‘Brave New World’: Peacock’s Adaption of Aldous Huxley’s Dystopian Novel Hits Close to Home
It seems every major streaming service needs to add an unsettled vision of the future to its roster. NBC’s new “free as a bird” streaming outlet Peacock launches ready with “Brave New World,” a dystopian series based on the novel by Aldous Huxley, one of the great classics imagining what is to come. It’s not much of an adaptation because what it does essentially is take premises from the book to spin out a seasonal show. The challenge in turning Huxley’s philosophical narrative into TV rests in two things: Showrunners need to invent a fresh thriller plot and most of what was considered brave and risqué about the book is now the norm. Take into account that in the series being a revolutionary means being monogamous.
Set in “New London,” the show ponders a future where most of humanity has found bliss through casual sex and staying constantly drugged. There is a strict caste system however defined by Alphas, Betas and the workers who toil to keep New London clean and functioning. Sex is even more carefree because there is no threat of reproduction. Humans are artificially made at “hatcheries” like the lab where Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay) works with others making embryos under the supervision of Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd). Bernard clearly likes Lenina but being devoted to someone special is frowned upon in this world. The two go on a vacation to The Savage Lands, meaning an outlier zone where humans still live like we do today, except in a rundown, junky ghetto. While observing a reenactment of the primitive ritual of marriage, Lenina and Bernard are caught in an armed assault by risen “savages.” Almost killed, the two manage to escape with the help of John (Alden Ehrenreich), who they bring back with them to New London. Overwhelmed by the decadent world he is thrust into John begins to subvert the rules.
In terms of its production “Brave New World” looks magnificent. Its style transcends the plot by creating a future that feels plausible and visually seductive. Creator David Wiener has worked as a producer on grittier fare like “Fear the Walking Dead,” but with “Brave New World” creates something aesthetically sensuous. New London has sleek surfaces and plush offices. Its denizens move with an elegant, subdued tone and pop pills from small, metallic cases they carry around that pump like PEZ dispensers. There is no CGI overkill and the cinematography can be velvety. When characters stare outside windows in buildings or speeding trains the future looks as if in constant twilight with futuristic architecture. Individual moments apart from the storylines are memorable in their design, like a “Firefall” orgy lit like a feverish rave, or Lenina trying zero gravity for the first time on a craft taking her and Bernard to The Savage Lands. Close-ups of cells being manipulated under microscopes have the paranoid edge of films like “Gattaca.”
What “Brave New World” lacks is a more lucid story vision and intention. Aldous Huxley’s novel was originally published in 1932 and was a complete product of its time when industrial advancements, the rise of fascism, the Soviet experiment in Russia and other radical social changes began inspiring big speculations about where we were going. Notice the wordplay in Huxley naming characters “Lenina” and “Marx.” This Peacock version simply takes the characters and general setting and transforms it all into a standard rehash of what shows like “Westworld” have already, endlessly delivered. Curiously enough there is a lack of set-up. How New London came to be is never explored, what the rest of the world is like is never hinted at, or who came up with the basic philosophy that humanity would be happier if everyone was hooking up all the time. Because Huxley’s novel was more of a showcase of ideas and ponderings, never as action-packed as his contemporary George Orwell, “Brave New World” as a show struggles to balance typical action thriller elements with philosophy. The premise that in the future society will be strictly ruled as a swinger’s paradise feels watered down in the age of Tinder, unless the point is to force the modern viewer to consider monogamy as rebellious in our time. Hotels offer orgy pools, Bernard fights back the desire to only like Lenina. Yet what these feelings mean or why they should be fought against is briefly brushed off in quick dialogue about how jealousy leads to violence. Everyone pops drugs to feel nothing during tense moments, which speaks to our ongoing opioid crisis, but in nearly every episode it is merely a recurring prop, never fully explored. In other ways the show does welcomingly update certain aspects of the novel. The overlord of New London, Mustafa Mond, is turned from an arrogant male into a Black woman played by Nina Sosanya.
But if “Brave New World” wants to contrast sexually free elites with old-fashioned humans, then the idea appears to be we should relate more to the people of the Savage Lands. Why they refused to conform, are mostly white and decided to live in a zone that looks like a stereotype of the deep South is never explained. All we need to know is that the savages still have babies the regular way, get into terrible relationships and have to teach New Londoners basic skills like how to throw a punch. Demi Moore makes an all too brief appearance as Linda, John’s mom with a twang worthy of an episode of “Roseanne.” If the show had truly explored the class divisions and societal tensions between New London and the Savage Land it would be a more engaging experience. Once John is taken to his new home the writing goes into autopilot as he challenges the uptight, reserved surroundings, enjoys a few orgies and becomes famous as a curiosity (“is that a savage?”). Readers of the Huxley book know his ending becomes a complicated, psychological journey about identity. But this is a TV show so John is soon helping spark an armed rebellion where workers like CJack60 (Joseph Morgan) will go on a rampage, shatter the drug tanks and unleash all the terrible envy he nurtured while watching his superiors do as they please. Like the androids in “Westworld,” this becomes a classic parable of the enslaved eventually breaking their chains. And like “Westworld” this first season ends with its established order completely altered so the next season goes on new journeys.
As pure entertainment “Brave New World” is well-paced and features a strong cast. Jessica Brown Findlay and Alden Ehrenreich (given a better role than “Solo”) have chemistry and Harry Lloyd is perfect casting as Bertrand, who in the novel feels unsure about his gangly appearance when compared to his fellow, genetically-engineered Alphas. We are just left wondering what the show wants to say or cares about. Should we become a bit more conservative? Is endlessly hooking-up bad? Should we just let everyone live however they want? And is sleeping around truly as radical as the future will get? For Huxley’s pre-birth control era it felt that way, ours requires deeper questions, which viewers will probably discuss amongst themselves after the end credits roll.
“Brave New World” season one begins streaming July 15 on Peacock.