Grave New World

In 1946, fourteen years after he first published Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote a foreword to a postwar edition of the novel, forgiving himself for failing to predict nuclear fission but also wishing he’d offered some alternative other than a primitive religion, “half fertility cult and half Penitente ferocity,” to his engineered utopia of bottled babies and somatic stupefaction. Such a “third” way would have embraced the economics of Henry George, the politics of Prince Kropotkin, and a humane technology in the service of a faith that sought “the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman.” We should consider ourselves lucky to have escaped this embarrassment. We aren’t so lucky in the improvements foisted on the novel by this TV version (Sunday, April 19; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC).

Within the limitations of a TV-movie budget, it is nifty to look at. While Sikorsky would not develop a successful prototype of Leonardo’s original design till 1940, Huxley in 1932 loved the whole idea of helicopters, and they’re deployed here like the hounds of Heaven, Roto-Rootering amid celestial spires that only faintly resemble the concrete-Twinkie style of modern skyscraper architecture. The hatcheries where the kidstuffs of the future are “decanted” – from computer-matched DNA samples, according to a color-coded caste system of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, and semi-moronic Epsilons – epitomize our worst dreams of gene-splicing, people-cloning, and bell-curved Charles Murrays, as do the nightmare dorms in which these chicks are conditioned, by “hypnopaedia,” into everything from “elementary class consciousness” to a hatred of botany and books. I miss the Slough Crematorium, where the novel recovered phosphorous from adult corpses, as well as the Internal and External Secretion Trust. But otherwise, with its nap-time whispers, theme-park slogans, virtual-reality “feelies,” pervasive scent, and community sings, this brave new cloud chamber could have been fabricated from the Spam in our e-mail.

Also watchable are the actors. As Bernard Marx, Peter Gallagher has the sort of wounded-Hamlet wince in which Dirk Bogarde used to specialize – exactly right for an Alpha psychologist beginning to have his doubts about a society of hedonist-consumers who distract themselves with feelies, suck on sex-hormone chewing gum, dope up on super-Prozac soma, plug each other in like Tinker Toys (“Orgy-porgy!”), and get a regular monthly flush of Violent Passion Surrogate (“all the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona … without any of the inconveniences”). As Lenina Crowe, a party girl at the State Conditioning Center who’ll lose her sailor’s blouse, cartridge belt, and “zippicamiknicks” while accompanying Bernard on a whirlybird visit to the D. H. Lawrence badlands of New Mexico, Rya Kihlstedt is a licorice twist of exotic sulk. As “John the Savage,” the Shakespeare-quoting malcontent they bring back to London with them, Tim Guinee’s a volatile combustion of heat and light, wonder and rage, desire and shame. Not only does Leonard Nimoy play Mustapha Mond, the exalted Controller of all this Community, Identity, and Stability, as part Grand Inquisitor and part Prospero pixie, but he also gets to wear the best and brightest tunics and dashikis. Miguel Ferrer must dress down as the Mother Hen at the Baby Hatch, but at least in the movie, if not in the novel, he will kill somebody. In the novel, the outcast mother of the savage John was merely fat, whereas, in the movie, she’s Sally Kirkland.

You will have noticed “Marx” and “Lenina.” There are also characters in the novel with names like Sarojini Engels, Herbert Bakunin, and Polly Trotsky, not to mention a Benito Hoover and a Darwin Bonaparte, and a Dr. Wells (for H.G.), although none of them makes it into the movie, not even Helmholtz Watson, who was a much nicer guy than Bernard.

Aldous Huxley was not a nice guy, at least till later in his life, after he had discovered hallucinogens and gone Californian. This is the paragraph you’re advised to skip if you don’t care what the movie’s done to the novel and are so desperate for narrative surprise, you’ll scruple at nothing to get it. Brave New World the heartless novel laughed at everybody in it, except, of course, for Shakespeare. Brave New World the solemn movie would rather melodramatize. In the novel, pop tart Lenina certainly never fell in love with Bernard or anyone else, or ended up pregnant on a beach. And crybaby Bernard didn’t escape to join her in parenting on that beach but was shipped off to Iceland for crimes against the state. And John the Savage was less than wholly Noble; he was a self-flagellating sadomasochist (until he hanged himself in a lighthouse Huxley probably borrowed from Virginia Woolf). And nobody murdered anybody.

What can I tell you? They’ve done it again. Huxley has been networked. Or Epsilonned.

Grave New World