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Why Is It So Hard to Adapt ‘Brave New World’?

Aldous Huxley’s groundbreaking work of science fiction has long puzzled Hollywood

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In the back half of the 1970s, when miniseries adaptations like Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots became runaway hits, a great book could make or break a TV career—so the influential NBC producer Deanne Barkley scooped up as many great books as she could. By 1978, she’d locked down the rights to James Michener’s Centennial, recruited Natalie Wood for a six-part adaptation of From Here to Eternity, and picked up James Clavell’s Shogun for a lavish production destined to become a ratings sensation in 1980. And perhaps inspired by the Star Wars–stoked interest in all things science fiction, she also commissioned an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian landmark Brave New World—despite it being, as a profile of Barkley described at the time, “a tricky property everyone in Hollywood had been afraid of.” Starring 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea and Harold and Maude’s Bud Cort, it was set to debut in 1979 and run for six hours across several nights. Only it never did. NBC found out that adapting Brave New World was tricky indeed—and not for the last time.

After pulling Brave New World from its schedule several times, NBC finally aired it in March 1980. A version of it, anyway—the miniseries had shrunk from six, to four, then finally three hours and been reduced to a TV movie. (What would have been the four-hour version, running just over three hours without commercials, eventually aired on BBC and is now the easiest cut to find.) The network returned to Huxley’s World State again in 1998, with a TV movie starring Peter Gallagher and Leonard Nimoy. Then, for a few years in the late ’00s, Brave New World seemed likely to become a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Ridley Scott. Instead, it’s coming to us once again as an ongoing series, one of the flagships of Peacock, NBC’s new streaming service (though this Brave New World was developed first for Syfy then for USA before finding its current home). A glossy take on the material filled with TV-MA-friendly amounts of explosive violence and tightly choreographed orgies, it proves that Huxley’s book can be easily mined for concepts and incidents. Adapting it, on the other hand, proves far trickier.

That’s partly because much of the novel is short on incident and long on ideas, effectively climaxing with one character arguing why the dystopia of New London, however awful in its implications, makes sense as the only recourse against humanity’s excesses. Which speaks to the book’s other tricky element: Brave New World’s 600-years-in-the-future society—one that’s banned monogamy and family, done its best to erase history, mandates the use the euphoria-inducing drug Soma, and uses a combination of genetic engineering and brainwashing to create a rigid caste system—is quite functional, maybe even desirable. After all, war has been eliminated. And what’s the difference between drug-induced happiness and the real thing when you get down to it (to say nothing of all that attachment- and consequence-free sex)? On the one hand, Huxley’s World State takes some worrisome tendencies from the years of its creation to their logical, if nightmarish, extremes, combining the most dehumanizing elements of communism and capitalism in a culture that despises individualism, places all control in the hands of the state, and reveres Henry Ford for inventing the assembly line and Sigmund Freud for demystifying the soul (even though it sometimes confuses the two men). On the other, it has a certain undeniable appeal.

Much of the power of Brave New World comes from just that tension. It often reads like a novel at war with itself, in part because it was written by a man occasionally at war with himself. The product of Eton and Oxford, Huxley had more faith in the elites than the masses, whom he estimated to make up 99.5 percent of the population, and enthused about the potential of eugenics (with some reservations). Like the book’s New Londoners, Huxley had little use for monogamy (though he and his first wife Maria incorporated that into a by-all-accounts successful marriage). While Brave New World sounds like a caution against all these feelings, they were hardly alien to its author, and Huxley’s ability to convey their allure helps make the book so haunting.

It’s a funny book, too, less a break from Huxley’s earlier satiric writing than an extension of it. But each adaptation of Brave New World has struggled to convey that. The 1980 version comes closest simply because it hews closest to the source material—at times painfully close, dedicating its first act to backstory Huxley takes care of in a few paragraphs. Helmed by actor-turned-journeyman director Burt Brinckerhoff, it’s set in a white-surface- and jumpsuit-filled future that makes Logan’s Run look tasteful by comparison. It also makes Logan’s Run, whose hedonistic vision borrows heavily from Brave New World, look lively, trudging along from plot point to plot point while attempting to provoke yucks by supplementing Huxley’s habit of giving his characters surnames like “Marx” and “Bonaparte” with characters named “Bowie” and “Jagger.” Only Cort, playing an oddball in a society with no tolerance for oddballs, and Superfly star Ron O’Neal, as the erudite and unapologetic enforcer of the World Order’s strictures, seem to have much of a take on the material.

Brinckerhoff’s strict adherence to Huxley’s novel extends to its depictions of the Savage Lands, an untamed, impoverished portion of the American Southwest with a culture that adheres to the old ways, mixing Christianity and Native American beliefs. It’s not a happy place, but at least it’s free in ways that surprise John, a New Londoner raised in the Savage Lands, when he’s taken back to civilization. In the 1998 adaptation codirected by Leslie Libman and Larry Williams, the Savage Lands are populated by Gen X–inspired no-goodniks who look like they stepped out of a Surge commercial, all decked out in baggy pants and stocking caps. (This fact, a rave scene, a scratch-heavy score, a featured Portishead song, and some distressed fonts make it a vision of a future dystopia deeply rooted in the late-1990s.) It takes other considerable liberties with Huxley’s novel as well, including an out-of-nowhere happy ending at odds with the source’s deeply pessimistic finale, one that suggests that the World State might represent some kind of end point from which humanity can never escape except via exile or death (unless, this version suggests, you’re Peter Gallagher).

In 2008, it seemed likely both these already largely forgotten stabs at updating Huxley would become footnotes thanks to Ridley Scott. After all, who better to bring one of the defining literary utopias to life than the filmmaker who, with Blade Runner, created one of the defining cinematic utopias? Without naming the title, Scott enthused to an interviewer that he’d “waited for a book for 20 years” and had finally secured the rights to it. That same year, the Los Angeles Times revealed the book to be Brave New World, a film that would star Leonardo DiCaprio, be produced by his father George DiCaprio, and be written by Andrew Niccol, writer of the Brave New World–indebted Gattaca. When talk of the project stirred again in 2009, Niccol was out and Apocalypto screenwriter Farhad Safinia was in. Three years later, everyone seemed to have moved on. While insisting the film remained a possibility, Scott sounded resigned in an interview with Collider, saying “I think Brave New World, in a funny kind of way, was good in [1932], because it had a very interesting revolutionary idea. … When you reanalyze it, maybe it should stay as a book. I don’t know. We tried to get it.”

Whatever kept them from getting it, the Scott/DiCaprio Brave New World remains one of the big what-ifs of both their careers (even more so than the other project Scott was developing around his time: an adaptation of Monopoly). That doesn’t mean it would’ve worked, or that the issues that dogged previous attempts to adapt it wouldn’t have resurfaced. Would Scott have the clout he didn’t have with Blade Runner in 1982 to keep its pessimistic ending? Would Leo have chosen this sci-fi blockbuster over the Christopher Nolan one he ended up going with? Would there have been too much money at stake not to turn it into a tale of resistance, like the many other early-2010s dystopias it would have appeared alongside, from The Hunger Games to the never-completed Divergent series?

That appears to be the direction in which Peacock’s Brave New World is heading, however slowly. Developed by Brian Taylor (Crank, Mom and Dad), David Wiener (Homecoming), and comics great Grant Morrison, the series updates Huxley’s world while somehow making it feel less relevant. In spite of smart touches like a privacy-erasing contact lens that feels like a direct descendant of Instagram and a Savage Lands that caricatures 21st-century working-class life—as well as nice moments like John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich) getting awakened to a richer, wider world by discovering a Radiohead song—it plays less like an adaptation of Huxley’s novel than an extremely watchable dilution, with little of the ambiguity that makes the novel so disturbing. Its New London society is so stuffed with obvious villains that of course it has to come crumbling down (however fun its pansexual dance-floor orgies might look).

But maybe a dilution is the best we can hope for. Or maybe the novel works best as a set of building blocks. Beyond Gattaca and Logan’s Run, Brave New World inspired Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, George Lucas’s THX 1138, and other works (to say nothing of one of the Buzzcocks’ best songs). Or perhaps it’s just one of those books best left to work its disquieting spell on the page. Writing of it appreciatively on its 75th anniversary, Margaret Atwood, no stranger to disturbing visions of the future, contrasted it to George Orwell’s 1984, which she describes as a “horrific vision of a brutal, mind-controlling totalitarian state.” Orwell’s world might be tough to prevent, but it’s easy to spot; we’re in the midst of a presidential administration that’s used its power to batter away at the very idea of truth in plain sight.

Huxley’s “softer” totalitarianism is more insidious, and more seductive. It takes the form of pleasure and safety and a willingness to abdicate responsibility and individuality to maintain the status quo, no matter who gets reduced to a figure in an equation in the process. “Brave New World is either a perfect-world utopia or its nasty opposite, a dystopia, depending on your point of view,” Atwood continues. “Its inhabitants are beautiful, secure, and free from diseases and worries, though in a way we like to think we would find unacceptable.” For an adaptation of Brave New World to stay true to its origins, it would have to capture the difficulty of saying “no” to a too-good-to-be-true world always waiting to become reality. So far, no creator has been able to do that.