How Brave New World updated Huxley's “flawed” and “dated” sci-fi classic
Showrunner David Wiener reveals some of the biggest changes made to the century-old literary giant for a streaming audience.
Almost 90 years later, a new show attempts to modernize a science fiction novel of overwhelming influence in an overwhelming year. In doing so, some changes had to be made. "It wasn’t a matter of adapting the book faithfully. It was [about] being true to the ideas,” showrunner David Wiener tells Inverse. “We hit the same places Huxley does. But we get there in different ways."
Premiering July 15 on NBC's Peacock, Brave New World adapts Huxley’s most famous work for a streaming audience. Set in a future “New London” ruled by class hierarchy and bodily pleasures that dull the populace, an outsider disrupts order with chaotic ideas like love, liberty, and individuality.
This is the third time NBC adapts Huxley’s book to television screens. But as the streaming wars heat up, NBC is giving Brave New World its overdue prestige treatment.
Where to begin? First, Wiener started with what he thinks the book is not. Even on Wikipedia, Brave New World is described as a "dystopian novel."
“It’s a Utopian book that exposes the dystopia inside humans.”
"A lot of people think the book is dystopian. I think it has a genre of its own," Wiener says. "It’s a Utopian book that exposes the dystopia inside humans."
Wiener zeroed in on the book's characters, specifically Lenina Crowne, someone Wiener feels was "an oversight" in the book and "a product" of Huxley's time.
"Lenina doesn't evolve in the book," he says. "She is the same at the beginning of the book as the end. That was an opportunity. For our story Lenina is very much at the center.”
Played by Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey), Lenina is a "Beta," an upper class tier in New London's hierarchy. Like other Betas, Lenina is sexually hyper-active and has a routine intake of "soma," a mandatory drug that induces artificial happiness. But when Lenina takes a vacation to the "Savage Lands" with her boss, Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd), she meets John (Alden Ehrenreich, Solo: A Star Wars Story), an outsider who opens her eyes to new/old ideas about the world.
“There's no genetic legacy [in New London]. That makes the hierarchy pure as an idea,” Wiener explains. “No one wants to be anything other than what they are until John disrupts those notions. Lenina and Bernard find who they are inside doesn't align with who they're told to be."
More changes came in John himself, an outsider connected to New London in ways he doesn't know; and the "Savage Lands," John's rural home where people still live a life familiar to our own, with monogamy, marriage, and natural birth. In the show, New Londoners visit the Savage Lands as a getaway resort to revel in — to borrow phrasing from the in-universe marketing — the "misery" of the old world "with all the comforts" of the new one.
The Savage Lands’ makeover into a Westworld-style vacation park is in contrast to its role in the book, where it was a reservation New Londoners visit to gawk at primitives. Wiener felt Huxley's "savages," described in the book with Puebloan imagery, was problematic.
"That didn't seem right in the context of our culture," he says. "He uses race as a way of reinforcing the stratification of New London."
The modernized Savage Lands, now closely resembling the rural southwest United States, stems from the indignities natives feel of the luxury tourism industry. "I remember the day we landed on that in the writer's room," Wiener says. "We thought about what it's like for the privilege to go somewhere. You go to Sandals, to a quote 'authentic' native experience. It's a solipsistic existence."
The rebooting of the "savages" afforded a rebooting of John. In the book, John shakes up New London with wacky ideas like love and war, based on his obsession for the forgotten art of William Shakespeare.
“In the book, John is kind of Mike Pence-like.”
"In the book John is kind of Mike Pence-like," Wiener says. "He's got a strict sense of propriety based on Elizabethan ideas."
Wiener believes Huxley's John would have made for boring television, but still wanted him to have "his private oasis" that defined him. They found it in music.
From Lou Reed to Radiohead, John fills his head with familiar music that sound ancient to the ears of New London. (One character asks John why anyone made music "with words in them.") In contrast to the new world's synthesized rhythms, John is a rugged Bruce Spingsteen ballad given form. "It helped us find John's attitude, through the Lou Reed he listens to."
There are other changes to Brave New World that feel made for 2020: Live streaming, which Huxley never could have predicted in his lifetime, is the new ephemeral media the author feared at the dawn of radio and television. The loss of privacy feels especially urgent now than it did in 1932. Consent, a foreign concept in a world of free sex and excluded from Huxley's book, has a moment in the seventh episode that reveals how alien the brave new world is to ours.
"What does consent mean where everybody says 'yes' all the time?" Wiener says. "It has huge implications, the sexual corrosion of a whole group of people. We wrestle with that."
But it's the spirit of Huxley's work that remains intact 90 years later. Just as it was explored in the book, the need for one's identity and the raw gift of feeling is essential to the series.
"It was important to be true to the philosophical questions he set up," Wiener says. "If you look at the book, it's flawed, dated. We have the benefit of being able to pass the book through the filter of our own time. Everything in the book really lends itself to that."
Brave New World streams on NBC's Peacock on July 15.