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‘Kindred…’ but not Really: The Dissection of the Adaptation

"Kindred" screen cap of Dana (Mallori Johnson)
"Kindred" screen cap of Dana (Mallori Johnson) By Courtesy of Tina Rowden/FX
By Makayla I. Gathers, Crimson Staff Writer

This review contains major spoilers.

Octavia E. Butler has an extraordinary catalog full of critically acclaimed novels that rightfully led her to be regarded as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century and one of the first African American women to be accepted into the genre of science fiction. Butler dedicated her work to exploring and dissecting Black narratives, making her work timeless and popular amongst several generations. This can be seen in several of her books including “Kindred”, which was published in 1979 and inspired a Hulu series of the same name that released last December.

The novel consisted of an intriguing and educational story about Dana, a Black woman living in 1976 Los Angeles who unexpectedly time travels to 19th century Maryland, where she meets her ancestors, including a young white boy, Rufus, who is the son of a slave master and whose life she is expected to save. The story reveals both the nature of slavery and racism in the 19th century as well as how this legacy continues to affect African Americans today.

The TV series “Kindred,” which premiered on Dec. 13th of last year, was created by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins — known for his plays “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon” — and aimed to modernize her novel. His changes raise questions around the depiction of slave narratives, the right way to adapt Black classics, and the inclusion of Black trauma and stereotypes in media.

The first big jump that Jacobs-Jenkins took in this series was the literal time jump to 2016. Since Butler’s story is set in 1976 and she herself passed away in 2006, it is apparent that her words and experiences are decades removed from the time period in this adaptation. This changes everything, as the resources and technology the characters have to survive are different, creating scenes like Dana listening to music with an iPhone and earbuds despite being in antebellum slave times.

Jacobs-Jenkins believed this time jump would help pay homage to the last 40 years since Octavia E. Butler’s book was published, saying “a contemporary Black woman isn't a Black woman from 20 years ago, or a Black woman from 40 years ago. If you put them all next to each other, what are the commonalities and where are the divergences?"

Another change he made that was key to the plot of Butler’s novel was the relationship between Dana and her white partner Kevin who eventually gets brought to the 19th century with her. In Butler’s book, Kevin was Dana’s husband of a few years, and they lived together as writers in Los Angeles. This deep relationship and Kevin's whiteness allow him to attempt to help her when he is also taken back to antebellum America, like when he attempted to write her free papers. In the show, Kevin is instead a recovering alcoholic who meets Dana, as her restaurant server, for the first time in the season premiere.

Butler’s novel used this relationship to emphasize race relations in the 1970s (which is why the date change alters the theme), revealing controversy around interracial marriage, whereas Jacob-Jenkins’s modern take lacks Butler’s depth and nuance. Yet in doing so he also removed the ability for a Black woman protagonist to be in a healthy relationship with an equal. Kevin in the television series differs extremely from the character in the book as he is utterly useless, looking to Dana and the other enslaved people for everything, to the point where a young Black girl protects him with a gun. Dana is depicted as the “controlling and aggressive angry black woman” stereotype, as Jacobs-Jenkins makes her lose her cool and yell at Kevin, while she also struggles to navigate a new territory without any love, care, or meaningful support.

Jacobs-Jenkins robs Dana’s character of dignity also, as she basically takes in and emotionally depends on a grown man she doesn’t know and who depends on her for everything when they transition. Both Dana and Kevin in Butler’s books are intellectuals who compliment each other as they endure the unthinkable, while in the adaptation they not only have very little chemistry or history, but seemingly very little alliance to each other.

At one point Dana forces Kevin back to the past with her by holding him hostage as he begs her to let him go. This unnecessary conflict is distasteful as Dana, who Butler writes as a victim to her situation, is now an accomplice and characterized with arguably more malice than some of the actual antagonists.

Kevin also shows he has little care for Dana as he makes friends with the slave masters and other people who are causing deliberate harm. Butler’s depiction of a strong and supportive interracial relationship was symbolic of the lasting effects of slavery and one of the many ways ideologies of the past impact the present. These choices were inappropriate to the tone and material of the show, and produced an arguably an offensive depiction of how a white partner should understand their Black partner’s pain.

This relationship wasn’t the only one that suffered in this adaptation, as Jacob-Jenkins added characters and storylines that complicated the plot and distorted Butler’s vision. Unlike in the novel where Dana's parents passed away, and the few relatives she and Kevin have do not support their relationship, Jacobs-Jenkins creates an entirely new storyline where Dana’s mom didn’t pass away but was actually also forced to travel to the 1800s.

This plot not only overcomplicates things as he spends too much time on Dana’s mom’s backstory and the technicality of how this time travel works, but he once again characterizes Dana poorly as she becomes jealous of the care her mom shows to the slaves on the plantation when she feels abandoned.

The inclusion of Dana’s mom was a lazy way to solve plot conflicts: Her house and her mom were always available for Dana to run to whenever issues arose, while Butler made Dana deal with these issues head on to expose the audience to the plights of slavery.

Jacobs-Jenkins also changes the dynamic between Dana’s aunt, uncle, and Kevin’s sister in his adaptation. The sister, who Butler characterized as racist, becomes a worried civilian who happens to call the cops to Dana’s house out of concern for the safety of her brother and is presented as sympathetic, while Dana’s aunt and uncle become the mean relatives who want to control Dana, refuse to listen to her, and threaten Kevin.

If this wasn’t enough, Jacobs-Jenkins also includes a useless story plot about nosey neighbors who seem to be coded as modern day “Karens,” because they show a unique amount of attention to Dana, who is one of the only Black residents in the neighborhood she moved into at the start of the show. Unfortunately, the employment of this storyline is confused, as Jacobs-Jenkins simultaneously raises issues of stereotyping and law enforcement while also presenting the overbearing white neighbors as well-meaning. This unclear direction results in the failure of both ideas.

Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Kindred” sabotaged the meaning of Butler’s work with absurd humor and entertainment, raising questions about just how appropriate it is to include comedy in a series confronting slavery. A lot of creators get criticism about including Black trauma into their work for the purpose of shock and controversy, while others are critiqued for unrealistic depiction and a lack of seriousness. Jacobs-Jenkins surprisingly can be criticized about both.

Aside from the absurd humor, including a random reference to the “Chipettes,” from the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise, Jacobs-Jenkins depicts slavery as something Dana easily became accustomed to, as her worst conflicts included an argument with another Black woman on the plantation, her relationship drama, and her obsessive care for Rufus. Twisting Butler’s words to unnecessarily pit two Black women against each other while making Dana a mother figure to Rufus is extremely disappointing, turning Butler’s work into a drama riddled with stereotypes when slavery is a horror with many facets (of which very few were unpacked).

The scenes of which Jacobs-Jenkins included to show the reality of slavery were not even present in the book nor necessary for the understanding of the series. For example, the show depicts the death of two slaves: A baby and his mother during childbirth and the forced sexual assault of a slave woman by an enslaved man. Both situations only enforced horrible narratives and representation while not serving a clear narrative purpose, only trivializing Black pain.

Jacobs-Jenkins only included about one third of Butler’s book in the first season, which is unfortunate especially since the show was canceled by FX on Jan. 30th. Leaving audiences on a cliff-hanger and more importantly uneducated, is exactly what the dangers of splitting an author’s text into pieces are. Butler’s work has not been done justice, and it will not be unless another network picks it up.

Jacobs-Jenkins, while hoping “this show just helps people cut through the fallacies they have” about slavery and racism, perpetuates harmful narratives with his series. “Kindred” is often used as a novel to educate students about Butler’s work and how aspects of slavery linger into modern-day life. Butler even starts her book with the ending, proving that the plot of this work is not what's important, but rather the message she conveys with her well thought out characters, their relationships, and the specifically chosen setting and time period, all of which the adaptation fumbles.

This brings up the questions of what responsibilities come with choosing to adapt a text that is not only well-regarded, but is also used to smartly convey many social issues that were relevant to the author and certain demographics. Many Black women find comfort and community in Octavia E. Butler’s works, finding themselves represented in storylines that transcend generations. The title of “Kindred” emphasizes this very aspect of Black life.

It is a text about a Black woman discovering her ancestry, making meaningful “kin,” — an idea that is powerful because developing kin during slavery was a way of protest. When slave owners tried to strip away their humanity and dignity, enslaved people formed families and held meaningful relationships that preserved our values, culture, and are one reason why our ancestral roots have branched into the beautiful relationships we have today. These stories must be treated carefully, and if they must be changed, it must be in a way that takes cultural context, difficult conversations, and, most importantly, the people whose stories are being represented into consideration.

—Staff writer Makayla Gathers ‘26 can be reached at makayla.gathers@thecrimson.com

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