How did you come to script the adaptation of Brave New World?
I wrote an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for the last ‘Dangerous Visions’ season. I also did a new version of Nineteen Eighty-Four for the Orwell centenary. I seem to be the candidate for these monoliths, which is very gratifying.
I suppose it might partly be because science fiction is still regarded as an unrespectable genre among much of the literati, and I make no bones about taking it seriously. As a kid I came back from the library every Saturday with an armful of those yellow cover Gollancz hardbacks and spent the week ploughing through them. Also, as a small fellow, I remember a radio (Home Service) serialisation of The War of the Worlds which literally made me a radio addict. I think radio is often regarded as a lesser medium among us theatre people, but for me it’s a valuable art-form.
And the short answer is, I have a very good relationship with BBC producer, David Hunter, and we cooked up the idea together.
You’ve made a number of changes to the text – notably the century in which it takes place. What was the rationale behind bringing it so much closer to our own time? And why alter the fates of the characters?
You will probably see that on some of the BBC listings the word dramatisation is used, and sometimes it’s ‘adaptation’. I do not believe my job is a simple expansion of a text, largely unadulterated, into speech radio. I think I have to find a place for myself within the work, and re-rendering for radio can mean quite seismic changes. I am therefore an adaptor.
Brave New World is very difficult. It has a whimsical quality which can undercut the gravitas of the content for the modern ear. It is set a long long way in the future, but I actually think there are many elements therein which we’re living with at this precise moment. Setting it a long long way in the future sort-of lets the present off the hook, and it opens the door to all the light-weight nonsense of nylon trouser-suited faux sincerity which has afflicted past adaptations. I wanted it to feel present, sincere, truthful and a bit gritty.
I also think Huxley is interested in the world he creates, but the characters are sometimes too sketchily drawn for actors to be able properly to animate them. I needed to make the story work in terms of how characters’ natures are undermined, and indeed changed, by the things they experience.
The tone of the book is quite even. The main challenge for me was to bring surprise, event spikes, stakes and jeopardy, and I made my adjustments accordingly. I hope it works for the listener. Drama is ultimately a very different animal to the internal voice of literary narrative.
The speech patterns in the book are those invented for an imagined future by someone living in a linguistically archaic past. I had to find a middle ground between then, now and the future. I expect it to sound ridiculously out of date in 25 years time.
What were the underlying themes of Brave New World that you wanted to bring out in the radio version?
That the sexualising of young people through popular media and personal devices is already here. That democracy is in crisis and we are teetering on the edge of global calamity which might leave the world profoundly changed. That love is a gift – a glorious and a terrible gift – which we demean, dismiss, don’t value, at the danger of terrible cost to ourselves.
Were you influenced at all by Huxley’s own Brave New World Revisited?
No. I treat every book I work on as a single entity, and as if I have today, on the first day of writing, encountered it for the first time and know nothing of the cultural baggage that accompanies it.
The book is often cited alongside Nineteen Eighty Four as one of the key texts in this period of SF literature – what do you think are the key differences in Orwell and Huxley’s visions of the future?
Nineteen Eighty Four is about post-apocalyptic totalitarianism which survives through terror and violence. Brave New World is about soft totalitarianism which is accepted by a population addicted to individual pleasure without commitment, and which has embraced a soporific existence. Our reality seems to be a hybrid of the two. Neither Huxley nor Orwell were entirely right, but we do live in their worlds never-the-less.