Book-to-screen adaptations don’t always work out for the best. Inevitably, there are layers and details from the book that get dropped to fit into the narrative constraints of the screen version. But that isn’t the case with Lovecraft Country, the new HBO series that premiered August 16 and is based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff. Instead, the series benefits from its new format. Lovecraft Country stars Dallas native Jonathan Majors and is helmed by showrunner Misha Green, who is also executive producer alongside Jordan Peele, J.J. Abrams, and others. In the hands of Black showrunners, producers, and actors, the stories of a Black community, originally written by white author Matt Ruff, become more fleshed out—albeit still within the constraints of oppression.
Both versions of Lovecraft Country center around Atticus Freeman, a young Black man starting out on a road trip across the Jim Crow–era United States. The story pays homage to horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft while also challenging and questioning the author’s blatantly racist ideology. In the novel, Ruff seemed to hesitate to delve into the interiority of the Black characters, and we only got glimpses of their inner workings as they navigate the everyday and supernatural manifestations of racism. Perhaps that approach to the characters was intentional, since Lovecraft Country started out as a TV pitch focused less on the psychological and more on the paranormal; Ruff was trying to answer the question of what occupation could cause a revolving cast of characters to interact with the paranormal on a weekly basis. Around that time, he’d learned of Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide that identified safe places for Black Americans to eat and sleep while they traveled through Jim Crow America. Ruff decided to make his main character a Black researcher for the fictional guidebook, renamed “The Safe Negro Travel Guide” in the book.
But that wasn’t entirely necessary. As Majors, who plays Atticus in the series, explained in an interview with Texas Monthly, “to be a Black man in America, you are born into the horror genre. You are not safe.” Ruff didn’t need to go back to the fifties to make it plausibly terrifying for a community of Black people to travel around the United States. The book and the series were created before George Floyd’s murder, but they came after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland. The racial terror in Lovecraft Country is an ever-present reality in the U.S., which means this series would always be timely.
Perhaps surprisingly, Atticus’s role as a researcher for the guidebook isn’t central to either version of Lovecraft Country. He’s a Korean War veteran working in Florida who travels back home to the South Side of Chicago to find his missing father, Montrose (played by Michael K. Williams). From Chicago, he sets off with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his friend Leticia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) to track down his father in Massachusetts. It’s not much of spoiler to say that they do eventually find Montrose, plus a world of trouble, magic, and monsters. But beyond the first few episodes available to critics, traveling for the guidebook plays a small role in the story. In fact, most of the novel—and the TV series, so far—focuses on how Atticus and his family and friends are simply trying to survive back home in Chicago. The problem is that they can’t escape whiteness.
Which is a shame, because these characters have a world of stories within them. In Atticus alone, there’s a Black man wrestling with the trauma of the war, repairing (or completely fracturing) his troubled relationship with his father, and building a romantic relationship. Majors deftly juggles the weight of Atticus’s responsibilities, and we get to see the worst and best of Atticus, how he is capable of acts of violence and of tenderness, sometimes within the span of a single episode. The same goes for characters such as Leticia, George, Montrose, and even Leticia’s half-sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku); they are complicated and messy, not always likable or trustworthy.
That complexity is what makes these characters great to watch, especially when they’re embodied by such a talented cast. In the book, I struggled with Ruby’s arc, and I still struggle with it in the series—especially during a scene of graphic revenge—but I also find Mosaku’s portrayal of her more sympathetic than Ruff’s. Even with Montrose, the series has added extra layers to further complicate his story. There are some changes and expansions that I was unsure about, especially in regard to how the show tackles gender and sexuality, but I’m still eager to see what will happen next and whether our heroes will survive yet another run-in with monsters of all kinds.
At the same time, it’s not lost on me that Lovecraft Country‘s Black characters are almost always responding to the terror wrought by whiteness, whether it’s natural or supernatural. Which, I guess, is the point. No matter how much depth the actors and showrunners try to give back to the characters, they are still trapped in nightmare situations—not because of their own curiosity or foolishness, but because of the whims of white people, whether it’s a woman offering allyship to cover up her own selfish ambitions or a sheriff entertaining himself by toying with a group of Black travelers in a sundown town. So far, Atticus and his community are pawns in a bigger game as they respond to racism over and over again. We can only hope they fully regain their agency, and freedom, by the end of the series.