Kindred, the time-travel drama premiering on Hulu this week, marks the first time Octavia Butler’s seminal science fiction novel has been brought to screen — but it’s not the first attempt. Nearly 40 years ago, Andreea Kindryd, a veteran of the original Star Trek TV series, hustled in Hollywood to mount a movie version that would faithfully bring the story of Dana, a young Black writer who travels back in time to a plantation in Maryland and meets her own ancestors, to theatergoing audiences. The tale of her unsuccessful quest to adapt the book casts light on why it took so long for Butler’s work to come to the screen.
Kindryd had worked on Star Trek as the assistant to famed writer-producer Gene L. Coon, looking over scripts and giving Coon her notes on them, as she details in her upcoming memoir Code-Switching. “I was trying to get into the film industry, and it wasn’t working,” Kindryd tells Polygon. She felt as though the creatives working in Hollywood at the time were intent on creating a respectable image of Black people, and “[her] stuff was too weird for them.” When she wrote a spec script for a Black sitcom at the time, she decided to have one of the kids shoplift, and the show’s creators were horrified.
After running into one too many barriers in her attempts to become a full-fledged producer, Kindryd relocated to Australia in the 1970s to produce documentary film. But in the early 1980s, she moved back to LA and stumbled upon Octavia Butler’s writing. The discovery wouldn’t amount to an adaptation, but it would start a lifelong friendship.
When Kindryd read Butler’s Kindred, she was taken by how the novel portrayed “the inability of white people to see what’s right in front of them,” and the ways that white people will hang onto their own power, no matter what it costs them. “It spoke to me. And I fell in love with Dana,” the book’s protagonist. “I just felt, people have got to see this.”
Kindryd tried to get in touch with Butler’s people to find out if the option for the book was available, but was stymied until a friend suggested getting in touch with Butler directly. As it turned out, the two women lived on the same street, a few blocks apart. Kindryd called Butler up and befriended her, taking her to visit Kindryd’s friend Rosilyn Heller, who’d become the first female vice president of a movie studio.
Unfortunately, the rights to Kindred had already been optioned by actress Talia Shire (Rocky) along with her husband, Jack Schwartzman, who had recently produced the Peter Sellers vehicle Being There. “I couldn’t figure out why she’d optioned it,” Kindryd says. But she was sure that “it wasn’t in their soul, and they would be easily discouraged.” She resolved to work on getting things set up so that when the option lapsed, “I’d be ready to move on it.”
Kindryd never reached out to Shire and Schwartzman directly. “I was even more insecure back then than I am today,” she says. And as a Black woman producer, she says, “there’s no footsteps to follow. I’m in uncomfortable territory. But I was still trying, in my own way.”
Still, Kindryd and Butler became fast friends, bonding over the fact that they were both outsiders. “She didn’t feel like she really belonged anywhere. She was like me,” Kindryd recalls. Butler’s mother and Kindryd’s grandmother had both been housekeepers, so “[they] both had grown up the same way: at the white lady’s house, in the kitchen, with a book.” They had both spent all their spare time at the library, which was still where Butler was spending her time. According to Kindryd, Butler didn’t have a car, so she got around LA using public transportation, where she was constantly harassed.
Kindryd told her friend that whenever the option for Kindred lapsed, she wanted to be the first to know. She didn’t have anything concrete to offer Butler, but she wanted to do her best to get something going.
In 1984, Kindryd visited Zimbabwe, and she hit on an idea. Zimbabwe had won its independence in 1980, and white settlers were leaving the country in droves — but then-prime minister Robert Mugabe wouldn’t allow them to take money out of the country. And meanwhile, the country had huge plantations that looked utterly gorgeous. Kindryd met with a government minister who knew her friend Roberta Sykes, and they hatched a plan: they could film a movie on location at one of these plantations for free, and encourage white settlers to invest the money they couldn’t take with them, in the hopes that eventually, any profits would be recouped overseas.
Kindryd loved the idea of using the legacy of colonialism to fund a movie about the Black experience. When she told Butler about the idea, “She thought it was funny. She loved it.”
But when she came back to LA and pitched the idea around town, producers and studio execs all shot her down. A movie had just been shot in Kenya, a live-action adaptation of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and “it had not worked at all.” One disastrous experience filming in Africa meant the whole continent was now off-limits, because as Kindryd puts it, Hollywood is “a bunch of goats following each other.”
Eventually, Kindryd moved back to Australia, but she and Butler kept up a steady correspondence — Kindryd still has the letters Butler sent her, in which she complains about rejections from publishers who didn’t understand how to categorize her work. “This is the kind of shit I got on Kindred over and over,” Butler writes in one letter. When Kindryd came back to the United States, she would stay at Butler’s house, where Butler had a huge bathtub even though she hated taking baths.
Kindryd made one more attempt to lay the groundwork for a Kindred adaptation in the late ’80s. She knew someone who was close to actor Alfre Woodard, who had broken out and earned an Oscar nomination for 1983’s Cross Creek, so she asked them to pass the book along in case Woodard was interested in starring in it. Woodard reportedly never received the book, because her friend felt the subject matter of the book wasn’t appropriate due to the aforementioned respectability politics. Coming from a middle-class Black background, the friend found Kindred’s subject matter distasteful, Kindryd says. “We just don’t want to talk about those things.” Years later, Woodard starred in an acclaimed audio adaptation of Kindred.
Unlike Kindryd, Hollywood has taken decades to appreciate Butler’s work, which critics have praised for being ahead of its time. “That’s what was so frustrating to her,” Kindryd says. Especially in her later novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Butler could see that the things she was writing about were starting to happen in real life.
“She was ethical and she had very strong values and she didn’t mind saying, ‘I can’t finish this book, let me give you the money back,’” Kindryd says. “She was so true to herself and to her values.”
Kindryd never let go of her hope to see Kindred on screen. In fact, her connection to the book and Butler ran so deep that when she had tired of using her ex-husband’s last name, she looked to her friend. When Butler died in 2006, Kindryd changed her name to the title of the novel as a tribute, except with a slightly different spelling. “I changed my name in honor of Octavia, to keep her close to me.”