clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Kindred’ Ushers in the Octavia Butler Renaissance

The new FX series, the first of several planned adaptations of the author’s work, aims to introduce her ideas to a new generation of fans—and prove their enduring relevance

FX Networks/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The science fiction writer Octavia Butler was a pioneer in her time. Butler was the first Black woman to win a Hugo or a Nebula, two of her field’s highest honors. She was the first science fiction author of any gender or race to win a so-called genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. And when critic Mark Dery coined the term “Afrofuturism” in 1994, Butler was one of the first examples he cited of Black artists transposing their own history and aesthetic onto an imagined future.

But after her death in 2006—from a fall outside her home near Seattle, at just 58—Butler’s massive influence fell out of step with her latter-day footprint. The past few years have seen a boom in adaptations of genre fiction once deemed “unfilmable” for its dense lore and epic scope: Frank Herbert’s Dune, itself a favorite of Butler’s; Isaac Asimov’s Foundation; Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, soon to be a series on Netflix from the creators of Game of Thrones. Yet, until recently, Butler’s body of work had been left untouched by this rising tide. To the trained eye, traces of her work are everywhere, from the films of Jordan Peele to the career of author N. K. Jemisin. Butler herself, however, remained just out of the limelight.

That began to change last year, when Butler notched yet another first: She is now the sole Black science fiction writer to be collected and republished by the Library of America. (The first volume is available now, with three more forthcoming.) And starting this week, her stories will make the long-overdue transition from the page to the screen. The former milestone cements Butler as part of a shared cultural canon. The latter aims to introduce her ideas to a new generation of fans—and prove their enduring relevance.

Kindred, the namesake and source text of a new FX drama now streaming on Hulu, is a logical entry point to Butler’s oeuvre for readers and Hollywood alike. Published in 1979, Kindred was Butler’s first novel to stand on its own, outside a series. (Butler’s first three books were part of her Patternist saga, which would conclude with Clay’s Ark in 1984.) It’s also the most grounded of her works and, perhaps as a result, the first to achieve true crossover success outside the realm of genre writing. Kindred uses time travel as its central plot device but otherwise remains realist. Unlike some other seminal Butler stories, Kindred has no immortal telepaths who practice eugenics or centipede-like aliens that use human bodies to hatch their eggs. Instead, Kindred draws on a terror more true to life: the atrocities of American slavery.

Kindred centers on Dana (Mallori Johnson), a writer in Los Angeles who finds herself transported to a Maryland plantation in 1815. Over a few traumatic visits, Dana starts to understand what’s drawn her back in time: Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan), a young boy whose parents, Thomas (Ryan Kwanten) and Margaret (Gayle Rankin), own the plantation. Whenever Dana is yanked back in time, she finds Rufus in mortal danger, reeling from an accident or suffering from illness. Slowly, she begins to grasp what ties her and Rufus together. Like many Black Americans, Dana is descended from both slavers and the enslaved. When he grows up, Rufus will enforce a system that brutalizes and controls people like Dana. He will also become her ancestor.

This truth puts Dana in an awful, awkward position, one that’s the crux of Kindred’s concept. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who developed the novel for television, keeps this core dilemma, which forces Dana to identify with those responsible for real suffering. (Jenkins takes after Butler in more ways than one: He’s a fellow MacArthur honoree.) In turning Kindred into a series, Jenkins also makes some major adjustments. He gives Dana a missing mother, Olivia (Sheria Irving), whose disappearance decades prior seems linked to Dana’s current plight. And the character Kevin (Micah Stock) is no longer Dana’s husband, as he is in the novel. He’s just a waiter she meets on one of her first nights in L.A., a chance encounter that leads to some light flirtation. But it’s hard to keep things casual when your new love interest keeps teleporting into the past—and then takes you with them, without your full consent.

Dana, it turns out, is not easy to embrace as a heroine. She’s impulsive, buying a house in L.A. sight unseen without telling her aunt, who lives in the area. (Dana financed the move by selling a Brooklyn brownstone she inherited from her late grandmother, also without her aunt’s knowledge.) She’s also callous—toward Kevin, whose understandable concern about ending up stranded she tends to dismiss, but also toward those for whom slavery is more than a flashback. With advantages like hindsight and literacy, Dana knows she has some obligation to people like Winnie (Amethyst Davis), the Weylins’ cook, or Luke (Austin Smith), a field hand. But when she does take action, it’s often careless, causing more problems than it solves.

Such ambiguity is in keeping with Butler’s thorny narrative, which challenges the idea that the interests of marginalized groups, or even families, are always aligned. But Kindred often puts such themes on the back burner, focusing instead on minute-to-minute matters of survival. How can Kevin and Dana explain their sudden appearance to the Weylins without attracting their suspicion? What can Kevin do to protect Dana while posing as her master in the antebellum South? Why is this happening to Dana, and what are the rules? (Whatever she’s touching comes with her, for example, which is how she takes Kevin along for the ride.) Zola director Janicza Bravo helms the pilot, imbuing the show with horror and suspense.

Putting plot first makes Kindred a closer fit for TV. So does slowing down the story, the better to set Kindred up for a potential Season 2. But these changes also have the effect of putting off the ethical quandaries that make the book so unsettling, and they make Kindred more of a generic alternate history. (A contemporary subplot about Dana’s nosy white neighbors using a Nextdoor clone to harass her feels cookie cutter in a different way.) Johnson and Stock can be stiff, centering their characters’ immediate distress over their deeper nuances. But their performances are also in keeping with a long tradition of sci-fi protagonists—including many of Butler’s own—who feel more like avatars than individuals.

As the first Butler adaptation of its scale and prestige, Kindred faces pressure that makes such early growing pains easy to judge. The good news is that it won’t stand alone for long. Last year, A24 bought the rights to Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a postapocalypse story marked by creeping fascism and ecological collapse. (In the sequel, published in 1998, a presidential candidate vows to “make America great again.”) HBO has commissioned a pilot script based on vampire novel Fledgling, executive-produced by J.J. Abrams and Issa Rae. In 2019, Amazon announced it would develop Wild Seed, the first novel in the Patternist series.

But first, there’s Kindred, the vanguard of what seems to be a long-awaited wave. Kindred reemerges into a cultural landscape its first incarnation helped shape; works like Slave Play, a lightning rod of a production that catapulted Jeremy O. Harris to stardom, would be impossible to imagine without it. The series feels less volatile than the novel, partly as a result of this legacy and partly because of its own decisions. After all, that’s what Kindred is about: the struggle to honor one’s ancestors while carving out space for oneself. As Dana struggles to strike that balance, so does her show.