Parable of the Sower Is Finally Becoming a Feature Film

Parable of the Sower Is Finally Becoming a Feature Film

As a climate reporter, I live and breathe bad news. I frequently wake up and immediately Google things like “flood deaths” or “wildfire damage.” But this week, something good happened. A24, the company behind films like Uncut Gems and Moonlight, won the rights to adapt Octavia Butler’s science fiction novel Parable of the Sower into a feature film.

When it comes to the trajectory of climate politics, there have been lots of great and prescient fiction, from the 2008 Pixar movie Wall-E to the novels Kim Stanley Robinson. But Parable of the Sower is perhaps the most prophetic work of climate fiction.

The novel, published in 1993, and is set in a dystopian future of 2024 plagued by climate disasters like drought and rising seas, as well as chasmic economic inequality. It follows Lauren Oya Olamina, a Black American teenager who was born with the uncontrollable ability to feed others’ pain. Olamina grows up in a what’s basically a lower-middle-class gated community that offers a shield from the extreme poverty of the outside world. Her family and neighbours defend it with guns because they’re essentially on their own; social services are MIA or privatised. If you don’t have money to pay for protection, the only other option aside from living outside a walled compound is to essentially sell yourself into servitude and live in a company town. A presidential candidate gets elected based on empty pledges to bring back jobs and a call to — I kid you not — “Help Us to Make America Great Again.” (Again, this was written in 1993.)

While the book received critical praise in the 1990s after it was published, it only reached the New York Times bestseller list in 2020. It’s absurd (and probably racist) that there’s never been a film adaptation of Parable of the Sower. After all this time, the movie better be good.

With A24 at the helm, I think it will be. This is a good fit for technical reasons, like the fact that the company has demonstrated that it understands how to properly light Black skin (low bar, I know). But I’m also excited to see how the company captures Butler’s tone. In some other worse world, Disney would have acquired the rights to this novel and made it super corny, capturing few of the strange, captivating turns of phrase and none of the subtle, dark humour.

Parable of the Sower oscillates between tense, action-packed scenes and contemplative passages. A24 has done films that do both well. (Maybe too well. I still can’t rewatch Uncut Gems or Good Time because both made my TMJ flare up from stress.) But with films like Moonlight, the company has shown it can also do quiet, slow introversion. Climate fiction — especially a story like Parable of the Sower, which moves from multi-page passages of where Olamina shares her belief system to fears of being attacked by wild dogs and cannibals — demands this kind of range.

The film will be directed by Garrett Bradley, who won a 2020 Sundance Film Festival award for directing for her documentary short Time, becoming the first Black woman to win the award. It was later nominated for an Academy Award, too. I haven’t seen it, but critics said it beautifully captured close personal relationships coloured by a world of racism and inequality — seems like a good fit. She also worked on the recent documentary, Naomi Osaka, about the superstar Japanese tennis player. It also was praised for expertly navigating social issues, plus, it looks like it was shot beautifully.

The source material for the Parable of the Sower film gives the movie a shot at being the best piece of popular clifi produced yet. The story doesn’t falsely put climate change in a vacuum but rather shows its deeply unequal effects and the risk fake strong men pose in claiming they can fix society’s woes. Like the climate crisis itself, the story is not only deeply moving and sad and scary but also absurd. Just look at purportedly climate-focused billionaires’ recent super-polluting trips to space, or to the fact that carbon offsets that were meant to be a climate solution are catching fire and putting carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

In some sense, the real world is darker, stranger, and more devastating and ridiculous than any documentary could capture. That’s why we need climate fiction to help people make sense of the present and choose a better future. And Parable of the Sower sure makes those choices pretty clear.