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Brave New World, written by Dan Mazur and David Tausik from the novel by Aldous Huxley, directed by Leslie Libman and Larry Williams, 1998, 100 min.
Note: This is a made-for-TV version, first aired by NBC in April of 1998.
This is a mostly successful version of Brave New World, which surprised me greatly. The fact that this movie was made for TV accentuates many of the flaws of the novel (more on that in a minute), but the screenwriters and the directors do a number of things right. They were not afraid to fiddle with Huxley's plot, which gave them two big advantages, a better beginning and a better version of the character of Lenina. There are also a number of very humorous scenes in this movie, an element which certainly does not come from Huxley. And the main thematic points survive almost intact from the book, which is frankly amazing. This movie is also well-cast, with some strong acting here and there. Leonard Nimoy is the only well-known name, but all the actors acquit themselves as well or better than could be expected.
Lenina and Bernard live in a world where society is divided up into distinct castes, from Alphas down to Epsilons (although we only see Deltas, no Epsilons), and both Lenina and Bernard are part of the privileged Alpha caste. Reproduction and education are under the strict control of the government, and happiness is the only thing any citizen should be pursuing. This lifestyle is greatly helped by the drug soma, a happy drug, easy to ingest, with no harmful side effects. Unfortunately, Lenina and Bernard have forgotten that "promiscuity is every citizen's duty" (and here is the first flaw of this TV production -- this slogan is catchy but promiscuity would be an unknown concept in a society without sexual possessiveness) and spend too much time with each other. Also, Bernard is part of the department in charge of societal conditioning, and their results are falling, which means that a few Deltas here and there are questioning their role in society. The plot goes into high gear when Lenina and Bernard meet the Savage after crash-landing in a Reservation -- they bring him back into civilization and all sorts of uncertainties ensue. The plot here adds a few things to Huxley's story, like the lousy conditioning results. Also, the identity of the Savage's father is changed, leading to a silly subplot about a Delta conditioned to kill Bernard (KILL BERNARD MARX!!). The movie begins with the Lenina-Bernard romance, which starts the story much more efficiently. Many of the setpieces from Huxley's novel are used to good effect here -- I especially liked the sequence in the Centre for Death and the ensuing scene in the soma distribution centre. Unfortunately, a number of unique aspects of the book are jettisoned in favour of generic plot devices (like the killer Delta) and the ending is changed in implication and in tone.
Leonard Nimoy has an interesting role here as the World Controller Mond. In fact, this was quite a casting coup, and nice judgment on the part of Nimoy to play against type. Here is Spock, telling us as he usually does what's good for us. He's convincing, but too bad he's completely wrong. I liked how the movie increased the importance of the role of Lenina -- Huxley was simply not concerned about the woman, as necessary as she was to reflect the desires of the male characters. There's some sexism here too, but at least Lenina has more brains and more things to do. The character of Bernard has also been augmented, making him much more forceful and driven by purpose. Unfortunately, that makes his fate less appropriate (in the context of a satire against this type of society) -- in the book, he was a loser and he got a raw deal at the end, and here the exact opposite is true. The Savage is nicely portrayed, and we feel his tragedy intensely. Some of his lines are cheesy, as if he were a standard anguished young man from a soap opera. But there's a great deal of power in other speeches, and I especially liked his little quotation from Shakespeare as he leaves the Centre for Death. The intensity and passion in that one short speech go a long way to prove Huxley's point about the blandness of a happiness-driven society. We see a few scenes from characters in the other castes -- the Delta factory is exactly as expected, but the Beta characters are extremely funny. The scenes where Bernard has to deal with a Beta data-technician are uproarious, and simultaneously reveal a wealth of detail about the workings of this society. I liked the generic TV personalities who had the same opinion no matter the subject.
Unfortunately, nothing about this TV movie allayed my suspicion that TV is itself soma. And as much as the satire poked fun at the media (like the newscasters with no new thoughts), this film still succumbed to some of the worst flaws of the medium. First of all, the ending is diluted to the point of irrelevance. The message that happiness can still be found is nice, but Huxley was talking about society-as-steamroller, not a bunch of namby-pamby do-gooders. To say that happiness can still be found for the simple reason of making the movie palatable to a larger audience would make Huxley spin in his grave. The intellectual bite of a dystopia will always be destroyed by the typical focus group approach as found in TV movie-making -- the pain of recognition is the point of a dystopia and what TV channel wants that? And how many commercials want to support a movie that implicates the commercials themselves in a sick cycle of happiness-pushers and societal control? Huxley's view of sexuality gets thrown into the mix here too, and the results are not particularly reassuring. The name of Huxley's drug, soma, is from the Latin word for body, which immediately sets up some disturbing binary oppositions. And in the context of some of Huxley's own experimentation with hallucigenic drugs, the theme becomes yet more odd. Are we supposed to transcend our body through some kind of mind-altering experience? And if so, why call the drug of choice in Brave New World by the name soma? The attitude towards the body is a little repressed in the movie, as the film-makers try to boost their ratings with lots of sex scenes. Also, almost every scene set in the Alpha bar had lots of close-up shots of skimpy halters, heaving bosoms, naked midriffs and gyrating pelvises. But if we put this in the context of the satire, then we are supposed to disapprove; we are supposed to say that promiscuity is not every citizen's duty because that way lies the madness of this society. So this film sells the very thing it condemns; structurally, its medium depends on soma in the sense of the drug. Of course, I'm making a rather fine distinction between TV-movies and movies of the normal kind, a distinction which might not exist (to the detriment of Hollywood, not to the good of TV). So perhaps the question becomes: is Brave New World as written by Huxley entertainment at all? I would say yes, with the caveat that, should it be under consideration as a movie, the script and direction need to be considerably more intelligent and nuanced than what we have here. Libman and Williams might know how to boost some ratings but they have no handle on irony, the irony that would have allowed them to overcome the flaws in Huxley's book and fight the demands of the medium.
Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.
Last modified: November 12, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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