On Monday, an article appeared in the New York Times called, “‘Brave New World’ Arrives in the Future It Predicted” by Alexis Soloski. The title completely intrigued me as I whole-heartedly believe that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the most important books of the 20th century. In my opinion, it should be required reading upon entering society and as the dumpster fire that has been 2020 rages on, the philosophical questions raised on the novel’s pages seem more pertinent and worthy of discussion than they ever have before. So the second part of the article title, that an adaptation has landed “in the Future It Predicted,” enticed me to read on.
But as I read on, I grew more and more disappointed by the article’s overall glib tone. Soloski has a Ph.D. in English and Comp Lit, so her knowledge and credibility are not in question. All reviews are matters of opinion anyway, and completely subjective, so what outraged me may not make the slightest bit of difference to someone else. That being said, I was infuriated by the tone of the article because it essentially ignored Huxley’s dire warnings about replacing complex introspection and meaningful, layered human connection with superficial, temporary pleasures, like drugs and meaningless sex and constant entertainment and stimulation. Soloski writes, “But ‘Brave New World,’ which most viewers will remember – vaguely if at all – from some high school or college syllabus, presents a more ambivalent prospect and particular challenges.” First of all, Soloski seems to insinuate the novel, which she laters calls “…a literary crystal ball so dead-on that many of its predictions have already come true,” is forgotten. Or maybe she’s implying that audience members are too dumb to remember or too numbe to care? Either way, to handle this classic and intelligent novel with anything but the utmost respect leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Now I understand that Soloski is writing about the latest adaptation, but she seems perfectly okay with – again – the glib and hyper stylized and superficial approach taken in adapting Huxley’s novel for today’s audience. She doesn’t comment much on how “A collaboration between Universal Content PRoductions, which acquired the rights to the novel, and Amblin Entertainment, brought on for their world-building chops, ‘Brave New World’ began at Syfy, then moved to USA, before landing at Peacock, shedding story and concept and the occasional writer along the way.” SHEDDING STORY AND CONCEPT? I understand that adaptations of novels usually are scaled back and disappointing, so my outrage comes from coldy exhibiting that the creation of this particular adaptation has had too many cooks in the kitchen (and likely still does) and shakes off elements as integral to the narrative as story and concept. Is Aldous Huxley, creator and author, completely forgotten in all of this?
Simply answered: yes, he is. This adaptation seems to be dumbing down all the turmoil and hard-hitting questions that made the initial novel so wonderful. “The showrunner David Wiener (“Homecoming,” “Fear the Walking Dead”) apparently had the solution, situating the social theory within a love triangle.” It seems that the adaptation will not focus on the darker elements of social control but instead on a tawdry love triangle, which really isn’t a triangle at all if you’ve read the novel. And restricting it all to something so formulaic and overdone as a love triangle reduces the characters. For example, Soloski writes that the character Bernard Marx is just “an administrator with a thing for turtlenecks.” There is no mention of the accident that occurred during genetic engineering that keeps Bernard from meeting his “full potential” within the society. The importance of his surname is entirely glossed over. There’s not even a subtle hint at the extreme inner conflict that leads Bernard down a dark and twisted path.
The plot itself is changed to be more action-packed, it seems. “When the holiday goes wrong – the Savage Lands had a sedition issue – Bernard and Lenina escape with the help of a sweaty, stubbly John (Alden Ehrenreich) and his raspy, bottle-blond mom (Demi Moore). John returns with them to New London and he, Lenina and Bernard, each of them grasping for greater human connection, form the basic geometry.” In the novel, John does not help anyone escape. He’s brought back as an oddity, a point of interest. The fact that his mother travels with him is so much more important than Soloski lets on. John is considered a Savage because he believes in natural procreation and has a family and doesn’t take mood stabilizers; he is a Romantic. He doesn’t really fit in with the Savages either for reasons I won’t reveal because of spoilers, but all that is gone or minimized so that he becomes an action hero, some sweaty and muscular archetype to play against an intellectual in a love triangle which is so uninspired that it is unworthy of Huxley’s excellent novel.
As a matter of fact, the focus of the article and the adaptation itself seems to be on style and appearance more than substance. The article discusses at length the set design and filming locations and the use (or lack thereof) of CGI. This seems to be done intentionally. “The novel’s utopian vision, with its ugly flares of racism and misogyny, also required renovation. ‘The book’s hugely problematic,’ Wiener said. So the show pivoted toward equality, race-bending and gender-flipping several of the supporting characters.” BUT THAT’S THE POINT! The utopia presented in Huxley’s novel isn’t a utopia at all. It is, in fact, a dystopia where freedom of choice has been so eradicated that there is absolutely no individuality and people are genetically engineered to fit a specific social class. People are designed to be inferior in different ways so others can remain superior. No, that doesn’t preach equality, but it does reveal a darker truth about humanity that no one seems to want to grapple with because it’s messy and uncomfortable, but to paraphrase John the Savage’s great speech towards the end of the novel, it’s my right to be uncomfortable and messy and unhappy if I want to be, so give it all to me! Let me be exposed to elements of misogyny and racism in the story, and then decide for myself how to react. Removing the more difficult aspects of the prose limits the reader’s reaction and involvement and erodes the author’s purpose.
But no; this adaptation is limited to fluffy entertainment and does so to the point where the characters are reduced and less complex and less riveting. “The main characters have undergone some changes, too. Lenina, a cheerful sex bunny in the book, has been granted interiority. Pompous Bernard has softened. In the novel, John is prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” Lenina was not just “a cheerful sex bunny;” she was grappling with being monogamous when promiscuity was the norm and struggling with her feelings for John. She had interiority; it didn’t need to be added! And how could Bernard possibly be softened when he is the villain? But the worst crime of all is how Soloski calls John “prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.” SERIOUSLY? John wanted nobility and dignity and was searching for a real sense of self. He wanted to feel it all and experience it all. The actor who plays John, Alden Ehrenreich, understands this (which makes me like him even more than I already do). Soloski writes, “So Ehrenreich’s John has loosened up and muscled up, though he remains extremely emo. Ehrenreich, best known as the titular swashbuckler in ‘Solo,’ prefers to describe John as romantic.” Soloski’s tone is disturbingly dismissive when discussing the hero of the novel. To label him as “emo” discredits him and his beliefs.
Huxley, through John the Savage and his interaction with the “new society,” critiques the superficial society that is so often praised and preferred. People choose to numb themselves and self-medicate to avoid the more difficult and disconcerting aspects of being a member of the human race. People choose fleeting sexual pleasure because it “feels good” instead of working to build lasting relationships, which disintegrates family units, and the social control in the novel is fine with this because “united we stand, divided we fall.” Keeping citizens dumb and numb and disconnected keeps them easier to control and manipulate. John becomes a hero because he rejects that notion. He tells the powers that be in the “futuristic” society of the novel just that when he says, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
It seems that the new adaptation and, in part, Soloski’s article about it both miss the point of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. They’re dumbing down one of the most important stories of the 20th century so people will have something to binge, to mindlessly consume, “while the world burns” around them. The Universal Content president told Soloski multiple times that “the show shouldn’t feel like homework.” They don’t want people to think and come to their own conclusions and judgments. The creators of the adaptation are creating an entertainment trap to keep people caged in superficiality and consumer culture, which is supremely ironic because those are some of the very kinds of traps exposed by Huxley. We are living in “Brave New World,” but this adaptation doesn’t really want viewers to realize that, so they’ve made changes to soften and remove “problematic” elements. In doing so, they’ve removed the author and his purpose, compromised artistic integrity, and likely ruined an important, classic novel for a new generation. It’s a shame.
To be fair, I haven’t streamed an episode yet. But I will when they become available today (and you can check out the trailer here), and I will swallow my pride and admit it if I’m wrong. But the tone of Soloski’s write-up in the New York Times has me worried. I feel like John the Savage, throwing away the Soma so people will finally wake up and realize what is actually going on.