Here is a brief survey of the current field of science fiction adapted to film. Jules Vern over 140 adaptations. H.G. Wells? Over 80. Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson have over 70 each. Mary Shelley has been adapted close to 60 times. Michael Crichton and Philip K. Dick, both in the 20s. We haven’t even gotten to Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or the rest of the old guard science fiction canon. What do they have in common? They are all white, and aside from Shelley, they are all male. While these authors aren’t telling the same story, their stories have similar themes, color and cultural palettes.
A white man has to do battle with a force bigger than himself to save the world. Or a white man has to confront his creation, a creation that has outgrown him and has rebelled against him. Some white men discover something not of their world. And once in a while we may get a person of color sidekick who dies so that the white man can avenge his friend. Repeat this ad infinitum.
With all of the multiple adaptations of the aforementioned authors, why can't Hollywood make any space for Octavia Estelle Butler? It boggles the mind that an author whose work is remarkably suited for film and television has been made to sit at the back of the science fiction adaptation bus.
Without getting too deep into her bibliography, Butler’s Wild Seed and Dawn immediately spring to mind as ripe for film adaptation. Wild Seed contains immortal Africans, shape-shifting, organic genetic engineering, and explores ideas of family and love from an angle many may have never considered prior to reading the book. Dawn is about a small number of human survivors in a post-nuclear war world being abducted by an alien species. The main character, Lilith, awakens from stasis far in the future and meets her alien captors. They are so inhuman that she cannot comprehend them. The aliens can manipulate bodies on a genetic level. The body is their last frontier. With a black female protagonist, the idea of genetic engineering takes on a much deeper significance, considering what has historically happened to the black female body when captured by those with more power.
There is no better time for Octavia Butler’s work to be adapted. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she did not deal with robots, mechanized suits of war, or quantum physics. She eschewed these to explore aliens, mutants and mutagens, space travel, and biological manipulation. Her hyperspace was the body. With body hackers and body modification techniques experiencing exponential growth, and scientists engaging in genetic tinkering with the likes of Crispr, Butler’s Xenogenesis saga would be the visual representation of the early 21st century’s zeitgeist, despite being written decades ago.
We should be seeing Butler’s work on screen. We need more science fiction film and television from a black perspective. We have seen multiple visions of utopian and dystopian futures from white men. We’ve yet to see science fiction worlds from a hyper-marginalized lens.
When you see the world as one not to be conquered or defended, but as one that is oppressive and limiting and dangerous, you will tell more than just good-versus-bad stories. You will avoid the typical tropes of science fiction. And you will give voice to, and render visible, the voiceless and the unseen. Octavia Butler does this, and so much more. The question is still out there: Why hasn’t any of Butler’s work been adapted for the screen?
It isn’t like Octave Estelle Butler is some unknown author. Butler, who wrote from the 70s through the early 2000s, and died in 2006, is an absolute giant in the field of science fiction. She was mentored and championed by the notoriously prickly Harlan Ellison. She is the first science fiction author to win a MacArthur “genius” award. She is in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. She’s a Nebula, Locus, and Hugo award winner. She has a scholarship named in her honor. She is one of the genesis points of the aesthetic now known as “Afrofuturism.” And her visions of the future are as vivid as they are uncompromising. Her writing is a near-perfect example of economy. There are no wasted words in her short fiction, or in her novel-length works. Her books are totally immersive worlds that present, at times, more like prophecy than fiction.
In an interview with The Grio, Kevin Grevioux, the creator of the Underworld series, I, Frankenstein, and the character “Blue Marvel” over at Marvel comics, said there are a lack of black people making science fiction films because there is “a pragmatism facing the dreams of black youth.” His argument is that black people may be too practical to make science fiction, so busy contending with varying degrees of a sometimes harsh reality that the stories they tell are more rooted in the immediate, current moment. He then explains that white people are in a position to have their cultural needs met by society. With these needs met, there is space for them to dream about other worlds.
But most science fiction fans know that science fiction is the best place to process and explore the now. Science fiction is the perfect vehicle for talking about ideas floating in the present. Butler does this better than most because she isn’t too concerned about future tech. She’s much more concerned about humanity, in all of its variations.
Butler’s work illustrates what it means to be human in varying contexts. Whether she’s exploring alien societies or near-future dystopias, she is always firmly rooted in the human condition. Butler’s books are some of the most finely crafted drama in any genre. Isn’t this what we want in film, especially in science fiction film? We want fresh and relatable characters with interior lives, jeopardy, conflict, aliens, a clear and commanding vision of the future, and a narrative that provides an escape from the mundane. It is damn near criminal that we’ve yet to see any of her work on the big or small screens. Why is this?
Nearly five years ago, Charing Ball asked the same question on Madame Noire. One of the more frustrating answers was that a black author’s work starring a black cast immediately becomes a ‘black film.’ Are Paul Thomas Anderson’s films white films? Wes Anderson has made some of the whitest films in life, but his work is just film. He doesn’t have to have a qualifier.
Another maddening answer to the question was that Butler’s work has women as her primary characters and industry norms decry women anchoring science fiction film. Yet Contact in 1997, starring Jody Foster, made over 170 million dollars. 2013's Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, made over $700 million at the box office.
You’d think that in 2016, with the increasingly diverse face of science fiction fandom, we still wouldn’t be waiting to see something of Butler’s on screen. But here we are.
In 2013 things looked to be brighter. Ernest Dickerson, longtime cinematographer for Spike Lee and director in his own right, was reported to be shopping an adaptation of Butler’s 1984 novel, Clay’s Ark. A part of Butler’s “Patternist” series, Clay’s Ark is one of those books you read and then have to check in with yourself to see if you’re okay with what you just read. The story won’t be spoiled here, but if you’re interested in psionics, extraterrestrial plagues, body horror, predator/prey relationships, space missions gone wrong, virus vectors with an agenda, and good old fashion dystopia then this book is most definitely for you. Again, it has been three years since this was first announced. What’s the hold up?
It could be argued, for those less informed, that Butler is less popular than other authors. People say this because they don’t know who she is—possibly because they've never seen her work adapted. Just because she is unknown to you does not mean that she isn’t well known. Her 1979 novel, Kindred, has sold close to half a million copies. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you stop reading this, go and get a copy, and spend the rest of the day reading it. Imagine an African-American woman from 1970s Los Angeles traveling back in time to the antebellum south and encountering her relatives, including a white slave owner who owned her family, and who she must repeatedly save from danger. This book brings up so many hard questions for black people. ‘If it weren’t for slavery, would I be here?’ ‘If I had to save a slave owner from death, would I do it, so I could exist in the future?’ This is why you don’t see too many time travel tales with African-American protagonists.
Kindred is a gut-wrenching novel that is perfectly suited for the big screen. But for now, outside of fan-films and the original novel, it looks as if the only other form the book will exist in is the Kindred graphic novel coming in early 2017 from Abrams ComicArt. Let’s hope that some filmmaker or producer—who can green light a picture—reads the 240 pages of incredible art and uses it as a blueprint for how to do Kindred cinematic justice.
If the will were there, it wouldn’t have to be the Hollywood movie machine producing Butler's work. Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are producing on-screen dramas that put most Hollywood fare to shame. Television could be the perfect entry into Octavia E. Butler’s imagination.
Butler’s 1995 Bloodchild and Other Stories would make as compelling a TV experience as the BBC’s Black Mirror. The seven breathtakingly original stories in the collection explore ideas ranging from pregnant men used as incubators to birth an alien species to the question of whether the ill should be separated from the rest of society. It asks moral and ethical questions, questions that televised science fiction is only now getting around to tackling. There is no better time for Bloodchild and other Stories to be adapted and presented to the world.
What is the hold up? How many crap Stephen King adaptations have there been? How many more films will be made from Michael Crichton’s work? Philip K. Dick is the heavyweight champion of film adaptations. Yet here we are, 17 years into the 21st century and we’re still waiting for Octavia E. Butler to hit the big or small screen. Hell, we’re still waiting for a black science fiction writer's work to be adapted.
According to Box Office Mojo, out of the 30 highest grossing films of all time, 21 could be classified under the broad definition of science fiction and fantasy. Only one, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), is a wholly original work. The others are adaptations, sequels, or parts of a long running series. Aside from Avatar, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Frozen, the Harry Potter films, and Alice in Wonderland, none of them star a woman in the first or second leads. None of the films, except for Furious 7 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have people of color in any prominent roles. What gives?
There are two things happening here. There are frighteningly few black people in film, especially science fiction/fantasy. And no works by black people are being adapted.
I am fully aware that Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern folks, Native folks, Southeast Asian folks and other ethnicities are experiencing the same kinds of omission from the pop-culture landscape. But I’m focusing on people of the African-Diaspora. There are few things more science fiction than the global experiences of those descended from Africa.
To crib from journalist Mark Dery—the man who coined the term “Afrofuturism”—black people, not in Africa, are the descendants of alien abductees. Think about it. You’re chillin’ in Western Africa. Folks with skin, hair, clothing, language, and technology vastly different, and in the case of technology, far superior than yours, snatch you up and toss you in the dark underbelly of an ocean-faring ship. While on this ship, you are beaten when you speak your native language, beaten when you pray to your gods, your women are raped; your sick and wounded are tossed overboard. You are separated from your people with each stop the ship makes. When you finally make it to the new world, you encounter different sights, smells, and climate. You are then bought and sold like so much inconsequential property. When you finally land at what you assume will be your permanent home, the degradation continues. But you persist. You find a partner, you have children, some of whom are taken and sold. What happened to your ancestors? Your descendants? The black presence in the so-called New World is the quintessential alien abduction story.
And it explains, once again, why black folks don’t usually tell time travel stories. Going back in time, what would they have to look forward to? Jim Crow, plantation life, and trans-Atlantic slavery are all waiting. How far back would a black person have to travel to not be oppressed?
Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka states, “Slavery isn’t African history. It Interrupted African history.” What if slavery was interrupted by aliens? Or what if the children of pregnant slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage evolved into an aquatic race, as in Drexciya’s classic techno album, Neptune’s Lair? This is why Afrofuturism, its foremothers, and its offspring are so important. Telling stories from vantage points that allow for the exploration of historic possibilities other than trauma and tragedy. For science fiction that explores the uniqueness of the black experience, we’re still relegated to music and books. On screen representations are mostly nowhere to be found.
To what can we attribute this glaring omission? Most film and television operates as if whiteness and white culture are the default. Whiteness is considered baseline. Anything that deviates from this becomes the other, not universal. Science fiction and fantasy, broadly defined, especially on film, are the celluloid manifestations of white adolescent male power fantasies. See the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Harry Potter series for proof. While we have black people starring in science fiction film, we have no stories that foregrounds the black experience. It isn’t like there is a lack of material. Read Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series, her husband Steven Barnes’ Aubry Knight trilogy (one of the most underrated in contemporary science fiction), Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper (pure #BlackGirlMagic), Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, or Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People (one of my favorite of the last five years). The material is out there, but the will to make this happen isn’t.
What’s it going to take for black science fiction on film to be deemed as valuable, and normal, as the overwhelmingly white (and male-centered) stories and characters we’re currently inundated with? Is it on the creators to push their work to be adapted, or is it on the Hollywood machine to shake off its 1950s cultural values and join us in the twenty-first century? If Hollywood doesn’t want to work with existing material, what about championing new works? Stories not beholden to existing material? There are more than enough creators chomping at the bit. There are tons of Facebook groups dedicated to this.
Space is a big place. There is enough room for us all to traverse it. The future is unwritten, and has the capacity to hold all dreams. There is a multiverse ripe for exploration. There are parallel universes begging to have their stories told. Myths, legends, and folklore are waiting to be reinterpreted for the now.
Black folks have electric dreams. It is about time we see them on the screen.
Shawn Taylor is the author of "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm" for the 331/3 series and "Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity." He created the Father/Hood column for www.ebony.com. He is one of the founding authors of www.thenerdsofcolor.org, and one of the founding members of the Black Comix Arts Festival. His graduate work was on science fiction as a political tool for people in the African-Diaspora. In late 2016, Shawn will be launching two podcasts. One explores music and desserts. The other will explore what makes people happy.