When Aldous Huxley was writing “Brave New World” in 1931, he was envisioning a futuristic world in which humans were genetically engineered into a caste system. Those who were deemed the most intelligent were on top — the aptly named Alphas — but no one looked around or within to question why things were like this or if it was the best way. No one except a man from the “old” way of life who entered their so-called utopia.
The idea “that you’d rather be worry-free than engage with the world around you” present in Huxley’s book was at the heart of what showrunner David Wiener wanted to depict when he set out to craft the first season of his Peacock adaptation of “Brave New World.” But Wiener’s version comes almost a century after Huxley’s, and the novelist’s version of the future didn’t 100% come to pass.
“He didn’t have the benefit of the 90 years of history that we have,” Wiener says. “The book is challenging, it’s a little out of date, and there are some elements that aren’t as relevant anymore, so for us it was about, how do you take the crystals that feel really true of that book and pass them through the culture of our own time?”
Wiener is hardly alone in wanting to mold source material for a modern audience by allowing hindsight to shape certain elements. The showrunnners behind series such as TNT’s “The Alienist,” Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” and both HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and “Perry Mason” also allowed their larger perspective on events of the past to alter period-specific tales of race and class issues. They created projects that illuminate previously underrepresented areas of historical discussion while also highlighting how far sensibilities have evolved from the last time these stories were told.
“We all come into the world with biases and prejudices and shortcomings and gut reactions to situations based on so many things, but if you don’t examine those, how do you grow, how do you expand, how do you challenge?,” says “Little Fires Everywhere” showrunner Liz Tigelaar.
For her 1990s-set limited series adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel, Tigelaar was exploring motherhood, race and class issues around the arrival of a Black single mother and her teenage daughter, as well as the adoption of a Chinese American baby by a white family in suburban Ohio.
“We didn’t want to examine this binary of ‘You’re racist or you’re not racist.’ We know what racist people look like, we think, but it’s not people at marches in KKK hoods only; it’s also insidious, quieter, painful ways that it comes up in every moment of every day,” she says. “And so, taking on the challenge of examining what a white, progressive, liberal woman thinks of herself and thinks of her relationship to race, that’s how we tell a more nuanced story that I think, hopefully, can have people examine themselves.”
Wiener notes that the premise of “Brave New World” makes the only difference between characters “what you’re assigned when you’re born. It’s a ranking system, and we thought, ‘Well, shouldn’t different classes have different purposes? What that set up for us was an interesting way to investigate how these people who think they’re beyond bias, who don’t concern themselves with those differences the same way we do today, actually have biases too.”
In this case, though, the biases do not have to do with race. When Wiener created his version of the caste system of New London, it was designed to be a “multicultural utopia.” He rewrote important white, male characters such as world challenger Helmholtz Watson and world controller Mustafa Mond as women, and then cast women of color (Hannah John-Kamen and Nina Sosanya, respectively) to embody them.
“It made the world feel like it still had something to say about today,” Wiener says. “We wanted to talk about what happens when people are neglected, when people aren’t heard, when people aren’t seen, and what happens when you keep telling people to look and feel and do a certain way — what their reaction becomes.”
“Lovecraft Country” is in a similar position to “Brave New World,” in that it mixes heavy history with science fiction. The novel was set in the 1950s, but published in 2016, which already allowed for the story of Jim Crow America to be told with the weight of decades of lingering effects and still-prevalent racism. But as the epidemic of police discrimination and brutality against Black Americans has been pushed further to the fore in headlines and social discussions, showrunners are leaning into depicting it further on-screen.
“We are firmly rooted in the historical reality of 1950s America,” says “Lovecraft County” showrunner Misha Green. This means, rather than Atticus (played by Jonathan Majors) hearing about someone’s experience with the sundown law, which allowed police to shoot Black people in their county after dark, he experiences it first-hand. The show will “illuminate the horrors of the time, and highlight the parallels to now,” Green continues.
Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald brought to light the discrimination of the police against their own brother in blue, who happens to be a Black man, through the character of Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) in “Perry Mason.” Adapting Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1930-1960s set novels, they began in the ’30s, following the titular character on his journey to become a lawyer in a Los Angeles where “the economic disparity and access to power for the haves, the have-nots and the never- will-bes is pretty familiar,” as well, says Jones.
As Linda Ong, chief culture officer, Civic Entertainment Group, puts it, storytellers have to “choose whether you depict [elements of the past] as right or wrong.” Having hindsight not only allows for reflection but also calls for it.
“The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” showrunner Stuart Carolan admits some liberties are taken with what women at the turn of the 20th century can do: The character of Joanna (Brittany Marie Batchelder), a Black journalist and suffragette, for example, works at the New York Times in 1897, which is well before an African American made the masthead in real life, he knows, but around the same time, “Ida B. Wells was writing for a white newspaper, so we presupposed that the fictional character of Joanna could have,” too, Carolan says.
But the majority is based in fact, even if it is little-known.
“There’s a scene in the very first episode coming back this year with a suffragette storyline, and they’re outside the prison and we see the police violently attacking the protestors,” he says. “The African-American population in New York at the time would have been less than 2%. But they were there, and it’s very important to see them now. It’s shining a light on areas that have been neglected as well as wanting to be historically truthful. There were Black suffragettes, there was police violence and there was general violence at the time. So what we were trying to do there was hold a mirror to what is happening in society right now.”
“We need media and content and art to help us understand and to set the path forward,” says Ong. “If you look at everything from the Middle Ages — after that period we had the Renaissance — and then after the pandemic in 1918 and the end of World War I we had the roaring ’20s [and] the Jazz Age. And then even after the end of World War II, you had postmodernism, you had rock ’n’ roll. That is all defined by the first responders of, ‘How are we going to move forward and what does the new normal look like?’ And so it is the responsibility of showrunners, creators, filmmakers — all artists — to help model the world we want to see.”