I would love to say that the reason I reread “Brave New World” was my immediate recognition of the connections between Huxley’s original dystopia and the current situation in the United States, but the real reason is less intellectual: I watched the Peacock adaptation.

If there is one merit to the Peacock adaptation of “Brave New World,” it is that it is so poorly done that it will make any person who remembers the source material want to reread it in order to scrub the television adaptation from their brain. I am sure that the producers thought they were making a coherent commentary on our society, but it ended up being yet another instance of our reality being beyond satire. 

Huxley’s seminal work and one of the defining dystopian texts, “Brave New World” focuses on New London, a society set in the distant future, in which humans are genetically engineered and conditioned to fit into a rigid caste system that placates its populace with orgies and drugs. At the top of the system are the Alphas who hold important governing positions. The ranks descend the Greek alphabet from there to the genetically-stunted Epsilons, who do the manual labor. The perfect harmony of this society is briefly disrupted by the arrival of a Savage, John, from the “uncivilized” lands outside of the pre-planned cities. Ultimately, though, John is unable to integrate into “civilized” society and is also unable to change anything about the society he sees as immoral. John is meant to represent “traditional” society, which means that, in a modern reading of the novel, he can appear puritanical. Even though the 1932 society Huxley was writing about is very different from ours, John is still representative of “us,” the reader from “normal” society entering a strange and amoral society. 

This connection between John and the presumptive reader is exactly what makes the ending of the novel so devastating and meaningful. (Spoilers ahead, but the book did come out nearly a century ago). John sees the true nature of what New Londoners think is their utopia and tries to extricate himself from it, but when he falls victim to its allure once again by partaking in a drug-addled orgy, he takes his own life at the book’s conclusion. We want John to be able to change the members of society, to make them see the error of their ways, to make them want truth and beauty over comfort and pleasure. When he is unable to do that, we want him to be able to live outside the society, atone for his perceived sins, feel content and live a moral life. Instead of accomplishing any of those things, he decides that his only course of action is suicide. Huxley’s ending reveals his desperation with the progression of society and offers the warning that no truly good man can survive in a society distracted by pleasure and obsessed with consumption. 

The Peacock adaptation is different, to say the least. John becomes a revolutionary figure, leading the stunted Epsilons in a murderous tirade against the ruling Alpha and Beta elite. He does not end his life; rather, the showrunners set up the ending and his character arc for a sequel season (which, yes, somehow has been approved). Peacock’s ending, however, is deeply ironic when compared to the ending of the original novel. Instead of leaving the audience in despair, the show leaves viewers with hope and anticipation for the next season. Instead of John’s efforts being ultimately futile, he is able to influence the very same Epsilons who are meant to be incapable of revolt because of genetic engineering and conditioning. Instead of being a warning against allowing society to get to that point, it is a promise that the heroic actions of one man can save a society. 

This is certainly a message, but it isn’t the message Huxley was communicating nearly 90 years ago. In fact, the Peacock ending betrays the book in a crucial way: It tells us that individual heroism can save the day. As one of the highest-ranking officials in New London society tells John in the novel, “Civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency … Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise.” The point of Huxley’s dystopia is that New London society is so utterly “stable” that heroism is pointless. The society is stable because of the drugs, the pleasurable distractions, the conditioning, the genetic engineering; essentially, it is stable because of immovable structural elements of society. Huxley’s society is unable to be swayed from its equilibrium because decades of deliberate systemic choices made it that way. Perhaps Peacock’s adaptation could have been saved by a more faithful following of the novel or staying true to John’s original characterization, but a highly commercialized version of Huxley’s novel was always going to be ironic. Peacock’s message is positive, but entirely misses Huxley’s original point: We cannot allow our systems to get to the point where they are beyond the capacity to change .

This message doesn’t require a lot of scrutiny to connect to our current political situation. Our systems are being tested — our electoral systems, our policing systems, our healthcare systems — and they are failing. In Huxley’s novel, society was too far gone to be able to change itself. In Peacock’s effort to recreate Huxley’s novel, one man is capable of completely altering society. Both models are extremes that do not have to apply. We can learn from both of them; we can recognize that not all hope is lost, but also that positive change requires collective, grassroots action that doesn’t always come from the top.


Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at emiliajf@umich.edu.

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