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Greetings! Emma the Intern here. I’ll be comparing movie and TV adaptations of Vonnegut’s work, starting with “Harrison Bergeron” in this post. I found two adaptations of Vonnegut’s most famous short story: the 1995 Canadian made-for-TV film Harrison Bergeron and the 2009 Moving Picture Institute short film 2081. In this post, I’ll be looking at 2081.

This 2009 film, directed and written by Chandler Tuttle, stars Armie Hammer as Harrison, James Cosmo as George, and Julie Hagerty as Hazel. It’s about 22 minutes, making it the perfect length to show in a classroom with time for discussion or an activity afterwards. That was my first exposure to this film: in my eighth-grade social studies classroom, the day after we’d read the short story in English class.

Whether or not the film is faithful to the original story depends on what you look at. The setup is awfully similar; we start and end with the parents watching TV in their living room, and we get shots of Harrison throwing off his handicaps and throwing around a sultry ballerina, just as he did in the story. And, of course, the death scene is nearly the same. But there are two major differences I want to touch on – and bear in mind that different does not mean bad.

The first difference is the dramatization of Harrison’s takeover and death in this film. In the short story, Harrison just waltzed in and informed the people watching the ballet that he was the Emperor, gosh darn it, the Emperor! He was the best! He was fourteen and no one understood him! (Perhaps that last was more of an implication.) He also wore a clown nose to make himself look ugly. But Armie Hammer’s Harrison is 1) much older, 2) much handsomer due to the lack of clown gear, and 3) has planned this whole thing much better. His short, impassioned speech shows he wants to improve the lives of his fellow citizens, not just yell about how cool he is. He also has a fake bomb that shuts down the government broadcasting system, keeping audiences tuned in to his shenanigans. This guy doesn’t mess around.


This is a still from 2081. Harrison’s a looker, isn’t he? He’s also obviously not 14.

The second major difference is the presentation of Harrison’s parents. Specifically, his father, George. In Vonnegut’s story, each parent is given an equal role in the narrative. Hazel gets a few more lines, and George gets a little more prose description. But 2081 really is George’s movie. Hazel’s in the kitchen washing dishes for most of the ballet show, so it’s George alone who reacts to what’s occurring onscreen. It’s George who recognizes his son, watches him dance, watches him die.

George Harrison shuddering due to a noise generated by his mental handicap.

To show the contrast between the story and the film, I’ll add in Vonnegut’s text of George and Hazel’s post-show conversation:

“You been crying,” he said to Hazel.

“Yup, ” she said.

“What about?” he said.

“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”

“What was it?” he said.

“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.

“Forget sad things,” said George.

“I always do,” said Hazel.

And here’s the dialogue in 2081 at the same point in time:

Hazel: That last one sounded kinda like a gunshot. [Some time passes and she notices George crying.] Aw, hon, you look upset. What’s wrong?

George: I . . . um . . . I’m not sure. Something sad on television, I think . . .

Hazel: Well . . . you should forget sad things anyway. I always do.

2081 isn’t Harrison’s movie. It’s George’s movie. And I love that it’s George’s movie. It makes it so terrible. It makes it so good. You should check it out.

If you’d like to read the story “Harrison Bergeron” for the first time or just to refresh your memory, visit this link. 


Kathi Badertscher, PhD

Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
Kathi Badertscher, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Dr. Badertscher teaches a variety of BA, MA, and doctoral courses, including Applying Ethics in Philanthropy and History of Philanthropy. She has participated in several Teaching Vonnegut workshops and is a member of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. Dr. Badertscher has been a guest speaker on ethics in philanthropy, including at the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners – Indianapolis Council; Association of Fundraising Professionals – Indiana Chapter; and Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, Tianjin, China. In 2019 she received IUPUI Office for Women, Women’s Leadership Award for Newcomer Faculty. In 2019 and 2020 she received the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Graduate Teaching Award.
Dr. Badertscher’s publications include “Fundraising for Advocacy and Social Change,” co-authored with Shariq Siddiqui in Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, 5th ed., 2022; “Insulin at 100: Indianapolis, Toronto, Woods Hole, and the ‘Insulin Road,’ co-authored with Christopher Rutty, Pharmacy in History (2020); and three articles in the Indiana Magazine of History: “A New Wishard Is on the Way,” “Evaline Holliday and the Work of Community Service,” and “Social Networks in Indianapolis during the Progressive Era.” Her chapters on social welfare history will appear in three upcoming edited volumes on the history of philanthropy, including “The Legacy of Edna Henry and Her Contributions to the IU School of Social Work,” Women at Indiana University: Views of the Past and the Future, edited by Andrea Walton, Indiana University Press, 2022 (forthcoming). Dr. Badertscher is also the Philanthropy and Nonprofits Consulting Editor for the forthcoming Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Elizabeth Van Allen, Indiana University Press, 2021. Dr. Badertscher is an active volunteer in the Indianapolis community. At present, she is a Coburn Place Safe Haven Board Member and a Children’s Bureau/Families First Brand and Marketing Advisor. Dr. Badertscher holds the MA in History from Indiana University and the MA and PhD in philanthropic studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

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