Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Casting 'Brave New World'

With her spirited refusal to conform to her society’s dictates, espousing a rebelliousness born of an intuitive and empathetic rather than a philosophical or intellectual hatred of totalitarianism, Katniss Everdeen is the latest, and one of the most broadly appealing, heroes in a long line of Hunger_Blog2dystopian dissenters. That she’s an athletic, stubborn and outspoken girl helps her stand out from the pack of men and one very troubled little boy who’ve dared question the repressive societies that came before hers, societies of which The Hunger Games’ Panem is a clear inheritor. One could picture President Snow enforcing an INGSOC-like (the dominant “thoughtcontrol” political ideology of George Orwell’s novel 1984) set of rules in order to safeguard against further challenges to his authority, to ensure a Katniss can never again inspire mass discontent. Maybe he should have read a little more before relying on dubious masters of games.

Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and another young adult novel, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, are three major dystopian precursors to the Hunger Games franchise. There have been two film adaptions of 1984, most recently a 1984 (tricky of them) movie starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. There’s also a star-studded The Giver feature currently in development: Alexander Skarsgard, as protagonist Jonas’ father; Meryl Streep, as The Chief Elder; and Jeff Bridges, as the titular Giver, are all attached. (Taylor Swift is also on board as the pitiable Rosemary. We’ve  decided to tactfully withhold judgment on that point.)

But the grandfather of them all, Huxley’s Brave New World, has only ever been adapted in the less prestigious format of a TV movie. A 1998 version saw Peter Gallagher playing Bernard Marx, the naysayer with a Napoleon complex, and Leonard Nimoy, in a piece of spot-on casting, as the powerful and intelligent Mustapha Mond. According to IMDB, another Brave New World adaptation  is in development. However, no credits have been added yet. We take this omission as license to cast our own dream Brave New World feature. Petty Bernard and tragic John are unlikely to draw the kind of fervent following that’s lined up behind the compassionate and hotheaded  Katniss Everdeen, but their story, if only as a kind of historical tract to show how we’ve arrived at telling the stories we recount today, is nonetheless worth the cinematic retelling.

Here’s how we would populate a modern film version of Brave New World:

Bernard Marx: Casey Affleck
The story begins with Bernard Marx, a shorter-than-average “Alpha Plus,” or member of one of London’s upper castes. Bernard is a vocal critic of his government, a powerful body with a contingency plan for every emotion or circumstance that could make a human feel, well, human. But Bernard’s dissatisfaction with his surroundings is less a function of any moral qualms he may harbor, than of the physical insecurities he most certainly nurtures. Bernard is short, like those in the lesser Delta, Gamma or Epsilon castes who have been born and bred to be ignorant, obedient workers. He’s often petty because he feels inferior, and easily loses his head when public approbation comes his way. But the actor who plays Bernard has to be likable enough for an audience to follow him in the film’s early scenes, to be a kind of hapless Virgil through whom we come to understand his world. It’s handy that, at 5’9”, Affleck is on the shorter side, but, more importantly, he has the ability to endear himself while also inflecting that voice of his with the necessary whining tones (the bickering scenes in the Ocean's movies come to mind. Inevitable byproduct of growing up a younger brother?).

John: Tom Hiddleston
When Bernard travels outside the city to holiday at one of several surrounding “savage” outposts, modeled after Native American reservations, he meets a woman who used to live in London, but who chose to go native rather than return to her home society when she realized she was pregnant. (In this world, all babies are test-tube babies, and sex is only ever a recreational, never procreative, act.) John is her son, the literal and literate noble savage whose desire to see Bernard’s “brave new world” leads to his tragic demise. Though Hiddleston is best known for playing trickster Loki in the Thor movies, his recent turn as the morose vampire outsider in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive saw him convincingly flash tortured variations on intelligence, pain, lust, and bewilderment, often in the same look. He’s a good decade older than the book’s 18-year-old character, but when has maintaining generational verisimilitude ever stopped Hollywood? Plus, hearing him spout Shakespeare, John’s favorite author, would be a treat.

Helmholtz Watson: Michael Fassbender
Watson is Bernard’s best friend, another self-imposed societal outsider. The two bond over their mutual dislike of their government, but Watson’s motivations are very different from his friend’s: Watson is the physical embodiment of an alpha male, the macho paradigm, who also happens to be a sensitive soul. He longs to be a poet in a world where there is no such thing as self-expression. Like Affleck, Fassbender’s got the bearing for the part, here equal parts manly heft and feeling grace – that is, when he’s not playing a sadist.

Lenina Crowne: Romola Garai
Above and beyond the fact that Garai (“The Hour”) simply needs more starring roles, with her approachable wide-eyed beauty, it’s easy to believe her as the kind of good society girl who attracts the various men (Bernard, John) around her. Although she’s a dedicated adherent to the regime’s status-quo way of life, Lenina needs a lot of the dulling drug soma to get through her days. If she were to go off the stuff, it’s likely there’d be a lot more stuff to her.

Mustapha Mond: Gary Oldman
Mond is the “Resident World Controller of Western Europe,” or the story’s head honcho. He’s cultured, smart, and not as one-note evil as President Snow. A former dissenter himself, as a young man he chose to give up his pursuit of science in favor of working toward the greater good, which, in his mind, meant minimizing the amount of pain and maximizing the amount of happiness experienced by the masses. If he has to suppress art and literature as well as his formerly beloved science, so be it. There’s something very warm about Gary Oldman, for all the villains he’s played, but not saccharine – you can see him nodding his head along in sympatico understanding while watching some poor subversive being hauled off to exile on his orders.

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
The director’s Children of Men may rank among the top modern-day dystopian tales, but it was Cuaron’s pitch-perfect helming of another literary adaptation, 1995’s A Little Princess, which has us believe he’d be perfect for the part. It’s all too easy to turn the source material for Brave New World into a depressing slog through didactic set-pieces that amount to little more than a gnarled finger-wagging, “Beware!” But Cuaron has demonstrated his ability to remain faithful to the content of a work while adding levity or an inventive touch that does precisely what he’s been hired to do: adapt the story to the visual and above all entertaining medium of the movies - as he does in this scene here:


Screenplay: Vince Gilligan
Because who better than our resident tragedian to tell the story of John’s fall from grace? Forget the other names on our list. “Vince Gilligan Pens Brave New World” is all the marketing this film would need.

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