Is the Book Really Better? The Challenge of Book to Movie Adaptations
Have you ever excitedly told a friend about a great movie you just saw, only for him to respond, “well the book was much better”? Besides being an incessant party pooper, he probably doesn’t realize that comparing a book to its film adaptation is more like comparing apples and oranges
For one, it might take 20 hours to get through a novel, whereas a film provides entertainment for maybe a tenth of that time. The medium is also vastly different. The narration of novels (whether first-person, or third-person omniscient) allows for effortless insight into a character’s thoughts as well as general commentary on the proceedings. By the end of a novel, it’s quite easy to feel like you’ve gotten to know the main character in an intimate way that film — and its dependence on action and visuals — cannot rival.
Screenwriters do book to movie adaptations anyway. Some stories are just too good to be left to the imagination and the dusty pages of a private experience. We want to see it and experience book to film adaptations collectively. Can you imagine if Peter Jackson never gave us the cinematic masterpiece from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy? I can’t. Its absence would be too painful for my film-loving soul.
Book movie adaptations will never go away. But despite the novel’s dissimilarity with the film medium, your friend might be right (though he’s not astute enough to deserve to know this). Some adaptations are better than others.
The Novel Behind the “Brave New World” Movie Adaption
Expertly learning how to adapt a novel for film is a serious challenge. Enter Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and the ongoing quest to make a screen version that feels good enough. Dystopian visions of the future have saturated our culture for quite some time, but it’s hard to imagine any modern story maintaining the level of relevance and insight that “Brave New World” has for 90 years and counting.
It was 1932 — Before George Orwell’s “1984” (published in 1949) and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (published in 1953) — when Huxley penned his pleasure-as-tyranny, techno-dystopian masterpiece. Arguably, his fever dream of Western decadence is much more prescient than either of the aforementioned dystopian classics.1
Upon release, it was received with decidedly mixed reviews by critics; many undoubtedly put off by the shocking descriptions of casual depravity that rode the line of good taste at the time (though today’s readers would likely greet such content with a shrug). The passage of time, however, has only further cemented its status as a classic among world-building literary treasures.
“Brave New World” Overview
The year is 2540. Reproduction the “traditional way” has been outlawed and replaced with mass-produced human embryos (not that unlike the human fields depicted in 1999’s The Matrix). The embryos are genetically engineered to fit seamlessly into a caste system of five tiers. At the top end are the Alphas — provided superior intelligence, health, fitness and leadership qualities. At the bottom end are the Epsilons — deprived of such advantages and further degraded to only be fit for menial labor.
The system creates certain expectations and limitations — whereas individual contentment naturally resides in acceptance of one’s designed place in the system. The caste system keeps society stable and predictable, while individual satisfaction is further enhanced by “Soma” (a drug not unlike marijuana, but stronger, cheaper, and with no side effects), casual “consequence free” sex (following the philosophy and aphorism that “everyone belongs to everyone else”), immersive theatrical entertainment (not unlike the virtual reality), and rampant consumerism. These free pleasures are readily available to the members of any class.
Although just behind the glossy curtain of the aptly named World State is a totalitarian regime willing to brutally enforce conformity, when necessary, the genius of the setup is letting the inhabitants enslave themselves to distraction and pleasure. Any thought of bucking the system seems uninteresting and self-defeating.
Of course, it takes an influential protagonist wanting something unusual — and being unable to get it in the current system — to shake things up to the point where the system itself might crack. The fact that the plot of "Brave New World" is merely good enough is further testament to the lasting power of its premise.
Understanding “Brave New World” Ideas and Themes
I first read “Brave New World” when I was a sophomore in high school. While I wasn’t yet old enough to fully comprehend its greatness, it lit a fire to my imagination and took me on a life-long journey to understand human nature on both a philosophical and psychological level.
No matter how wild the premise, the stories that resonate with me are the ones that seem to grasp the simple but easily mangled reality that human nature doesn’t change. That does not mean that human beings on an individual level can’t change their behavior — or that civilizations around the world don’t offer a broad variety of collective human action — but that human nature is essentially made up of the same competing forces. The essence of human beings can’t be altered from the top down. A “perfect” society can’t make perfect people. Therefore, a society can never be perfect.
What still rings true today about “Brave New World” is the idea that people are usually their own worst enemy when it comes to living a life intentionally and with deep meaning. Although totalitarianism by brutal force might resonate more with those who have lived through the Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, tyranny by pleasure is something that most citizens of the West in the 21st century can probably relate to. It’s a feature of an abundance of wealth, resources, technology and entertainment. It’s reflected in the ubiquitous availability of recreational drugs, pornography, powerful escapist entertainment and dopamine-spiking virtual “socializing.”
It’s easier today than at any time in human history to live a lifetime of complete distraction, unaware of the depth of its meaninglessness. While material poverty is still a horrific reality to overcome in many parts of the world, we are clearly seeing the unintended consequences of Western decadence unbound by a widely agreed upon moral code.
But on a granular level, what “Brave New World” and America in the 21st century reveal isn’t that modernity has fundamentally changed human nature. Instead, some civilizations simply make the worst parts of human nature easier to indulge. The brutal reality of the Middle Ages, for example, meant there was less social cost to engage in violence and exploitation. But today, the low social cost of laziness, addiction and self-indulgence may turn out to be our society’s biggest weakness.
Book to Movie Adaptations: “Brave New World” Movie
Thus far, “Brave New World” has inspired two film adaptations and a TV series. The critical consensus has been that none of them measure up to the source material. In 1985, media critic Neil Postman said, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”2 Maybe “Brave New World” as a great novel is enough. But we have to choose to keep reading. Or even better, an ambitious new filmmaker needs to step up to the plate and finally craft the definitive book to film adaptation of this masterpiece in order to keep the timeless insight into human nature fresh in the consciousness of the next generation’s pop culture.
How to adapt a novel for film is something specifically taught here at Grand Canyon University (GCU). There is a strong emphasis on story undergirding our digital film program, along with the wisdom that comes from a robust Christian worldview. The future cinema masterpiece could very well come from one of GCU’s film students.
1Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. London, Chatto and Windus, 1932.
2Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse In The Age of Show Business. New York, Penguin Books, 2005.
Approved by the author of the blog on Jan. 20, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.
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