Harrison Bergeron (1995)

You haven't made everybody equal, you've made them all the same...

A flawed but interesting adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short, short story, made for television in the 1990s, scripted by Arthur Crimm, directed by Bruce Pittman, and starring Christopher Plummer and a miscast Sean Astin in the title role.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War comes the great recession - called great because it is never-ending. The loss of defence expenditure to keep the world economy afloat, and ever increasing mechanisation in the workplace, leads to a second American revolution. The outcome of this revolution is the imposition of a curiously American form of "socialism" - or what they think or fear is socialism, which is something else altogether.

The film expands greatly on the original story and in doing so loses some of its satirical elements, though the fact that 2053 is presented as a nostalgia-driven 1950s, complete with retro-style cathode ray TVs and Oldsmobiles, goes some way towards amelioration if you retain the context of McCarthyism in mind: because this dystopia has much to do with America's perverse misunderstanding of socialism. In fact, Harrison Bergeron demonstrates that the US would do socialism in the same way it does capitalism - in a form so twisted as to be recognisable only by its omissions. To demonstrate: there are no free markets in America - there are only captive markets made available to corporations by government and regulated, or not, by same. Similarly, a socialist America would seek to entrench equality as a form of mediocrity which requires exceptions and exemptions to work, hence the ever present corporate elite. It quickly becomes apparent that if you choose intelligence to measure equality then eventually the society you create is only as smart as its biggest idiot: to this end the population is forced to wear electronic headbands which limit intelligence to the pre-determined average. But who determines the average?

The servicing of ideology requires a Commissar class and it is this class into which Harrison is recruited. He takes a job with the shadow government as a television executive, wherein he observes the true workings of the end of history. He is witness to the committees which decide the level at which the general run of life is to be pitched at the populace. But as he is gradually drawn into the elite's time and motion studies of eye-wash, a personal tragedy overtakes his training and he resolves to share his pain, and to show people how they are being duped and controlled at every turn. To go beyond this would be to spoil it, so I won't, except to say the film pulls none of its punches, none whatsoever - it even ends on a note of false optimism.

Harrison Bergeron came as a considerable surprise to me - I had long believed there were no 90s sf classics, as that particular decade was captured early by the awful X-Files. There is an excellent performance by Christopher Plummer as a sort of benevolent Big Brother, and much of the dialogue is witty and inventive. The film has a horribly corporate atmosphere which suits its subject matter very well. Lastly I'm reminded of L.P. Hartley's fantastic novel Facial Justice, the lost link between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's just a great pity that Harrison Bergeron remains so obscure - it deserves a much wider audience and greater reputation. It was apparently remade as 2081, a short film which I haven't seen, but I doubt very much it can better the original.


  1. I see the cast includes Buck Henry, a satirical stalwart from Catch 22 to To Die For.

  2. I think he plays the TV editor and gets many of the best lines as to why the programmes should be made as they are. He's one of those faces I couldn't put a name to. If you need a copy of this one let me know and I'll happily pass it along.

  3. Thanks - it's available on YouTube, as is 2081, albeit with Portuguese subtitles.

  4. haha, good show. It didn't occur to me to check youtube. I'll take a look at 2081.

  5. I've now seen them both, so thanks for a fine evening's viewing. A much more interesting look at two different takes on the same material than what is usually available, viz. the interesting 1970s version and the cocked-up remake. I found the short film much more intense and emotionally involving, but the feature has plenty going for it as well, especially the character played by Plummer and the Macauley Culkin joke.

  6. Glad you enjoyed them - I haven't got around to 2081 yet, but I will over Christmas I hope.