Apparently some folks I know slightly have been working on a new film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I have mixed feelings about this: On the one hand, I’m a fan of original story, and I even have a soft spot for the 1995 Showtime version. The latter deviated massively from Vonnegut’s plot—as it would have to, given that it’s a feature-length movie drawn from a three-page yarn—but preserved the spirit of macabre farce. As for the new film, if nothing else, I’m happy anytime someone is cutting the Kronos Quartet a paycheck.
To judge by the trailer, though, this new version—titled 2081—has been rejiggered as a slick, high-serioso dystopian drama, in which the protagonist delivers (apparently straight) such cringeworthy lines as: “I am an abomination… of the able! I am an exception… to the accepted!” And this is doubly weird, because while everyone remembers “Harrison Bergeron” for its cutting reductio of the egalitarian leveling impulse—handicapping weights for the strong, concentration-shattering headphones for the bright—the socialist Vonnegut was pretty clearly taking the piss out of Randian übermensch fantasies like this as well. Recall what happens when Harrison Bergeron actually makes his appearance in the story:
“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.
“Even as I stand here –” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”
Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.
Harrison’s scrap–iron handicaps crashed to the floor.
Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall.
He flung away his rubber–ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.
“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”
A stunningly gorgeous ballerina takes him up on the offer, and they literally begin to defy gravity as they dance together. Did I mention that Harrison is 14, by the way? Now, I have no idea whether this was the specific target Vonnegut had in mind, but this reads for all the world like a spoof of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead—certainly, in any event, of the whole heroic-rebel-versus-the-oppressors trope.
I hate to assume too much from the trailer, but it sure looks as though the filmmakers recognized one half of the satire—though jettisoning Vonnegut’s trademark absurdism—then played the other half deadpan. Which, in a world big enough for both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, they’re entitled to do, I suppose.
It seems especially apt that the film will feature Julie Hagerty, whose most famous role was in a film based on the straight 1956 thriller Flight Into Danger. You’re more likely to have heard of the version Hagerty starred in: Airplane! In this case, the trailer implies they’ve gone in the other direction: from black comedy to—well, to something that probably isn’t meant to be funny, anyway.