‘Kindred’ Review: Octavia Butler Comes to the Screen

The hallmark of Octavia E. Butler’s beloved novel “Kindred” is its believability. You may race through the book because it’s a cleverly constructed and paced science-fiction(-ish) page-turner. But its power comes from Butler’s meticulously imagined depiction of the lives of slaves and slave owners in the antebellum South and her rigorous consideration of how a time-traveling contemporary Black woman (circa 1976) might fare in that world. The effectiveness of the fantasy depends on the density of the reality.

“Kindred” is finally coming to the screen, 43 years after its publication, not as a movie or a mini-series but as an eight-episode season meant to be the first in a series. (Made for FX, it premieres Tuesday on Hulu.) The ingenious premise is still there: Dana James (Mallori Johnson), now an aspiring television writer in 2016 Los Angeles, finds herself being zapped to 1815 Maryland whenever Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan), the young son of a plantation owner, feels his life is in danger and he needs saving. Only minutes or hours have elapsed in the present when she returns home, sometimes after perilous weeks or months in the past. Like other involuntary-time-travel stories, it is inherently suspenseful, generating cliffhangers at regular intervals, and the show takes full advantage.

The other side of Butler’s storytelling equation has gone missing, however. It is hard to believe much of anything that happens in FX’s “Kindred,” in either the skimpy, cardboard depiction of plantation life or in the clichéd presentation of modern city life. (The present-day plot has, unfortunately, been significantly expanded.) Butler grounded her speculation in historical and, crucially, psychological reality; the series takes her story elements and slices, dices and pads them in a way that keeps us from believing or becoming invested in the characters Butler worked so hard to build.

The tendency to inject melodrama and sensationalism, to shy away from tough-mindedness and harshness, and to bollix up story lines, is a familiar one in open-ended adaptations of self-contained, literary novels; it almost seems unavoidable. (For another recent example, see Apple TV+’s series based on Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko.”) The playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“Octoroon”), who developed the series, has made fundamental changes that “open up” the story in conventional ways while dissipating the intensity of Butler’s narrative.

The biggest change is the introduction of a character, connected closely to Dana, whose presence amps up the emotions in uninteresting ways while muddying the story’s central themes of kinship, guilt and shared responsibility. Another is that instead of being married, Dana and her white partner, Kevin Franklin (Micah Stock), are just beginning to date; rather than watching an established couple’s bond being tested by a horrible and uncontrollable situation, we’re watching a new couple bonding with a disconcerting overlay of romantic-comedy jokiness and ersatz soulfulness. (You could argue that it’s an accurate portrayal of how a young, 21st-century American couple would behave on a 19th-century plantation, but I hope you’d be wrong.)

And then there’s the beefed-up modern-day story line, which adds stereotypical in-your-business relatives (Eisa Davis and Charles Parnell) for Dana and two neighbors (Brooke Bloom and Louis Cancelmi) who are howling caricatures of white paranoia and privilege. In part, it feels like a simple attempt at updating a baby boomer’s novel to a millennial-Gen X time frame and sensibility — the series also weaves in addiction and anti-gay prejudice — but the primary effect is an odd shift in which the most dire threats to Dana and Kevin seem to exist in the present rather than in the violent, disease-ridden, slaveholding past.

That’s not to say that the realities of slavery are never shown or alluded to. But while you see the bondage, oppressiveness and constant threat of violence, you seldom feel them in any powerful way. The Weylin plantation, despite the hysteria of its mistress (Gayle Rankin) and the occasional ruthlessness of its master (Ryan Kwanten), looks like a reasonably convivial and rational place, its dangers mostly confined to abusive language and the occasional slap.

It’s a puzzling choice (and a big departure from the mood of the book) that leaches the tension out of the story. Perhaps it takes into account the tastes of studio executives or potential viewers. Another guess is that the more harrowing aspects of Butler’s story, or whatever is left of it, are being held back for future seasons; the current season ends with one of the book’s more dramatic acts of violence. The adult Rufus, Dana’s primary antagonist in the book, is still in the future.

Kwanten (“True Blood”) is probably the most recognizable member of the low-profile cast, and he makes one of the strongest impressions, though his jovial, mock-courtly take on Tom Weylin is a little incongruous. Dana and Kevin don’t feel very fleshed out, but that may have more to do with the writing than with Johnson’s and Stock’s performances. The liveliest characterization so far is Eisa Davis’s portrayal of Dana’s aunt, a smotherer with a heart of gold.

“Kindred” the series takes up, if often in a superficial way, many of the themes of “Kindred” the book, and it will draw some deserved praise for doing so. But where Butler started with characters and imagined a world around them, the series starts with a received notion of the world and shuffles characters around within it, relying on mystery, melodrama and a smidgen of wry humor for its entirely ordinary effects.

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