Middlesex on the Tube

July 8, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 2 3 min read

coverI just discovered that HBO is going to turn Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex into a series. Immediately all was untrammeled rapture. I love Middlesex, and I am a big fan of HBO series generally. The Sopranos. The inimitable Wire. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rome. Deadwood. And yes, Sex and the City. I know that Sex and the City oppresses women and is an embarrassment and there’s no way she can afford those outfits on that salary and all of that. I still like it. I have a, uh, friend who once bought a DVD boxed set of dubious authenticity in China because it cost a very low, but not actually as low as she thought, number of Chinese yuan. It soothes me to have it playing in the background on the rare occasions when I try to perpetrate a hairdo on myself. The fun thing is that the episodes are not in order, and Chinese characters can show up at any time! But that’s neither here nor there.

Soon my untrammeled delight was tempered with anxiety. I have very low expectations of television, so when a show is even remotely entertaining, I am swiftly ensnared. It makes me nervous, though, when beloved books are threatened with The Screen Treatment. I didn’t love the Virgin Suicides (novel), so I was dazzled by an Air soundtrack and Josh Hartnett in a mullet-type thing. But I loved Middlesex. I read it when it came out, and immediately read it again. Then for a while afterward I was in a lather trying to find out whether J. Eugenides was working on a new book, and when I might be able to read that. One thing I loved about the novel was what I believe is called “the scope” (typically accompanied by adjectives like “breathtaking”), which is not easy to achieve on the screen (easier with a series than a movie, but still not easy). How will they pace it? How many seasons? I hope they don’t truncate the beginning, wherein Calliope’s grandparents make haste, and then incest, out of burning Smyrna. Or the long and sort of gross courtship of Calliope’s parents. What of Lina, and Jimmy Zizmo, and Marius Wyxzewizard Challouehliczilczese Grimes? Who will play the Obscure Object? Will she have freckles and heavy thighs? Who will play Apollonian Calliope? And then Dionysian Calliope? And who will play Cal?

The show is going to be written (adapted?) by playwright Donald Margulies. It’s embarrassing how little I know about theatre, but I see that he won the, whaddaycallit, Pulitzer Prize. Presumably, then, he is good at writing things that are meant to be performed. So that’s a solace. Unfortunately, since my worldview has been warped, no doubt, by Sex and the City, the main thing I knew about Rita Wilson is that she is married to Tom Hanks and she looks great. However, I subsequently learned that she has produced a number of things. And that she, like Cal, is American-born to Greek parents. Not only is she Greek Orthodox, according to Wikipedia, but her father is a Greek-born Pomak convert to Orthodoxy, and her mother grew up on the Greece-Albania border. Not that ancestry need define a person, but Ms. Wilson would seem optimally placed to understand a thing or two about the complexities of identity on and around the Balkan peninsula. And since Middlesex is a lot about the complexities of identity (defined or not defined by ancestry), and not a little bit about the complexities of identity as they pertain to the Greek nation, I feel optimistic about her role as a shepherd for this project, even if Middlesex deals with significantly weightier issues than earlier (and also Hellenic-themed) projects like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mamma Mia!, and My Life in Ruins.

As we collectively wrote about in a recent post, not all screen (big or small) adaptations are an exercise in futility. The fundamentals here seem strong. What do you think?

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at www.lydiakiesling.com.


  1. I enjoyed Middlesex; if anyone can make some good TV out of it, it's HBO.

    I too enjoy Sex and the City while feeling uneasy about that enjoyment. Does it "oppress women"? For all its prurience and self-indulgence, across the series I think it is primarily a fantasy, not about sex or expensive shoes, but about female friendship and acceptance. And in among the soap opera stuff are some pretty sharp insights into class and gender issues (for instance the ways professional success often undermines romantic success for women).

  2. I think 'fantasy' is a good word. I think a lot of the prurience and "real talk" distract people from the fact that these women are all perfectly groomed, attractive, draped in outrageously expensive clothes, and spending a king's ransom on twice-weekly brunches and dinners at sexy restaurants (not to mention cabs to and from). Which is part of makes them fun to watch, but is also incredibly irksome. And, women don't need to hear about "big thigh" complaints from a woman who looks like Kristin Davis. And women especially don't need the un-subliminal message that the dreamy withholding asshole of a boyfriend will one day decide that you are, in fact, the one. No sooner does a young lady graduate from Jordan Catalano (My So-Called Life), then Mr. Big is there to reinforce the idea that if someone is nice to you, he isn't worth it. That's kind of oppressive.

    But, like you, I enjoy it.

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