How Amazon’s I Love Dick Captures the Spirit of the Novel

By
Photo: Amazon Studios

Reading I Love Dick makes me feel dumb. Chris Kraus’s 1997 ode to an art critic with whom she rabidly falls in love is a feminist cult classic because she expresses her feelings so ecstatically, through letters written to the object of her obsession about art and philosophy and literary theory and criticism. It is way over my head. I am moved by Kraus's writing as a feminist act, as a way for a woman to be heard amidst all of the male voices in academia. And despite her highbrow citations, she’s brilliant at documenting all of the mundane suckiness and humiliation that comes with heterosexual love, requited and otherwise. I’m in awe of Kraus’s brilliant mind, the way she connects concepts like the Kierkegaardian Third Remove with her romantic angst. But the truth is, I don’t get many of Kraus’s references. I feel stimulated reading the book, but I also feel way out of my depth. 

Which, of course, is exactly how the character of Chris Kraus is made to feel in Jill Soloway’s Amazon pilot adaptation of I Love Dick. Here, Chris (played with neurotic charm by Kathryn Hahn), is an academic’s wife first and foremost, a permanent plus one who’s a ball of professional and sexual frustration — she’s just found out that her indie film won’t be screened at the Venice Film Festival, and she hasn’t slept with her husband, Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), in ages. The couple moves from New York City to Marfa, Texas, a setting both provincial and pretentious, where Sylvère has a residency with the titular Dick Jarrett, a professor who runs the fictional Marfa Institute. While Sylvère is thrilled to begin his work “reinterpreting the Holocaust” as Dick’s fellow, Chris finds herself a classic fish out of water. She’s brought the wrong shoes and the wrong drug paraphernalia and the wrong attitude for this trip, and she finds herself flailing at an awkward Institute cocktail party where she doesn’t have much to say to any of the guests. She clearly feels insecure, invisible, wrong.  

In the book, Chris insists she can’t hang with the male academics who surround her husband even though her insights come at us — the readers — nonstop. Even if she’s viewed as frivolous by Sylvère’s crowd, in her writings to Dick she continues to blow our minds (if not his) with insights. The book I Love Dick takes place mostly inside Chris’s beautiful brain, which, in the first episode of an Amazon comedy, is not particularly easy to explore. How do you turn a theoretical novel of ideas into a watchable, reasonably accessible show? Jill Soloway makes I Love Dick work through a mixture of an excellent cast, an evocative setting and soundtrack, along with snappy dialogue and freeze-framed shots that hint at Chris’s inner life even though we don’t get to experience much of it — yet.

“When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place,” writes Chris in the book, but her desire for Dick mostly takes place from a physical distance (in the book she’s mainly on the East Coast, he on the West). Chris’s affair with Dick is for the most part one-sided, more of an art project or a writing exercise than a physical act. For the majority of the book, Dick is more concept than actual person. On the show, however, Dick is there. In the flesh. And he’s played by Kevin Bacon, that guy you’ve loved in dozens of movies since you were a kid, but there’s something unfamiliarly mesmerizing about him here. Dick is an asshole. Dick is a writing teacher who brags that he hasn’t read a book in ten years. Dick says he’s “post-idea.” Dick is fascinating. Dick is sexy.

In the book, Chris writes to Dick, “The only way I knew of reaching you apart from fucking was through ideas and words.” On the show we haven’t had a chance to see her ideas come to life. We’ve only gotten to see the flurry of emotions in Kathryn Hahn’s facial expressions as Dick demeans Chris, confidently informing her that women rarely make good films because “they have to work from behind their oppression, which makes for some bummer movies.” We see her frustration and contempt turn to lust, and we actually watch a fantasy sequence in which Chris and Dick have sex. How can Chris debase herself so much for a man who is clearly cruel? This contradiction — that casual misogyny can be hot even as it’s infuriating — is at the heart of both the book and the show.

It’s too soon in the world of the Amazon series (which hasn’t officially been picked up for a full season, but undoubtedly will be) to see how Chris’s abject humiliation will transform into something that looks like empowerment or self-awareness, but I’m optimistic. If there’s anyone I trust with the task, it’s Jill Soloway, whose previous work on Transparent and Six Feet Under contains great empathy and plenty of edge. And I hope that Dick can be many of the things Chris (and we) project on him in the novel — a symbol of the patriarchy, a sex object, a tool for self-discovery, or even the ultimate writing prompt.

In the book, Chris marvels at how reading is better than sex: “Reading delivers on the promise that sex raises but hardly ever can fulfill — getting larger cause you’re entering another person’s language, cadence, heart, and mind.” I sincerely believe that this can happen with TV, too, and I have faith that Soloway will prevail in showing us the depths of Chris in ways that feel intimate. And if she lays off the book’s philosophical references a bit, maybe I’ll feel a little smarter for having watched it, too.