Fans and critics can’t yet decide on the success of FX’s take on Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred,” calling it “thrilling” but “uneven,” “provocative” yet “skimpy.” But there’s one thing they do agree on.
Since its debut in 1979, Kindred has been “optioned” — industry parlance for the nascent stage of adaptation — in one form or another. Almost 20 years later, celebrated playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins discovered the novel as a tween on a shelf at Sister Space, a D.C. indie bookstore centering Black female authors and stories. It’d be another two decades before Jacobs-Jenkins, the series creator, would see his interpretation of Butler’s work available to binge on Hulu. The process wasn’t just long, it was Sisyphean.
“I like to say it’s a miracle whenever a Black property makes it to the screen because Hollywood is very risk adverse,” explained Due, who has firsthand knowledge of the improbability of the book-to-TV pipeline. Back in the mid-2000s, Due pitched an adaptation of her novel “The Good House,” about family history entwined with a haunted house. During one such meeting, an executive asked if the Black characters centered in her story “had to be Black.”
“That’s what Octavia was up against,” Due said. “No matter how much her work was beloved, the gatekeepers were not looking for stories in the speculative realm featuring Black characters. No one was asking for that. Hollywood was always an uphill climb and a hard sell.”
But sell it did. The whys and hows of “Kindred’s” journey to the screen are like puzzle pieces to a massive jigsaw. When fit together, they answer an industry-defining riddle: What took so long?
The timing “was a perfect storm,” Jacobs-Jenkins said. “It couldn’t be a second too soon.” But first, the clouds that had to gather for four decades.
The first science-fiction writer to win a MacArthur “genius grant,” Butler’s speculative narratives featuring strong Black female characters trying to fix worlds others broke has had a cult following since “Kindred,” her breakout tale.
The novel follows 26-year-old Dana, a Black woman living in 1976 Southern California who is yanked back in time to the Maryland plantation on which her ancestors were enslaved and owned the enslaved. The story, like much of Butler’s work, is a cautionary tale of history repeating itself lest society wake up to the ills of racism, classist hierarchies and the like.
“Kindred” is “extremely relevant now,” said Ayana Jamieson, founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, a global community focused on Butler’s work. The author’s singular talent was unearthing patterns in history and painting them plainly, according to Jamieson. Recent sociopolitical wind changes like the Black Lives Matter movement have not only underscored the cultural eruptions Butler predicted, but also made it clear that Black narratives can no longer be ignored.
Separate from the prescience of the science-fiction writer’s novels, the entertainment industry itself seems suddenly ready to receive Butler’s message after what Due called a “one-two-three punch”: the massive success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and the global phenomenon of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” coupled with the murder of George Floyd.
The pandemic also served as its own pressure cooker for a Butler revival. In 2020, “Parable of the Sower,” Butler’s 1993 post apocalyptic tale set in a then-distant 2024, landed on the New York Times’ bestseller list, a first for the author’s work. The novel was optioned in 2021, adding to a list of at least five of Butler’s novels that are in some stage of Hollywood development.
“Popular culture is catching up to what many of us have known for a long time — that Butler is a seer and a supreme talent,” Jamieson said. There is an undeniable Butler renaissance afoot. But it is no accident that “Kindred” was the first to make it on screen, according to Jamieson.
“The question is, why are White people interested in this? Black people have been interested in this for a long time,” she said.
Despite the time-bending premise, “Kindred” is often one of the first Butler books novices pick up. Unlike her other fiction, it doesn’t star aliens, vampires, eugenics or telepathy. The story, though fantastical, isn’t too hard to grasp; the world she builds within it, though harsh, isn’t unfamiliar.
“I think it’s even more deep and spiritual and cosmic that this is coming now and this particular time,” Jamieson said. “It seems like magic, but of course there’s all this elbow grease that’s gone into the recognition.”
It was 2010 when Jacobs-Jenkins reread “Kindred” for the fifth time and thought to himself, “This is a TV show.” This was before he’d won Obie Awards for his plays “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon.” Before his own MacArthur genius grant. Before his work on HBO’s “Watchmen.” For years, whenever a Hollywood type would ask “What do you want to do next?,” he’d mention “Kindred” and watch as eyes glazed over.
His first hurdle was the name Octavia Butler. “She was still under the protectorate of female and Brown readers,” he said. The next obstacle was the story itself. One big name producer told Jacobs-Jenkins that the book was “too dark, too pessimistic, too negative.”
“People hear slavery and they shut down,” he said. Plus, when Hollywood thinks slavery, its view is generally myopic, favoring real-life tales like “Amistad,” “Harriet” and “Emancipation.” Pitching a series about slavery that looped in time travel was more than the industry could wrap its head around.
“A few things needed to align in the world for people to see the value in this iconic book, which is depressing. But we found the right home at the end of the day,” Jacobs-Jenkins said.
The first meeting Jacobs-Jenkins and his producing partners took was with FX.
“We bought it in the room,” said Kate Lambert, the executive vice president of series development at the cabler who is behind critically lauded series such as “Atlanta, “Reservation Dogs” and “The Bear.” “To me it was an immediate, like, why wouldn’t we do this? It was an obvious yes.”
“Then hilarity ensured,” Jacobs-Jenkins said. That fun included several years of development, settling into the author’s vast archives at the Huntington Library near her hometown of Pasadena, and several different drafts of the pilot script, which was finally shot in 2020. But Jacobs-Jenkins remained committed to the book he’d first picked up nearly three decades before because, first and foremost, he saw himself as a Butler disciple. “I have to ride this bike until the wheels fall off because I’m out here for her,” the showrunner said.
Every new (and controversial) addition to the story, the choices made, the criticism received since the series premiere, is “still activating the fan geek in me,” Jacobs-Jenkins said. “My fantasy was always to create like a read along.”
For the series creator, directing TV viewers back to the novel is simply the natural order of things. Jacobs-Jenkins’s work has been directly influenced by Butler since he discovered her at that indie bookstore, and now the seeds she planted then are “flowering,” he said, pointing to yet another reason for the Butler renaissance.
“That’s one of the life cycles of a great artist: the people they influence try to sing back to the source.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's name as Branden Jacob Jenkins. The story has been corrected.