“Kindred” was an amazing novel, but it’s still an FX show

This story contains spoilers for FX’s “Kindred,” which premiered Tuesday on Hulu.

Octavia Butler’s fascinating time travel novel “Kindred” quickly immerses readers in the world of its protagonist. Dana is an aspiring writer in Los Angeles who has just moved to a new place with her husband, Kevin. The 1979 novel opens with Dana in the hospital; he had lost his left arm on his “last trip home”.

These journeys begin by feeling dizzy and nauseous and then transport Dana, and everything she touches, through time and space. Each time, he ends up in antebellum Maryland to save the life of Rufus, the son of plantation owner Tom Weylin and his wife, Margaret. Dana recalls her first time travel incident, on her 26th birthday, when Rufus was drowning and jumped into a river to save him. Eventually, he discovers that Rufus is his ancestor, and he must keep him alive until he fathers his descendant.

The novel leaps off the page as a harrowing and imaginative exploration of ancestry, race, gender, and power all coming together in a story about genetics, inheritance, and controlling the future. For years, Butler fans have longed for a screen adaptation of the brilliant author’s work. But the new TV series “Kindred,” which tries to modernize parts of the story, falls short.

Stock as Kevin and Johnson as Dana in the time travel series "apparent"
Stock as Kevin and Johnson as Dana in the time travel series “Kindred”.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the Obie Award-winning playwright of “An Octoroon,” directed the project.

“It was my Moby Dick. I was just chasing it and chasing it, and people told me I couldn’t do it,” said Jacobs-Jenkins, who insisted that “Kindred” should be a TV series instead of a movie. “Every meeting I had, people would ask me what I wanted to do, and I’d say, ‘I want to make Kindred’ a TV show.”

Courtney Lee-Mitchell had secured the rights to “Kindred” in 2008, Deadline reported. He sold the pitch to FX in 2016, and in 2020 got the go-ahead to shoot the pilot. During this time, Butler’s work catapulted to the forefront of American literature: she became a New York Times bestselling author in 2020, more than a decade after her death in 2006 .

There is immense power in Butler’s storytelling; she effortlessly gets readers to follow Dana to 1815 Maryland, sometimes with her white husband. She describes the book, at just 264 pages, as a “dark fantasy”. It is as captivating as it is harrowing. “The author makes no effort to rationalize it,” said Robert Crossley, professor emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, in the reader’s guide in the final pages of my 25th anniversary copy of the novel

Unfortunately, the “Kindred” TV series tries very hard to make sense of what happens to Dana, in a way that does the source material a disservice. Jacobs-Jenkins’ adaptation sets the series in 2016, modernizing the story for today’s audiences, and stars Mallori Johnson as Dana, an aspiring TV writer who spends her nights watching “Dynasty” to draw the soap opera· as training for your career aspirations. He meets Kevin (Micah Stock), a waiter at a fine restaurant, on a night out with his Aunt Denise (Eisa Davis) and Uncle Alan (Charles Parnell). In this account, Dana and Kevin are in the early stages of dating, instead of getting married, changing the stakes of their journey. His aunt and uncle have a huge impact on his journey of adaptation; were not mentioned in the book.

“I really wanted to bring us closer to Dana’s experience. I wanted to make us feel the strangeness of what she was going through, to feel that period when she doesn’t trust her own mind, to feel that period when she makes a choice and why it makes a choice,” Jacobs-Jenkins said. He adds that he wanted to “build a compelling real-time interracial love story that explores the complexities of that choice.”

“The first season was really about getting the characters used to what was going on, so the viewers could get used to what was going on,” he said.

In episode five of "similar," Austin Smith appears as Luke and Lindsey Blackwell as Carrie.
In episode five of “Kindred,” Austin Smith appears as Luke and Lindsey Blackwell as Carrie.

Jacobs-Jenkins expands on Butler’s story with varying degrees of success. The acting is stellar, with Johnson in his first leading role. Its opening scene, when Dana lay motionless on the ground, was captivating in the same way as the novel’s opener. The supporting cast also deliver convincing turns: Sophina Brown as Aunt Sarah, whose children were sold off the plantation for fancy furniture and dishes; Austin Smith as Luke, an enslaved man who grew up with Tom Weylin (Ryan Kwanten); and Sheria Irving as Olivia, a free mediciner who lives next door to Weylin’s plantation.

“In theatre, we are all about the actor. The actors are the vessel, so you just have to give them the things they want to play and do and be and support them,” Jacobs-Jenkins said. “I’m so proud of all the work these artists have done and I think there’s a lot of desire to do it again.”

But where “Kindred” fails is in its investment in an unnecessary cast of characters, mostly rooted in the present. Dana had just sold her grandmother’s brownstone in Brooklyn, on a whim, her aunt assumed. Denise questions her niece’s stability and assumes that Dana has taken on her mother’s mental health issues. Meanwhile, their white neighbors are seen as caricatures, relentlessly questioning their well-being in a blatant attempt to add more tension to the already fraught narrative. “Kindred” spends too much time on these expendable supporting characters, when the black actors on the plantation have richer stories and better performances.

Jacobs-Jenkins spent a lot of time at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where Butler’s notebooks and research reside in the archives. He said he pulled from those notebooks to expand the “Kindred” universe. Dana’s mother, who is only mentioned once in the novel, plays a much bigger role in the series, which I won’t spoil here for readers who are eager to check out the show.

The tone of the series alternates between absurd romantic comedy, dark thriller and intense historical drama, which is sometimes frustrating. Watching Dana and Kevin fall in love while he cosplays as their master on a plantation in the 19th century is pretty off-putting, to say the least. There are moments when Kevin and Dana’s dialogue seems ridiculous given their circumstances: when Kevin says, “It’s like a retreat” at the beginning, you might wince. When Dana tells Kevin to “Pretend it’s a game,” you might be thinking, “Are you kidding me?” To be fair, these moments mimic Butler’s own positioning of the characters early in their journey.

“I began to realize why Kevin and I had gotten along so easily during this time,” Butler writes in her novel. “We weren’t really there. We were observers of a show. We were watching history happen around us.”

In episode eight, Sophina Brown is seen as Sarah.
In episode eight, Sophina Brown is seen as Sarah.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ expansion of Butler’s world is ultimately what makes the series a pain to overcome and somehow not deep enough. Perhaps the adaptation would have been better served with a 10-part limited series, with far less plot set in the present day and a more complete narrative and character development of the enslaved blacks on the plantation.

The first season, eight episodes of varying length, is only halfway through the novel, a huge gamble given Hollywood’s penchant for canceling series too often and too soon. Unfortunately, audiences are not guaranteed to see some of the most fascinating and heartbreaking parts of Butler’s novel.

Where “Kindred” the novel succeeds is how the author takes her readers on a journey through time with full confidence that they are along for the ride. It’s a shame that the screen adaptation doesn’t trust its audience to do the same and literally leaves them hanging at the end of the season.

Dana has many more important decisions to make that would affect her family line in the future. Fortunately, Butler’s novel takes readers back in time with Dana, perhaps in less time than it will take you to watch this adaptation.

“Kindred” streams on Hulu.

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