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Adapting Octavia Butler – The Opening Scene from the ‘Xenogenesis’ Trilogy

Adapting Octavia Butler - The Opening Scene from the 'Xenogenesis' Trilogy

For as long as this blog has existed (5 years), on an annual basis, there has always been at least one post lamenting the fact that there still has yet to be a big screen adaptation of an Octavia Butler novel, especially given how adaptation-happy Hollywood has long been, and continues to be. 

Butler is one of the most popular science fiction authors (forget that she’s black and a woman in a world that’s traditionally been dominated by white male writers) whose novels have been translated into numerous languages, and collectively sold millions of copies; A MacArthur fellowship grantee (the first science fiction writer to be so honored), who won 2 Hugo Awards from the World Science Fiction Society, and 2 Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America, and who died from a stroke at just 58 years old in 2006.

I’m not one to pull the so-called “race card,” but I’d like to believe that if she were white, with the exact same resume, and her novels reflected her realities and interests as a white woman, her entire oeuvre would’ve been optioned long ago, with movie franchises set up at one Hollywood studio or another. 

But, for a long time, I’ve felt that any adaptation of an Octavia Butler novel would likely be made outside the Hollywood studio system, backed by independent financing. And of course, if that happens, and the movie is a box office hit (hypothetically speaking of course), I’m sure interest in adapting her other novels would explode. Nobody wants to be the first, taking that initial risk. But everyone’s lining up to be second.

Maybe the graphic novel adaptation of “Kindred” (likely her most-read novel), which is set to be published this fall, might renew interest in a film adaptation, even if it’s based on the graphic novel adaptation, since film adaptations of popular graphic novels are also popular.
Although I should also note that Ernest Dickerson has long been trying to raise funding for his adaptation of Butler’s 1984 novel “Clay’s Ark.” Dickerson mentioned this in my 2013 interview with him, which you can read here.
I’d like to think that a veteran filmmaker like Ernest Dickerson would be able to attract financing for a project like this – especially given all the filthy rich black entertainers and athletes. Surely, a few of them can combine resources, enough to help get the project off the ground. But then again, I immediately think of Don Cheadle having to resort to crowdfunding (via Indiegogo) to raise $325,000 to help launch production on his Miles Davis film. Although the funds raised are only a percentage of the total budget, which is in the low millions (some of which Cheadle put up himself, from his bank account. But that’s what we gotta do some times to get what we want).

Still, it’s a shame. These are 2 projects that really shouldn’t have to struggle for many years in uncertainty, to find necessary production funds.

But, as I said, any adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novels will very likely happen independently, outside of the mainstream, before they stir up mainstream studio interests.

If only I were a multimillionaire…

All that to share this scene that was adapted from Octavia Butler’s “Xenogenesis” trilogy, which I came across on the Afrofuturist Affair blog. Also titled “Lilith’s Brood,” the trilogy comprises of 3 books: “Dawn,” “Adulthood Rites,” and “Imago.” In short, the series tells the story of how humanity was saved from the war it waged on itself by an alien species known as the Oankali. The story focuses on the human resistance who want their freedom returned, at any cost, as well as the lives of the Oankali and humans who are trying to work together. Lilith Iyapo is the first character that the story follows. Later in the trilogy she seemingly becomes a lesser character, but the characters that become the major characters are all her descendants.

The scene below is from the opening of the first book in the trilogy, “Dawn,” when Lilith is first awakened centuries later, from stasis, on an Oankali ship, after Earth has been destroyed (the few survivors are plucked from the surface by the Oankali). Startled and demanding answers, Lilith is engaged by an Oankali who, while certainly not human, is designed for “first contact” with humans, hence his human-like features (which she’s still repulsed by). The Oankali themselves don’t have eyes, or ears, or noses, but sensory tentacles over their entire bodies, with which they can perceive the world around them.

Lilith is played by Ella Thomas (“All My Children,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Bones”) and the Oankali is played by Camden Toy (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Bay”). I haven’t been able to determine who directed the scene.

It’s not the greatest 5-minutes ever captured on film, but I appreciate the effort; And I share it in support of my suggestion that adaptations of Butler’s works will likely have to be undertaken by independent filmmakers who want to see her work on the screen – like the artists who adapted part of the opening to “Lilith’s Brood” below.

Also, I should note that I have no idea when this was actually created. YouTube says it was uploaded in 2007, so we can assume it was made that year, or before. I’ll go see what else I can dig up about those who were involved in its making.

And finally, by the way, if anyone reading this has ever attempted to adapt any of Butler’s novels – even if it’s just a scene like the one below – let me know. I’d be interested in seeing what you came up with. And I might also share what you send me here.

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Sarah Ross

this is a complicated story to put to film hope experts are in charge. But I can see why it was picked. It fits well with some other popular programs out recnetly. Like Falling Sky’s.I know I will be super happy the day it is released. I will be going no doubt.

Walker Jones

On Netflix, there’s a series titled, "Sense 8", that strongly resembles similar elements within Octavia E Butler’s The Seed to Harvest series which was originally, "Wild Seed", "Mind of My Mind", "Clay’s Ark", & "Patternmaster". It shows how many are affected by her work. It is more white washed. One doesn’t have to pull the race card to answer the "why’s" and the "why not’s." It could be done but true fans have to ask themselves, "Do we really want to see what Hollywood can or will do to her work if received?" It would be misunderstood first, then recreated. I am more than satisfied with my valuable and treasured collection of her books.

Damian Duffy

FYI The graphic novel adaptation is coming out in January 2017. FWIW it’s my understanding the film rights for Kindred were optioned a couple years ago.


i think specifically for this a mini series by a decent cable channel like AMC or HBO would be more appropriate. lotta character arc here


This scene is indeed a good effort, and I enjoyed it. However I find it strange that they chose to make Jhdaya have black skin–the book doesn’t describe this detail and to have added it is suggestive of blackface to me. Obviously this isn’t what they were going for, but media is never created in a vacuum, and I think they could have made a better choice with his makeup. Still, I’m glad this is here, and I wish someone would bring even a piece of her work to the silver screen–one of her short stories turned into a short film would be intriguing and perhaps less costly.


Butler's writing style isn't the problem. Her writing is extremely clear and direct. Never a wasted word which is perfect for screenplay adaptation.

The real problems have already been named.

One. Her work cannot be white-washed to star a white male (the Hollywood scifi standard). Almost every lead in almost every story is a Black female who guides and dominates futurist societies.

Two. Butler's work is under constant option but has never been brought to production.

maurice emel

I've read (unconfirmed) that Dreamworks own's most of the options to Butlers best works, so if anyone wants to make anything you have to go thru them first. That could be one barrier/ obstacle, means they get to pick the writer, director, producer etc.

Butler Fan

The Butler estate does not make it easy for those trying to adapt her books. Costs a pretty penny for the rights


These books would be very difficult to translate to movie form. The characters are complex and a great deal would have to be cut to fit it in a 2 hour movie. Clay's Ark is a possibility, but I'd recommend a filmmaker take a look at her short stories.

Miles Ellison

The real question is whether anyone would actually support a proper filmed adaptation of Octavia Butler's work. Judging from what people have been paying money to see, I'm inclined to doubt it. I think the bigger obstacle is that no one has figured out how to whitewash her work and make it commercially viable.


I wouldn't take that argument that her books would have been into movies by now if she were white. On the contrary, Toni Morrison's "Beloved" was not meant to be turned into a movie. Oprah Winfrey did it and it failed at the box office. Maybe this could be the case with Octavia Butler? I mean Jason Mott has a television show on ABC that was backed by Brad Pitt. There was film that was released this year (insert name of film here) that was written by a Black science fiction writer, but his name escapes me. The question is whether her books can be adaptated to the screen big and small.

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