Noah Hawley is TV’s great success story of the moment — the 2015 answer to Nic Pizzolatto back when the word “Carcosa” still made us shiver. Rising writer and director Hawley has gotten almost nothing but praise for his work on FX’s anthology series Fargo. Season 2 has engaged people even more than the less experimental first season — the reaction has been vociferous enough to score him not only another season of Fargo, but a deal with FX to helm a limited miniseries adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1962 novel Cat’s Cradle.
And why not? Hawley has to be a major feather in the station’s cap: He’s just adding to an ever-expanding lineup of critically beloved shows with an ever-expanding fan base (when’s that new Americans season coming, guys?) He is also putting in time for them penning a pilot for potential X-Men offshoot show Legion.
Adapting Vonnegut is no small task. Cat’s Cradle is more linear in construction than, say, Vonnegut works like Sirens of Titan or Breakfast of Champions — which was butchered in a 1999 film starring Bruce Willis — but it’s much stranger than his most popular work, Slaughterhouse Five, which was adapted in 1972 and won Vonnegut’s approval. But like the work of Philip K. Dick, and many other [esoteric and complex sci-fi or literary works](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dune_(film) with a touch of the postmodern, Vonnegut’s usually outlandish vistas and half-logics present a lot of automatic challenges for film and television directors.
It would be hard to think of a finer choice for a project like this than the experienced and ambidextrous Hawley, who is a novelist himself, as well as a screenwriter and director. His own books have been described as channeling Orwell at his most ominous, while their bent is more explicitly noir than speculative. But Fargo demonstrates that Hawley has the skillset necessary to sell a project like this. He’s able to juggle numerous interweaving plot lines, make moments of pitch-black humor play easily and juxtapose the hallucinatory with the real.
But more importantly, Hawley knows how to build dread and intrigue; it’s tantamount to everything he’s done. Cat’s Cradle is one of the most enduring pieces of literature when it comes to evoking the most fanciful side of Cold War paranoia. Vonnegut’s novel is driven by the nagging impression that there is always something worse coming just around the bend. Vonnegut’s protagonist John wanders haplessly through life, falling in with a group intent on channeling the unique powers of a mysterious and alluring type of specially frozen water — ice-nine — and eventually becoming caught up in the absurdist, dysfunctional government of the island of San Lorenzo and a not-so-secret, mystical religion called “bokononism.” Understanding, for him, is always a little bit out of reach. There is always another sinister secret to be unlocked, a myth to be broken, a reality to be shattered, a new one to be quickly propped up. Hawley is a director who is able to pivot quickly, and preserve characters that feel palpable and real amongst a lot of disorder. As in Fargo and the work of the Coens, the spiral is always downward for John in Cat’s Cradle, though punctuated by moments of divine wonder.
If it was the Fargo brand name and the Coen Brothers’ production credit that helped Hawley wrangle the peerless all-star casts of Fargo’s first two seasons, by now his name on its own holds plenty of clout. There’s little doubt that the award-winning director will be able to assemble a capable, committed cast behind Cat’s Cradle, one which will be able to sell the outlandish situations and fractured storytelling that is the lifeblood of Vonnegut’s novel on-screen.
If there’s anything to worry about, it’s the possibility of too many budget special effects. Let’s hope whatever CGI work needs to be done — scenery or ice-nine-wise — doesn’t put us into an unfortunate jungle-in-Battlefield Earth realm. Hopefully, Hawley and Co. can step away from the keyboard as much as possible, and take this in a more Zardoz-meets-Inherent-Vice direction. Hawley will need to keep Vonnegut weird, but potent and occasionally even moving — luckily, there’s no reason to think he’s not capable of it.