It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Octavia E. Butler. Throughout her writing career, the science fiction legend gifted us with prophetic dystopias, like in Parable of the Sower; twists on classic vampire tales, like in Fledgling; and compelling new alien forms, like in Dawn.
With these strange and fascinating new worlds, Butler brilliantly examined social hierarchies, family ties, and community-building in the face of hardship. She also centered Black women in a way that wasn’t common in science fiction when she started writing, giving them the space they deserved in the genre and inspiring incredible authors like N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor in the process. Now, Butler’s work has finally received its first on-screen adaptation with FX’s Kindred.
Both iterations of Kindred follow Dana James (played by Mallori Johnson in the series), a young Black writer who is pulled back in time to a slave plantation in Maryland. There, she meets her ancestors and realizes that she must act to preserve her family line. However as is the case with many on-screen adaptations, Kindred, created by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, makes several changes from its source material.
From updating the story to adding new characters, here are five ways FX’s Kindred differs from Butler’s work.
1. The show shifts Kindred‘s story from 1976 to 2016.
Credit: Pari Dukovic/FX
There are two timelines in Kindred: Dana’s time in the past, which spans multiple years in the early 19th century, and Dana’s time in the present. In the novel, published in 1979, that present is 1976, but the TV show moves it up 40 years to 2016. Despite taking place in the past, Butler’s novel retains a timeless relevance when it comes to exploring how our history impacts our present. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jacobs-Jenkins explained how the time shift helps the show reflect the same kind of relevance:
There was something really safe about putting it in the past, because our instinct is to feel superior to the past… I didn’t want [the audience] to feel like they could emotionally escape from what the main character was going through by saying, ‘Oh, that’s 40 years ago. This is about my parents’ generation.’ It’s really about people alive today.
The story of Kindred definitely still works in the context of 2016, proving above all else Butler’s ability to create stories with a lasting impact. However, the time shift does change a few key aspects of Kindred, chiefly among them the relationship between Dana and Kevin (Micah Stock).
2. Dana and Kevin are married in Butler’s novel.
Credit: Tina Rowden/FX
Episode 1 of Kindred sees Dana move to Los Angeles, befriend local white waiter Kevin, and later hook up with him. This iteration of Kevin might come as a huge shock to book readers, because in the novel, he and Dana are already married and living together. Since the book takes place in 1976, just shy of a decade after the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling on Loving v. Virginia struck down laws banning interracial marriage, Dana and Kevin’s marriage is perceived as radical and becomes a source of conflict with their family members. We don’t get that same tension in the show thanks to its more modern setting, nor do we get a sense of Dana and Kevin’s shared history or intimacy.
With that change, we lose some of Kindred‘s more complex material when it comes to Dana and Kevin’s relationship. In both the book and the show, Dana pulls Kevin back in time with her. To survive, the two must pose as master and slave. The series rarely acknowledges the effect this power dynamic has on their relationship, whereas the novel lingers on it. Koritha Mitchell, a Professor of American literature at the Ohio State University, discussed their relationship in 2020 for the Los Angeles Review of Books, where she argued that Kindred proves the impossibility and futility of “racial obliviousness”:
Prior to history’s intrusion, Kevin and Dana happily ignore the nation’s racial past and present, defining success in terms of transcending race, but time travel as Black woman and white man makes racial obliviousness impossible. Butler leaves no ambiguity: when both members of an interracial couple recognize that history cannot be escaped, each wonders whether there is any real difference between the circumstances of their modern relationship and the circumstances that defined those of the past.
Unfortunately, the show does not delve into Dana and Kevin’s thoughts on how the past impacts their present relationship. Much of that simply comes down to the fact that we’ve only seen the start of their relationship — perhaps there is room to go deeper in the future.
3. Dana’s mother Olivia is a completely new character.
Credit: Pari Dukovic/FX
Another huge departure from Butler’s novel is the introduction of her mother Olivia (Sheria Irving). Presumed dead in the present, Olivia has actually been trapped in the past for over a decade. In the novel, she doesn’t figure in at all. However, her inclusion here gives Jacobs-Jenkins and the show an exciting opportunity to look at Butler’s interest in genealogy. That interest is present in all her books, but especially in her Patternist series. The first novel in this series, Wild Seed, introduces an immortal being named Doro who is obsessed with breeding superpowered humans. Butler originally thought of Kindred as being part of this series, with Dana being one of Doro’s descendants.
In an interview with Black Girl Nerds, Jacobs-Jenkins revealed that he wanted to explore that side of Kindred more, which is why Olivia comes into play:
[Butler] becomes obsessed with this idea of genealogy and inheritance — how you as an individual differ from your kin, in terms of personality, values, and morals. I want to walk that choice back for her and think about how [Kindred] was originally conceived of as a story — for lack of a better phrase — something akin to an inherited trauma or epigenetics.
With at least two generations of Dana’s family experiencing this kind of time travel, Kindred treats this ability as a manifestation of inherited trauma related to the family’s enslaved past. As Dana’s aunt Denise (Eisa Davis) reminds Dana in the first episode, “some things can be genetic, Dana. They can be in the blood.” It’s a fascinating adaptation choice, one that I wish we’d gotten more time with. However, with this idea of inherited trauma in mind, the final scene of the season where Dana opens her family Bible to look through her family tree takes on a different meaning. Perhaps this family tree isn’t just a record of ancestry — perhaps it’s also a guide for anybody in the family who may fall into the past.
4. From concerned aunts to nosy neighbors, the show explores how Dana’s disappearances impact the real world.
Credit: Tina Rowden/FX
In Butler’s Kindred, Dana and Kevin are mostly isolated whenever they’re in the present. That couldn’t be farther from what happens in the show. FX’s Kindred introduces Dana’s aunt Denise and uncle Alan (Charles Parnell), who disapprove of her sudden move to L.A. and later grow concerned by Dana’s erratic behavior. These characters don’t just come out of nowhere — Butler briefly mentions that Dana has an aunt and uncle in Kindred who similarly disagree with her career choices.
Another set of new characters, Dana’s neighbors Carlo (Louis Cancelmi) and Hermione (Brooke Bloom), also have roots in Butler’s novel, albeit very shallow ones. The prologue to Kindred opens with a hospitalized Dana who learns that her neighbors called the police when they heard her screaming after returning from the past. While Dana’s in-show discussions with Denise and Alan produce some fruitful moments of family drama, her interactions with the neighbors border on comedy. With Hermione’s constant spying and Carlo’s constant working out, these two read more as satire than as full-fledged characters. Yes, their “concerns” mask racism, but when they’re called out on their behavior, they react like cartoons. It’s enough to make you chuckle — and to undermine the grounded sci-fi drama happening elsewhere in Kindred.
Since Kindred incorporates new characters like Denise and Alan, that also means we get new storylines. The entirety of episode 4, “The Waiter from Two Nights Ago,” is new, from Dana and Kevin’s confrontation with Carlo and Hermione to Dana telling a disbelieving Denise the truth. The ensuing sequence where Dana and Kevin disappear from the hospital is also new, forcing Denise to accept Dana’s story as fact. Incorporating these new scenes sets up present-day antagonists in the neighbors, but also gives present-day Dana more of a support system: She doesn’t have to experience this hardship in a vacuum.
5. Kindred expands on Dana and Kevin’s trips to the past.
Credit: Pari Dukovic/FX
This season of Kindred only covers part of Butler’s novel, so we still have quite a lot of material to get through. However, the season also adds material to the time Dana and Kevin spend in the past. For example, early in the season Dana figures out that her ancestors are on this plantation. She believes that includes Carrie (Lindsey Blackwell), so she hatches a plan to ensure Carrie and her mother Sarah (Sophina Brown) aren’t sold. This means encouraging Winnie (Amethyst Davis) to run away — something that has major consequences for the plantation’s slaves. All of this is entirely new, as in the novel, Dana realizes who her her true ancestors are very early on.
Kindred also puts more focus on Kevin’s time at the plantation, which in turn gives us more time with the plantation owner Tom Weylin (Ryan Kwanten), his wife Margaret (Gayle Rankin), and their son Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan). We learn about the plantation’s financial woes and the troubled relationship between Tom and Margaret. The latter culminates in Margaret fleeing the plantation with Rufus. Again, this is entirely new, but it will surely have consequences for Dana, who has been trying to get him to stay.
What’s next for Kindred?
Credit: Tina Rowden/FX
The finale of Kindred sets up several threads for Season 2, some of which are in the novel and some of which are brand new. Dana has her realization that Alice is her ancestor instead of Carrie, while Kevin remains trapped in the 19th century. Will Dana make it back to influence Alice’s future relationships? And will Kevin acclimate to life in the past while Dana is gone?
In two major deviations from the novel, we now also have to worry about Rufus and Margaret’s escape to Baltimore and Olivia’s re-appearance in New York in the present. This final twist may give us a better opportunity to explore the relationship between Olivia and Dana, as well as see how Olivia re-adapts to modern life.
Credit: Pari Dukovic/FX
Kindred makes several fascinating adaptation choices. Some pay off, like Olivia’s presence and its connection to shared trauma. Others, such as the nosy neighbors or the change in Dana and Kevin’s relationship, fail to enhance the source material in a meaningful way. Those latter changes detract from some of Kindred‘s greatest potential. For example, the expanded Kevin plantation storyline doesn’t leave much room for the complicated relationship Dana and Rufus have in the novel, or for further development of the slaves Dana meets, like Sarah and Luke (Austin Smith).
These many changes could be building to something excellent in later seasons. I would gladly welcome that, especially since Kindred deserves to be told in full. For now, even though it is a joy to see Butler’s work get its on-screen due, Kindred remains a somewhat shaky adaptation of her best-known novel.
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