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Hi! It’s Emma the Intern once again. In this episode of “Comparing Vonnegut Adaptations,” I’ll be looking at the 1995 Canadian made-for-TV film Harrison Bergeron.

As I said in my post about 2081, that film belongs to George Bergeron in that his reactions to the events of the story are the main ones we get to see. In contrast, the 1995 Harrison Bergeron is totally Harrison’s movie. Also, just as in 2081, the 1995 Harrison is different than he was in the Vonnegut story. He, too, is older – late teens to early twenties, I’d guess, since he has gotten held back four times on account of good grades.

What? Good grades? Well, yes. “Good grades” in the America of 2053 (don’t ask me why they changed the year) are Cs. Got a D on your last vocabulary test? You can do better. Got a B? That “band” (what the film calls the mental handicaps) isn’t doing enough good. Got an A+? Until your grades drop, you’re a permanent member of the 14th grade. Also, you’re Harrison Bergeron.

The 1995 version (featuring a cast with distinct Canadian accents despite the story’s firmly American setting) is a full-length movie, about 97 minutes long. I’d consider it more of a prequel to Vonnegut’s short story than an adaptation of the thing itself. Harrison’s still living at home and still going to school. He also desperately wants to be normal, not just have everyone perceive him to be. A teacher points out to him that other students would fake average intelligence by pretending not to know answers, but Harrison’s honesty shows “integrity.” That is this movie’s main angle: Virtuous Harrison.

Of course, Harrison isn’t Virtuous enough to consent to an operation that would give him “tapioca for brains,” so when his doctor secretly refers him to a “head house,” he goes to check it out. “Head house,” though, is an overly PC term; a more accurate term would be “brain brothel.” Beautiful young women, each specializing in a field such as 19th-century German philosophy or astrophysics, await visitors and take them upstairs to engage in intense mental activities such as debates and chess games.

Honestly, that sounds kind of awesome. I know where I’d work if I lived in 2053.

Fine, back to the movie. Harrison goes upstairs and plays chess with a girl named Philippa. They get along excellently, at least until he finds out the head house is actually a recruiting site for a secret underground government that runs the entire country. This is the only safe place for intelligent people to go – after all, average-brained puppets can only go so far – so Harrison agrees to work for them. He’s told he’s helping make the country a better place, but his insider’s view into the pointless executions and purposely mediocre television programs of his former life make him question how much good he’s really doing.

In this still from Harrison Bergeron, we get a good look at Harrison’s new and improved mental handicap. It’s got kind of a Frankenstein aesthetic, doesn’t it?

Now let’s talk likes and dislikes. Most of the characterization isn’t at all what Vonnegut wrote, but I’ll admit it, this Harrison gets me right in my squishy blood-pumping muscle. He’s just such a nice kid. He loves his family, even though all their IQs added together are probably less than his. And he genuinely wants to help the world. I almost cried when he pitched his idea for a children’s educational show to the head of the TV department, his eyes so full of hope and excitement, and the TV guy shuts him right down. (That show would give kids who watch it an unfair advantage over kids who don’t, you see?) Harrison’s government boss as played by Christopher Plummer is complex enough to make him an interesting character, as we discover when he shares both his love for Beethoven and his determination that the world, pallidly equal as it is becoming, will never see another remarkable musician. Philippa’s not bad, but her rebellious-beauty-awakened-by-love shtick is definitely a stereotype now, and I’m sure it was in 1995, too. The others? Meh.

Harrison with Philippa.

World building? Well, processing the world building of this adaptation is something like heating a pizza in a microwave with a broken spinner: one bite’s warm, another’s cold, and the whole thing’s a little bit rubbery. For example, Harrison discovers from watching old movies that his America looks a lot like the 1950s in terms of clothing styles and decor. When he confronts Philippa about this, she explains that America was happiest in the 50s – at least, that’s what the people who were alive at the time wanted to remember. Nice dig at the decade of TV dinners there. We also learn from Harrison’s history class that the future society of Vonnegut’s novel Player Piano, in which robots take over the economy and leave anyone without a doctorate degree in the dust, is the past in this current society. The response to it was to make everyone more equal.

All this is interesting, and the Player Piano inclusion is neat. But there are a couple of plot points for which I demand an explanation. First off, if everyone is so concerned about people envying their neighbors, why are there only mental handicaps? The physical handicaps from Vonnegut’s story, the masks, the weights, are all gone. Yes, people’s minds are supposed to be equal, but that’s not enough. Believe me, stupid people can still be jealous. Also, members of this underground government aren’t allowed to have children, but they’re working to eradicate genetic intelligence in the general population. If this perverse eugenics actually works, won’t the government be driving itself into extinction by depriving itself of new recruits? How will all those average folks cope then, huh?

Look at me. I’m practically defending this twisted society. Still, I guess it’s a good thing that this adaptation generated this much thought from me. Head here if you want to see a twist and expansion on Harrison Bergeron’s America. For book accuracy (and, in my opinion, a better experience), head for 2081.

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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