A certain weariness came over me at the prospect of this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; I’m not much in the mood for dystopian doom and gloom right now. But I was wrong to be chary: this is a book that will keep your bedside light burning long into the night. Fred Fordham’s retelling of Huxley’s 1932 novel is so sleek, owing more to the movies than to its original author’s prose – his subtly futuristic illustrations may bring to mind Fritz Lang or even Steven Spielberg (think Minority Report) – and, thanks to this, two things happen. First, the narrative fairly rips along. Second, the novel’s terrible prescience is pushed to the fore, the parallels between Huxley’s imaginary future and our own present suddenly so close, it’s almost painful at moments.
You know the story. “Everybody’s happy now,” insist the citizens of Huxley’s utopian world state – and it’s almost true. In this benumbed realm, physical pain and old age have been eradicated and familial and emotional attachments have disappeared; in place of passion, there is a drug called soma, which promises sexual oblivion. A few human beings, known as Savages, who were born the old-fashioned way, and retain memories of such banned books as the Bible and Shakespeare, are still to be found living in “reservations”, like zoo animals. But everyone else came into being thanks to genetic engineering, bred in bottles and processed into standard adults in uniform batches.
The only threat to this sterility is the upper caste, who run things. One member of this caste, Bernard Marx, experiences a restlessness and ennui that threatens to imperil the status quo. Marx goes on holiday to a Savage reservation in New Mexico and returns with two humans: Linda, the long-lost lover of the Director of Hatcheries, and her son, John, born after a regular pregnancy and raised on Shakespeare. They are, of course, considered freaks in London, but this doesn’t mean that John’s rebellion at what he finds there has no effect. The consequences of the horror he sees all around him will have powerful and far-reaching consequences.
Fordham, best known to me as the illustrator of Philip Pullman’s first graphic novel, The Adventures of John Blake, has worked miracles here. Lots (too many) of classic novel adaptations come my way these days and they’re almost always disappointing: lumbering beasts that are not half as good as the books on which they’re based. But this one really works. Fordham never loses sight of the central message of Brave New World – if life is to be fully lived, Huxley tells us, it will always involve some pain – but he also knows how comics work and this book is first and foremost a comic. I said that it brought to mind the movies, but if I’m really honest, his faces and his interiors take me straight back to my childhood, when I pretty much lived for my weekly Bunty (I mean this as a compliment, in case you’re wondering). Their retro styling is superbly dynamic: every frame full of adventure or pathos, or both.