A short film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, 2081 depicts a dystopian future in which, thanks to the 212th Amendment to the Constitution and the unceasing vigilance of the United States Handicapper General, everyone is “finally equal….” The strong wear weights, the beautiful wear masks and the intelligent wear earpieces that fire off loud noises to keep them from taking unfair advantage of their brains. It is a poetic tale of triumph and tragedy about a broken family, a brutal government, and an act of defiance that changes everything. Featuring an original score performed by the world-renowned Kronos Quartet (Requiem for a Dream) and narration by Academy Award Nominee Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven, Goodnight and Good Luck), 2081 stars James Cosmo (Braveheart, Trainspotting), Julie Hagerty (Airplane!, What About Bob?) and Armie Hammer (The Social Network). ~InternetMovieDatabase.
Chandler Tuttle creates an exquisite adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron in the 2009 short film 2081. I have not seen any of the longer adaptations to screen, but after watching what Tuttle was able to do with 25 minutes, I’m not going to bother with the others.
Tuttle’s translation isn’t completely faithful to the text, not translated word for word, image for image, but it isn’t faithless either. 2081 successfully invokes Vonnegut while leaving room for Tuttle’s own poesy.
In the dim lighting of a green and brown-hued living room, Tuttle transmits the weight of a society grieving—of a society who doesn’t understand why it mourns.
George Bergeron (James Cosmo) wears weights to weaken him physically and earpieces to disturb his mind from thinking, from remembering. His worn leather recliner affords him a view of the television and the door, a perfect symmetry to his conflict. In the short hallway that leads from the living room to door is the door to his son Harrison’s room. George receives flickering ghostly images of his young son being drug fighting out of the apartment by men is SWAT gear with guns. You see George struggle to interpret the image between bursts of sound in his ear and conversations with his wife. While the allusion to a police state is terrifying in its invasion of the home and its evident seizure of children, more quietly and resonantly horrifying is George’s inability to react to his son’s violent capture. He sits weighed down in his chair helpless and tormented—fearful. What sort of severity might keep George in his “handicaps” when his son has been ripped from their home?
Hazel Bergeron (Julie Hagerty) is another source of horror altogether, one, unfortunately, not all too unfamiliar. Sitting at the other end of the couch from the recliner, Hagerty is a marvelous counterpoint to Cosmo, acting out the placid Hazel, the apparently lowest denominator for which the year 2081 is providing equality. Hazel is the source of the audience’s scornful laughter; the laugh that widens the eyes in disbelief. She is what the world is favoring, knitting a too long sleeve on a sweater with mild embarrassment, only to come back and return to mindlessly further the imbalance later.
Hazel Bergeron: I think I’d make a good Handicapper General…
George Bergeron: You would.
Hazel was watching the National Ballet perform Sleeping Beauty on the television, a regular program, knowing she should enjoy it, but not knowing why. The program is interrupted, and so are her thoughts. After a painful iteration of how ‘equality’ might inhibit important communications, Hazel thinks to get started dishes, unconcerned about the important news bulletin—and misses everything. Her back is turned from the television which could still be seen and heard over her shoulder, but for the water, and the single-(small) minded preoccupation of domestic chores. The phenomenal shots where the lens rests to the left of the tap in the kitchen, following a waist-height line of vision to the events transmitted on the television, create incredible tension (the reverse shot of the above image). Hazel’s oblivion is heartbreaking—and enraging.
Tuttle leaves the living room for the Theatre where the Ballet from the television is being performed. Harrison Bergeron (Armie Hammer) has moved from the flickering memory to center stage, older, solid, and imposing.
Please be advised that Bergeron is a genius and an athlete, is underhandicapped, and is considered extremely dangerous.
The camera scans the appropriately handicapped audience , men and women alike. We’ve seen the ballerinas already, crippled by sashes with weights, masked. The orchestra pit is arrayed with inventive handicaps to limit each musician’s ability and potential. And before them all Harrison introduces himself and his plight. He just as dramatically breaks free of his restraints which are more impressive than any seen thus far.
A brave cellist plays, the music haunting and soaring as Harrison is accompanied by an equally determined prima ballerina (whose restraints he tenderly removes). Tuttle forgoes wire-work or any surrealist notion understanding that the his medium allows for the emotive power of sound; exhilarating, rapidly increasing, sequences of cuts; and the memory of how crippled the dancers had been minutes before. Tuttle depends on Armie Hammer and dancer Alina Fey to be riveting. They may be, though I found this moment (music excluded) to be the weakest—which isn’t saying too much I suppose because the acting, the pacing, the camera work and lighting, the sound—radiant.
Harrison Bergeron’s speech, appearance, the series of sequences involving the theater, have notable differences from Vonnegut’s text, but not to anyone’s detriment. The similarity is enough, the tension, the disgust, and the fear lingers just the same.
Was Harrison’s stirring protest for naught?
Hazel Bergeron: Aww, hon, you look upset. What’s wrong?
George Bergeron: I… uh… don’t know. Something sad… on television, I think…
Hazel Bergeron: Well, you should forget sad things anyway. I always do.
Director/Editor Chandler Tuttle
Writers: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (short story), Chandler Tuttle (screenplay)
Produced by Thor Halvorssen
Music by Lee Brooks, as performed by the Kronos Quartet and Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.
Stars: Patricia Clarkson, James Cosmo, Julie Hagerty, and Armie Hammer.
running time 25 minutes
A copy of Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut online.