Soon after we published news of HBO’s deal to develop an hourlong series based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ popular and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex, we started hearing from fans of the book. Some weighed in on Twitter, noting anticipation and the trouble they had trying to get their heads around how the creative team at HBO might get their heads around translating one of modern literature’s most complex stories into television. Media professor @alisap27 tweeted “I’m trying to imagine this…I did love the book.”
A series adaptation of Middlesex — whose main character is intersex, starts out labeled as a female, then later adopts a male identity — is just about as ambitious as making TV gets. But creative high ground is a hallmark of HBO and an endeavor like this calls to mind the tagline the pay network has for years valiantly attempted to uphold: It’s Not TV, It’s HBO.
And the creative team is not taking this project lightly. Efforts to translate this work to the screen have been ongoing for more than two years. Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks’ Playtone began developing the project in 2007.With Pulitzer-winner, writer-executive producer Donald Margulies now on board, the exec producing power of Wilson and the team at HBO, it’s hard to imagine a group better up for the task.
But a couple B&C readers seem to think these folks already are on the wrong track. The working logline being used internally at HBO is that it “follows the life of Calliope Stephanides and the epic family history that may hold the answer to her complicated sexual identity.”
Jacklyn Lacey, identified as a student in the U.S., took great issue with this description, posting two comments. Among Lacey’s thoughts:
“Please rephrase this article to reflect competently the issues which are dealt with in this book. The main character is a inters-xed individual who identifies as male in the framework of the book’s narration and it is inappropriate to use the female pronoun as a result. …. Far, far too often are transgendered and inters-xed people relegated to intolerance and invisibility. … you have completely missed this point by ham-handedly describing the character as a female exploring s-xual identity.”
Kagen Aurencz Zethmayr, identified as an arts instructor in the Chicago suburbs, commented:
“This elision of Cal’s cumulative gender identity comes across as an insult to every inters-x and transgendered /man/ to whom this story has been recommended as relevant literature over the past few years. If the above summary is how the show is going to be publicized, then I anticipate that both B&C and HBO are going to receive much well-deserved criticism from those for whom these issues are not simply elements of fiction but inalienable facts of personal reality.”
Hold on, fans. First of all, to be clear: The logline we reported is for the show; it is not a description of the book, which even the novel’s author Eugenides says is difficult to do in one sentence (what a TV logline usually comprises). In this Q&A on Oprah.com, Eugenides says that he has “always had a difficult time explaining the book in a sentence-or even a paragraph. The best thing to do is to get people to read the first 50 pages and let things take care of themselves. If pressed, I say that Middlesex is the story of a family with a genetic mutation in its bloodline.”
Reaction to the news about a Middlesex TV series being developed indicates HBO is onto something. The story quickly became one of B&C’s most-viewed articles online for July so far and the comments demonstrate an enthusiastic fanbase is alive and well seven years after the publication of the book. The comments also show that HBO will need to contend with these passionate and vocal fans if the series makes it to screen.
But while we always invite our readers to weigh in on our stories, I recommend fans of the Middlesex book direct their passion toward supporting HBO’s effort here, rather than worrying too much about the working logline in the early stages of development.
A project as ambitious as the one HBO is undertaking here is all too rare in television and should be encouraged, not criticized for seeming to already have it wrong before a pilot script is even written. How about applaud HBO for taking a crack at bringing this story to more people in a new way and attempting to bring to light an exploration of sexual identity and the experience of being intersex?
Screen adaptations of literary works can be approached so many different ways and the aim is generally to be loyal to the themes and truths. But it is a given that by virtue of being an adaptation an ongoing series based on a novel will be different from the book. Characters and stories are added, deleted, altered all while fueling interest in the original work. A great example: Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books on which current HBO hit True Blood is based.
Middlesex the TV show — if it makes it to TV — very well may be created from the point of view that as in the book Cal is labeled a female from the start. It may not utilize a narrator, so the fact that the book is told via a male narrator’s point of view could be irrelevant to a logline for the TV show. So for the purposes of a logline, using the pronoun “her” could be exactly precise.
After I read the comments taking issue with the logline, I shared them with HBO and put in a request for a network exec or producer to explain how they plan for the TV series adaptation to satisfy both fans of the book and those who haven’t read it. As expected, HBO declined to comment on the basis that the network does not as policy weigh in on projects in development.
So Middlesex fans will have to wait to hear more about how the project evolves until or unless it graduates to the next phase in the life of a TV show, a pilot order. Exponentially more projects are developed than ever make it to the screen, so in the meantime, I suggest if you are a fan of Middlesex and would like to see a TV series based on it, go to HBO.com or write to the network to show your support.