Screen adaptations of classic novels can be uneven affairs. Sometimes they work, such as the epic treatment of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. Sometimes they fail miserably, case in point Robert Warren’s excellent novel All the King’s Men, brought to life horrendously in 2006. The latest classic piece of literature to hit our screens is in the form of a TV series courtesy of Sky, and that early, 20th-century masterpiece is Brave New World.
The 1932 novel by Aldous Huxley was revolutionary for its time. And in some ways, it still is. It is a book that became highly influential, even on the other stalwart of dystopia George Orwell. Brave New World holds many of the values of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, except for one factor. Whereas Orwell took the stance that the people of the future would be controlled by fear, and under constant surveillance by the government, Huxley’s vision is centred around pleasure, and even lust as the primary source of control. Despite the key difference, the two influential works of sci-fi are about control, surveillance and commercialism – themes which feel incredibly timely to modern society. While the two are novels everyone should read at some point, the question remains – should they only remain as novels?
This is not the first time Brave New World has been adapted. There’s been two television films, one in 1980 which is underwhelming and at times confusing and a second in 1998 which fared even less successfully. This latest adaptation, developed by David Wiener (Fear the Walking Dead) and distributed through NBCUniversal, has now it our screens on Sky. Instead of a TV movie epic, viewers are given a nine-part series, with episodes helmed by TV veterans and up-and-coming filmmakers such as Owen Harris (Black Mirror), Andrij Parekh (Succession, Watchmen) and Aoife McArdle (Kissing Candice).
The story mirrors much of the source material, which is in itself problematic, as much of the novel’s future advancements are already upon us. There’s genetic engineering, to plugging in to a mainframe and, of course, mind-numbing ‘drugs’ which keep the show’s utopian society’s inhabitants in a state of euphoria. As such, this tale is very familiar to us in 2020 and does not quite hold the same impact it once did, even if the central theme of happiness versus freedom is very much intact, making Brave New World as a story somewhat compelling.
The setting is New London, a place where crime has been literally eradicated, along with monogamous relationships, but also family and privacy. An apparent equality runs rampant, and the citizens hold rankings from Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. These rankings are based on health and intellect while the population ingest ‘soma’, pills which distract from the questions of why?
Viewers are introduced to Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd), two people coupled together through ranking. Bernard comes to find that these techniques – pills and one-night stands – do not numb all feelings, as he learns one of the Epsilons has committed suicide. This begins the mystery, furthered as Bernard and Lenina leave the comfort of New London into The Savage Land – a place where people suffer and are born naturally. Thoughts of so many sci-fi movies from Logan’s Run to even Demolition Man spring to mind very quickly and annoyingly as the story, even if you are unfamiliar with the source, becomes glaringly obvious.
That’s another part of the problem here – the ideas in Huxley’s text have influenced a plethora of other influential futuristic movies. With the introduction of John The Savage (Alden Ehrenreich), and his mother Linda (Demi Moore), the plot forms quickly. These characters add a further rebellious aspect to the narrative. The character of John is everything Lenina and Bernard are not. He is open to emotions and to love and has values alien to the pair. Of course, he is also the ‘Spartacus’ figure, the one who leads a resistance to reclaim New London, and in some ways Ehrenreich is playing an extension of his Han Solo character. Truthfully, you are cheerleading his efforts, and the main characters are likeable and earnest. All of which is a pity, since the series is not really breaking new ground and gives little in the way of escapism.
Overall, this adaptation is risk free. This is in the sense that it is a sci-fi series with a universal message of freedom, though the original context of the novel is lost. Brave New World is not simply about science fiction, no more than Animal Farm is a story about farm animals. While the source’s themes of racism are not strongly neglected in the TV series, they are softened. The racial divide is the ugly truth within Huxley’s novel that at times lit the fires of controversy. The series instead gestures towards this without the ugliness, focusing more on the warnings of over-relying on technology, the latter unfortunately a factor which has already come true.
While Brave New World as a series is visually stunning – the concrete aesthetic of New London possessing a grim charm – this is no masterpiece. Unlike previous adaptations, the audience is given a lot more time with the story’s characters. Yet, stretching the book’s material to a nine-episode series leads to padding which can be frustrating. This, combined with the other problems adapting this groundbreaking work of fiction has posed, makes it feel as if this story works best within the pages of a book and in the imagination of the reader. In 2020 on TV, it simply feels like out-of-date sci-fi.