Updated-Lovecraft Country Episode 7 ‘I Am’ Casts Aside Plot to Empower Women and Fails
Dear reader, I must apologize. In my initial posting of this piece I hadn’t read enough of Lovecraft Country the book to speak, well, intelligently. I was so sure I was right that I didn’t want to take the time. Isn’t that something? It made me realize just how easy a trap that sense of “rightness” is and how it insidiously winds itself around otherwise good intentions. What follows is a more thorough reading of both the source material and its adaptation.
Lovecraft Country, episode seven I Am, aired Sunday night and it was…disappointing. We learned that Christina is, as I suspected, keeping the bodies of William and Dell in her basement, artificially circulating their blood. William died, as Christina said, from a gunshot wound to the back. Also, he was her lover, not her brother.
I preferred it when I thought the writers of this show better understood metaphor. The almost symbolism of Christina coming out of William’s skin to Ruby, naked and covered in blood, at the same moment Montrose, in a sheer-red shirt, flew above the heads of his lover and friends, celebrating coming out to himself well, it might’ve been art.
Instead, we see it now for what it is, a plot point. I fear the writers of this show care less about storytelling and more about telling us things, making certain we understand exactly the specifics of a thing they want us to know in exactly the way they they imagine it. Leaving little open to interpretation, characters say what they mean, and the promise of the rich symbolism in the title of the show itself, evaporates.
The problem with Lovecraft Country the television show might be that the writers got carried away with the message. They took a good story that had a strong and important message and stripped away the story.
The plot, that thing the writers promised us in that first exciting episode, now feels perfunctory, a necessary annoyance for which the writers have little patience, or maybe they got lost themselves. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting the television show mirror the book. Novels, by nature, make troublesome screenplays and can lead to more cumbersome films. The mediums, are in essence, incompatible.
In approaching novel-to-screen adaptations, any good screenwriter understands she must capture the essence of the story and not worry the specifics. Characters get combined, genders changed and plot points transformed. When done well, the adaptation stands well on its own even if only a pale reflection of the book. The HBO writers might argue they’ve done exactly that, captured the essence of the story, and anyway, isn’t that somewhat subjective? Not entirely.
In the book, Hippolyta’s chapter goes deep into her past to help us understand her present before taking us off into another world, a planet found and named by Hiram Winthrop, the rich white, evil guy who previously owned Leti’s house. There she finds an old woman, Ida, who tells her that she was once a servant of Hiram’s along with several others that he imprisoned there. They wouldn’t tell him where her daughter, who had run off with his son, was hiding. He meant to come back for them. He’d wanted to scare them into talking. However, he died before he could return. The world she’s trapped on is trillions of miles from the Milky Way and the only way back is through the portal Hippolyta just opened. But she doesn’t go back. She’s terrified of Hiram’s ghost. In fact, despite Hippolyta’s protests, Ida believes Hiram sent her and she tries to kill Hippolyta by gift-wrapping a head-eating monster in a box. Instead, a white farmer opens the box and dies.
The story the HBO writers tell about Hippolyta takes us into other worlds, but instead of integrating her adventure into the plot to, you know, keep the story moving and actually develop her character, as Brooks does in the book, they throw the plot out in favor of what amounts to a choose your own adventure story.
She wakes in a white room in a grey jumper with implants in her wrists. A great-haired robot goddess asks her to choose where she wants to be and to name herself. She does this a number of times with increasing courage and surety in who she is and in the end, when the robot goddess invites her into her world, she chooses to go back to daughter Diana who needs her. Only then does the plot pick back up as the last shot of the episode shows the comic book Diana drew her lying in a pool of blood beneath a dead cop.
It’s quite like when someone you’ve barely met tells you, with great urgency and passion, about a dream they had last night. It might be important, in fact, there might even be something valuable in it, but it won’t mean anything to you.
And that’s how it is with episode seven. At the heart of it beats something fragile and lovely. Hippolyta and George lie in bed together. She’s just finished telling him of her adventures naming herself and he says, “After all your adventures, you still named yourself my wife.” Hippolyta takes a moment, then says, “I was so angry because for so much of my life, I’ve been shrinking. By the time I met you, I’d already gotten so small. I thought you knew how big I wanted to be. You just stood by and let me shrink myself more for you.”
This scene made me think about how we often can find ourselves in the person we love. I’ve loved someone who possessed the qualities I wanted, only to wake one day and realize I’d filled my head with so many “what-I-wasn’ts” and my heart with “what-he-ises” that I’d forgotten who I was becoming before we met. I stopped myself to be with him.
Sadly, the moment buckles under the weight of this pedantic episode. What’s more, the writers rob Hippolyta the right to win her lesson and in so doing, cheapen it. Her heroism, such as it is, comes easily. It’s the Wonder Woman problem. A goddess with extraordinary powers can do astonishing things but I’m not going to learn anything from her. How do I find myself in Hippolyta’s awakening if I can’t dance with Josephine Bakker in Paris or lead other women to victory in a bloody battle, or talk to my dead husband about the things we should’ve said? It’s too absurd a leap to suspend disbelief.
Episode seven reveals a common problem in Hollywood’s approach when adapting genre properties like Lovecraft Country to the screen. Once a Horror/ Sci-Fi/ Fantasy property lands in the hands of writers who don’t get it, they fail to translate the fundamental elements that made the source material so successful. Perhaps they’re trying to appeal to a wider audience or they truly don’t understand its metaphorical language. Whatever it is, it’s disappointing.