BRAVE NEW WORLD
Stan, available now ****
Somewhat fascinatingly one of the most famous novels of the 20th century – Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World – is notable for the almost eyebrow raising absence of screen remakes. Aside from made-for-television movies in 1980 and 1998 and a failed attempt by Ridley Scott and Leonardo Di Caprio to get a version of the ground about ten years ago, Brave New World has largely remained resistant to film or television adaptations.
Until recently, that is, with the new nine-part series that has just hit Stan in Australia. Starring a cast including Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey, Harry Lloyd from Game of Thrones and Hollywood royalty Demi Moore. Here, Huxley’s famous scifi dystopia presents a New London drenched in neon and futuristic monorails where, at first at least, lengthy glossy orgy scenes reign supreme. A supposed utilitarian utopia, in New London, monogamy is out, family is out, and privacy is out, but in exchange for this is what at first to be endless freedoms and eternal happiness. As one character says in the first episode, “if you’re not happy, you’re nothing at all”, and the strict caste system that governs this community that runs from Alpha Pluses to Epsilons maintain this veneer of contentment through the regular ingestion of mood-enhancing drugs called Soma.
The flip side to this glossy world are the Savage Lands, here a theme park where those who have opted out of the New London way of life have become a tourist attraction for the bewildered yet fascinated city dwellers who marvel at their supposedly primitive lifestyle. When these two worlds collide – as they so often do – we find how the series in its own way updates many of the questions that fascinated Huxley almost a hundred years ago: the ethical complexity of scientific development, the nature and value of happiness and the very concept of freedom itself. But these are all framed through more explicitly contemporary concerns, including but not limited to the growth of the antidepressant industry and gun violence.
Unlike Huxley’s novel, there’s something deliberately playful about the tone of this new series which, at times, is unambiguously camp, even funny. Regardless of whether you are familiar with the novel or not, this is a world that is very easy to escape into, and by doing so the series demands we ask bigger questions about the nature of escape itself. How deeply we wish to probe these more philosophical elements is largely left up to us, but at the very least, Brave New World is a slick, sexy attempt to bring to life on screen a tale that few others have dared to.
HORROR NOIRE: A HISTORY OF BLACK HORROR
Shudder, available now *****
If you have ever raised a sceptical eyebrow to the suggestion that horror cinema can have a political dimension, the documentary Horror Noire will make you think again. Playing now on the Shudder which is the latest international streaming service to join the Australian online viewing ecosystem, Horror Noire is perfectly timed for a more cerebral Halloween viewing experience, particularly for those with a taste for politics; while released originally in 2019, it’s virtually impossible to watch Horror Noire and not think about the broader questions raised about representation, violence and inequality that lie at the Black Lives Matter movement, not only in the United States, but around the world (including here in Australia).
Based on the 2011 book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to the Present by Robin Means Coleman, the documentary is bookended by Jordan Peele’s ground-breaking horror comedy film Get Out in 2017. That film was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, and Peele made history when he became the first Black person to win an Oscar for Best Screenwriter. From the very outset, the association between history and film is made explicit, perhaps nowhere as succinctly as when writer and activist Tananarive Due evokes lynchings, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., etcetera, and states simply, “Black history is Black horror”.
Beginning with the unambiguously racist pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation (1915), the film considers the omission or stereotyping of Black characters from American horror film history altogether as the genre evolved. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was considered a turning point at a time that race relations in the United States were also radically changing – that film not only featured a Black hero, but is to this day broadly considered one of the most powerful, intelligent and insightful films about the American Civil Rights movement ever made.
Moving towards the present day, Horror Noire traces the trends and tropes that largely led us to the point where Get Out became one of the most important films about race in America in recent years. The documentary is a powerful reminder how something as seemingly lowbrow and disposable as horror cinema can be a surprisingly successful vehicle to address broader social issues that have very real relevance.
THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR
Netflix, available now ***½
One of the most compelling and captivating gothic tales ever told, Henry James’s famous is-it-a-ghost-story-or-isn’t-it 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw has been a constant fascination to filmmakers, remade as recently as 2018 as a feature film called The Turning, directed by music video director Floria Sigismondi. While the classic 1961 version with Deborah Kerr The Innocents probably remains the most successful imagining of the famous story, American filmmaker Mike Flanagan has turned to James’s story to follow up his enormously successful 2018 Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House.
Renamed The Haunting of Bly Manor, those unfamiliar with James’s original novella can be forgiven for thinking Flanagan’s new series is a sequel of sorts to The Haunting of Hill House, as overt naming similarities are between them suggests. But this is an entirely new creature, both in terms of Flanagan’s previous series and even in terms of the original Turn of the Screw itself.
The basic nuts and bolts are still there in terms of narrative; a young governess takes a job at an isolated country mansion where she is to care for two young orphaned siblings, traumatised by the death of their parents and that of their most recent governess. But as the children’s behaviour grows more erratic, the new governess has concerns that something more supernatural is afoot and embarks on a mission to save the souls of her young charges.
But it is here where the similarities end. Less an adaptation, remake or reimagining, Flanagan instead uses James’s novella as the scaffolding upon which to build his own original story, one that introduces new characters, new mysteries, and indeed entire new mythologies explaining precisely what caused these peculiar things to happen at Bly. While some of these new additions are more successful than others, what is most interesting about The Haunting of Bly Manor is how in often surprising ways Flanagan maintains the integrity of most of James’s thematic concerns across his nine-part series, even though they manifest in ways those familiar with the novel may not expect.
This is by no means a loyal adaptation, and as the title alone suggests, it has no intention to be. While James loyalists may query if any screen reworking of The Turn of the Screw can ever fully capture the magic that made the original novella so special, there is no denying that – just as he did with The Haunting of Hill House – Flanagan has brought a literary classic to life for an entire new audience with a vision uniquely his own.