation to the standards of a historically mass-market medium. This is an odd, potentially alienating, totally unprecedented show, starting with a woman falling for a man she barely knows and ending with a sex scene unlike any other I’ve seen. I Love Dick had the luxury of prioritizing fidelity over accessibility — though the humor, novelty, and just-plain-sexiness of it make the show more accessible than one might assume. “I think that the entry point is a great show about sex from a woman’s point of view,” Soloway says confidently when I ask her about finding an audience. “These are very commercial notions to me. Then, once people get in, we want to use the artsiness, the feminism, the theorist stuff — I see it more as frosting. I see it more as a world you can go into that creates this sort of special, delicious frosting. It’s really about people. It’s about love, it’s about sex, it’s about becoming.”

It’s also about expanding the idea of what can make for a good TV show. “I can’t believe that Amazon gave us the opportunity to do it,” Gubbins reflected back in August. “You bring down this feminist rallying cry from the late ’90s, and you say, ‘I want to make a television show out of this.’ The fact that they were like, OK, great, go have at it, Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins, is absolutely astonishing.” Nine months later, the final product is too.