Why Brave New World adaptations are (always) better than the book
People talk about Huxley's novel in reverent tones, but the Peacock version was always going to surpass source material.
Nobody can agree on the new TV series Brave New World. A smattering of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes will make you think this show is either Westworld for dumb people or a decent-yet-self-conscious remake of Logan's Run — but with even more gratuitous nudity. But each new hot take about Peacock's big sci-fi series kind of misses the point. Brave New World is good because every single adaptation of Brave New World — from the radio plays of 1956 to the 1998 TV movie starring Leonard Nimoy — all have one thing in common: They're all better than the book.
Light spoilers ahead for Brave New World the novel (1932) and Brave New World Season 1(2020).
Two of the worst things that ever happened to science fiction were the words "dystopia" and "utopia." The reductive nature of these words ruined countless discussions about different varieties of sci-fi and gave dummy intellectual ammunition to all sorts of debates about the meaning different sci-fi universes from The Handmaid's Tale to Star Trek to Black Mirror to Brave New World.
Debating whether or not any science fiction falls into a "utopia" is pointless because doing so implies too much intent on the part of the creator. Brave New World is perhaps the best example of this: It presents a "Utopian" society that's actually a "Dystopia," making it both a study of so-called utopian ideals and also a critique of those ideals.
In her 2011 book, In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood explored how this works in her essay "The Roads to Ustopia." Atwood argues that throughout her career she has written several literary utopias and dystopia but that, she likes to use the word "Ustopia" because "in my opinion, each contains a latent version of the other."
At the risk of reducing Atwood's ideas to one sentence, what she argues is that calling something a "Utopia" or "Dystopia" only gets you so far because really, you have to figure out what the ideological map of that story looks like. In other words, you don't start reading Brave New World and say to yourself, "Wow, this society seems great," any more than you watch Snowpiercer and think all the people living in the front of the train are totally normal. The Savage Lands in Brave New World represents class warfare as a mode of oppression; or more broadly, "Utopias" that contain "Dystopias."
This combo occurs a lot in pop sci-fi but differs in the details. In the movie version of Logan's Run, respectable people can't leave the "Dome," but are also required to die at 30 years old. In Zardoz, savages exist outside of similarly protected cities, but those inside the cities are forced to live forever. In each case, an oppressive "Utopia" is shaken-up by the more "savage" outsider — or an insider becomes woke about life beyond their bubble.
Brave New World has both kinds of characters, Lenina Crown (Jessica Findlay Brown) and Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd ) are questioning the system from within. Meanwhile, a character literally named John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich, aka, Han Solo) threatens the status quo from without.
Ehrenreich's take on this character is inherently more interesting than anything from the original novel because he plays John the Savage as naturalistically as possible. Anyone who saw Ehrenreich in Hail, Ceasar! will know that this is his gift. Jessica Findlay Brown is also fantastic as Lenina Crown. If you thought she was good in the Black Mirror episode "Fifteen Million Merits," she's three times as good in Brave New World.
If you squint, Peacock's take on Brave New World is like if millennial Han Solo and Sybil from Downton Abbey were in a nine-part version of a Black Mirror episode that was like if Westworld Season 3 didn't make you want to drink heavily. As a TV show, Brave New World's strength is in the fact that superficially, it looks great. More importantly, the strength of the actors makes you feel like some version of this is real.
If you feel things about these characters or wonder what happens next, that's not because of the book. Novels like Brave New World and 1984 have been cursed by too much discourse and high school curriculums. Before you read Brave New World you're already told what to think about it. The dated nature of the prose and the fact that it's just not that well written don't help either. Yes, the ideas are ground-breaking, but that's also true of certain episodes of the puppet show Thunderbirds. As a novel, Brave New World suffers from being more about presenting its concept that telling a story.
The book is just not that fun of a read, and as showrunner David Wiener recently pointed out, aspects of the novel are dated to the point of being sexist and classist. By nature of adapting the novel, the makers of the show automatically made it better. Instead of just deciding the series was a "utopia" or a "dystopia," this is an honest attempt to present the ideas without labels and to plot them into a contemporary sci-fi narrative both retro and new at the same time. Calling the 2020 Brave New World an adaptation of the book is accurate, but a higher compliment would be saying it's like a much better version of Logan's Run.
You get all that high school English class critical analysis, but you also get a story with actual characters. John the Savage, Lenina Crown, and Bernard Marx are not amazing characters just waiting to have their stories told. If you like these characters or wonder about what will happen to them in the new adaptation, it's not because Aldous Huxley wrote them that way. And, if you don't like the new series because it doesn't fully commit to your preconceived ideas of dystopias and utopias, that's fine. If this series fails, it fails on its own merits, not because it failed to do justice to the source material.
If you want to get a better version of Brave New World, you won't find it in the pages of Aldous Huxley's novel. This is about as good as it gets.
Brave New World Season 1 is streaming now for free on Peacock.