Lovecraft Country proves that the best way to tackle racism in classic stories isn’t to ignore it

“Problematic” – it’s one of those words thrown around by progressive pop culture pundits that’s guaranteed to make moderates wince and conservatives bristle. But there’s a reason why the “problematic” label crops up so often: a lot of the books, movies, TV shows, comics and video games released prior to the 21st Century – heck, even a decent chunk released during the 21st Century, for that matter – have serious issues when it comes to depicting non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual characters.

HP Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos are perfect example of this. These classic horror tales – especially the memorably grotesque, god-like cosmic monsters at their core – have inspired countless other works of fiction since the first short story in the canon was published in 1928. But their racist content, coupled with a decent helping of misogyny and homophobia, make them tricky (problematic, even) to adapt for the screen today.

The obvious solution here (other than to abandon Lovecraft’s works entirely) would be to remove these unacceptable elements – but the genius of HBO’s Lovecraft Country is that it does the reverse: it leans into them. Taking its cues from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff on which it’s based, this new series from showrunner Misha Green recasts the Cthulu Mythos as a timely and powerful parable about the evils of systemic racism and modern-day slavery.

It’s still the Cthulu Mythos (more or less)

It’s a take that would no doubt make Lovecraft spin in his grave…but then, he was a racist old git, so who really cares? Funnily enough, though, while Lovecraft Country tramples all over the racial prejudices of its progenitor – a handful cathartic scenes of righteous fury unleashed by people of colour stand out the most in this regard – the show otherwise reflects the iconic trappings of the Cthulu Mythos faithfully.

From the off, the unspeakable, otherworldly horrors beyond our comprehension are on hand in all their nightmarish glory, as are their fanatical human minions and the ghastly arcane rituals they take part in. In short: the bits fans love most are all present and accounted for, more or less exactly how you’d expect them to be represented.

“It’s about heroes who get to go on adventures, defeat monsters, and save the day.”

Atticus Freeman, Lovecraft Country, Season 1 – Episode 1 “Sundown”

Really, all Green and her writing team have done (following Ruff’s lead) is shift the setting forward to 1950s Jim Crow America and given us likeable protagonists – Jurnee Smollett’s Leti Lewis and Jonathan Majors’ Atticus Freeman – we can actually root for.

And even then, Lovecraft Country has a clever out when it comes from deviating from the established Cthulu Mythos: Lovecraft’s novels and short stories are shown to exist within the fictional reality of the show itself, portrayed as a kind of coded history of true events.

In this sense, Lovecraft Country becomes more like a revisionist historian’s take on the established canon: a way of retelling the same basic stories as before, only through a modern lens not tainted by bigotry and xenophobia.

Capturing a classic story’s spirit isn’t always a great idea

True, this does affect Lovecraft Country’s tone, substituting the nihilistic, oppressively bleak atmosphere that pervaded Lovecraft’s stories for something a bit more hopeful. Certainly, the notion of mere mortals standing up to even the weakest of the Great Old Ones – or on the flipside, that our own capacity for cruelty could rival, much less exceed, their own – feels more like something out of Stephen King than HP Lovecraft, more IT than At the Mountains of Madness.

“Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, and overlook their flaws.”

Atticus Freeman, Lovecraft Country, Season 1 – Episode 1 “Sundown”

After all, Lovecraft was fixated on the idea that humans are insignificant creatures utterly incapable of comprehending (let alone defeating) the incomprehensible cosmic forces arrayed against us. By contrast, Green (like Ruff before her) largely dismisses this perspective to tell a story that – while undeniably harrowing in its treatment of anti-Black sentiment in America – never fully robs its characters (or audiences) of at least a glimmer of hope that things (and people) can change.

A watershed moment in genre TV

So, yes, you could argue that Lovecraft Country’s radical approach to the Cthulu Mythos doesn’t really capture their spirit. And while this is usually the sign of a subpar adaptation, in the case of Lovecraft Country, downplaying or ignoring the deeply problematic aspects of the material that inspired it for the sake of thematic fidelity just wouldn’t have been good enough.

That said, it would have been such an easy path to tread, which is why it’s so impressive that Ruff and Green both choose to exorcise (not capture) the mythos’ spirit of the racist demons at their core, by exposing these repugnant undercurrents and tackling them head on.

This willingness to reinvent and reclaim a beloved property is what ultimately singles Lovecraft Country out as more than just a mesmerising (if slightly uneven) blend of allegorical racial drama and pulpy horror. No, it’s much bigger than that: it’s a watershed program that raises the bar for anybody mulling over how to present a classic story to a new generation, challenging them to openly confront the ugliness lurking beneath their narrative’s enticing surface.

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