As the title suggests, Octavia Butler's Kindred, published in 1979, focuses on family. Specifically, the lineage of a Black woman named Dana who, on her 26th birthday, finds herself yanked back in time to the 1800s to save a young white boy from drowning. She succeeds at that, but when suddenly she fears for her own life because a gun is pulled on her, she returns back to her present (1976). This is only the first of such terrifying and life-changing occurrences (and a rare one when she goes alone, as subsequently her white husband Kevin gets pulled back with her), as each time that boy's life is at stake, he "calls" her back to save him. Because if he dies, she would never be born: He is her great-great-great-grandfather and he has to live long enough to get his childhood friend Alice pregnant with Hagar, whose descendants end up being Dana and her mother.
When Branden Jacobs Jenkins adapted the book into a dramatic television series, though, he altered the family story he was telling through its time period (present day is now 2016, not 1976) and, even more notably, its players.
"I didn't want to make a show that felt like the audience could watch it at a remove — I didn't want it to feel that a kind of museum piece. She was writing this book contemporate for her audience, speaking to a very recent history, which was 1976 and, almost as a homage, I wanted to make something that was set in the now," Jenkins tells Metacritic. "We got blessings very early on from the estate to do this. And ironically enough, that was the one choice that triggered all the other choices."
One of those other choices is that Dana (played by Mallori Johnson) is no longer married to Kevin (played by Micah Stock). Instead, she is a single woman who just moved to Los Angeles to try to start a career in (what else?) writing for television. Kevin is very much a part of the series, and he eventually does get pulled back in time with her too, but he's just a guy she meets one night while she is out. He witnesses her shocking disappearance from her house and surprisingly doesn't bolt. And, a few minutes later, when she reappears out of nowhere, he stays with her to try to make sense of things (and eventually that's how he gets taken back in time with her, because he is holding onto her as she is being pulled back).
"You start kicking the tires of the actual text itself and you asking yourself things like, 'A contemporary young woman of color, how would she deal with some of the paternalistic behavior that we witness from the character of Kevin in the novel?'" Jenkins explains.
"I was always interested in trying to tell a love story in real time. This is a fan argument, which I'd love to have with anyone [but] he's not particularly like appealing in the book initially. He deepens. He presents as kind of weird, he's got all gray hair, he 10 [or] 12 years older than her, he's kind of a jerk, he's short. She really does not describe someone we would think of as like a leading man," he continues.
Setting the series in 2016 and changing Dana and Kevin's relationship means there is a different exploration of connection in the show. As Johnson previously told Metacritic, that includes trauma bonding through their experience spending time on the plantation.
"Culturally at the time when [Butler] was doing this, we were only a few years out of Loving vs Virginia. There's something very radical about her making this choice and picking these people in this time period," Jenkins says. "I think our culture has decided that we're gonna root for those people no matter what — despite whatever we say about them behind closed doors — and I actually felt like I wanted something slightly more dangerous. I wanted there to be stakes for this relationship. I wanted to see people choosing each other and having the option to walk away and explore what those emotions might mean."
An even bigger change, though, is the addition of Dana's immediate family members. She has a disapproving aunt and uncle, Alan and Denise, played by Charles Parnell and Eisa Davis (though Denise eventually comes around). Dana was raised by her aunt and uncle because her parents died in a car crash when she was young — or at least that's what she was told. The truth is that her mother's body was never found because her mother disappeared from the car, likely the cause of the crash, when she was pulled back to the Antebellum South. Dana glimpses her briefly as a seeming ghost in her home before meeting her in the flesh on the Weylin plantation. Her name is Olivia and she is played by Sheria Irving, but although she has been missing in the past for years, she makes a poignant return.
After Olivia witnesses her daughter being whipped by the plantation owner, she throws herself over her to take the blows, and both women are shot back to 2016.
"The Dana in the book is an incredible loner, but I think it was oddly much easier to be a loner in that way back then — before we were in this moment of hyper-connectedness. And I think that, in some small way, gave us permission to think about expanding on her family life and giving her some sense of dimension through characters for her aunt and uncle and through, of course, this character of Olivia," Jenkins says.
Dana wakes up alone in her house after the trauma of being whipped. Kevin has been left behind on the plantation, and Olivia's whereabouts are not known right away. Denise turns up at Dana's house, though, and her timing proves to be incredibly helpful, not only because she is a medical professional and can help Dana tend to her wounds, but also because she arrives as the cops are poking around, noticing the blood. Dana confides in her what she has experienced, and although it sounds pretty unbelievable, Denise does end up helping her get to the bottom of with whom Rufus has a baby. For a while, Dana is convinced it is Celeste, a new character created for the show, though in the end, Jenkins followed Butler's lead and still made her ancestor Alice.)
"It's called Kindred, so it has to be about how family revises itself — how it goes from being hurtful to being healing — and I feel like there's a real story to unpack here about why Denise chose to tell the story she told herself about what happened to Olivia. One of the things the show is trying to do, in addition to adapting the book, is unravel a family mystery, and Denise coming to her side and believing her becomes out first step in getting that kind of closure for Dana, hopefully," Jenkins says.
In Butler's version of Kindred, the experience of Dana fearing for her life while being whipped sends her back to her present, where she finds an empty home and has to heal herself — physically and emotionally — and prepare a bag with essential items for the return trip she knows will come. This part of Dana's tale doesn't bookend the overall story the way it does in the first season of the series, though. Instead, the novel begins when Dana wakes up in the hospital in her present day, missing an arm; it is the final time she returns from time traveling, and the novel then flashes back to explain how she got there. Therefore, the eight-episode first season of Kindred only scratches the surface of the overall story.
"The next chunk of book is a Rufus who is a young man, and the idea that somehow six hours into the season, we were going to have a completely new cast, it just felt really unsatisfying to me. There's really discreet movements for me inside the book itself, and I wanted to just really expand and wring those out for all they were worth before we moved on to the next idea. And it really gave us an opportunity to platform different relationships and ideas and hopefully deepen some of those themes that are coming down the pipeline. I just didn't want to rush!" Jenkins says of leaving so much of Butler's original story for a potential second season.
As it is, the first season of Kindred ends on the major cliffhanger of Denise and Dana learning Olivia has been found in present day after years of being presumed dead, and Kevin seems to have fit into his new life decently, surveying land with Alice on horseback behind him. (Though his sister, back in 2016, is increasingly worried about him because he is missing and has a history of substance abuse issues.) There is no glimpse at adult Rufus just yet, so questions linger about how much of Dana's teachings and kindness will have stuck with him, despite her literal absence for an important stretch of his adolescence, as well as whether the next incident that threatens his life and calls her back to him will follow what Butler wrote.
"The writers and I are cooking up some ideas, but I think everything's on the table," Jenkins says. "The essential question of the series and of the book itself is, how do you not be morally compromised when your own life is at stake? You have to save the oppressor to save yourself. What does that make you? Dana has to save herself — that's what she feels is right, but at what cost?"
Get to know Branden Jacob Jenkins:
The writer and producer has had a meteoric rise in television, starting his career on Watchmen (Metascore: 85) and having a stint on Outer Range (60), in addition to making Kindred. But he has had even more success as a playwright, which is where he truly launched his writing career. Notable titles there include Off-Broadway productions of Neighbors, An Octoroon, Gloria, and Everybody.