The noted science fiction/crime writer Paul McAuley has written the BFI Film Classic volume on Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil. It’s kind of surprising that it took them this long to write one for a film that is such a modern classic of cinema. It also happens to be my favourite film of all time, so I had trepidations about reading it, but McAuley instantly set my anxieties at ease with this extremely well written and researched book.
McAuley has certainly done his research, and utilizes previous books on the film, mainly the brilliant Battle for Brazil, to great affect. This is coming from a guy who jokingly calls it “a book I accidently wrote” on his blog. It uses numerous interviews from Gilliam over the years explaining the background to how the film came to be, the production, and the battle over the film’s final cut. Gilliam eventually won his battle against Sid Sheinberg to release his version of Brazil even if he would later tweak it in a final director’s cut for Criterion years later.
One of the book/s greatest strengths is McAuley’s comparison of Brazil and other science fiction films but also its long lineage within sci-fi literature. Brazil has been constantly compared to Orwell’s 1984 (a film adaptation came out in 1984 as well, the year before Brazil’s release) but McAuley details the obvious similarities. Both are about a man fighting a totalitarian system, but Brazil lacks the Big Brother figure of 1984 and it’s more of a nameless bureaucracy. It would be unsurprising to find that Gilliam was more influenced by Kafka’s work than Orwell’s novel—he claims to have read 1984 only after finishing Brazil (a similar thing would happen later with the relation of La Jeteé to his film 12 Monkeys) and Brazil is actually has a much more hopeful conclusion than 1984. McAuley also writes about how Brazil uses sci-fi clichés and subverts them, and how it sometimes it falls into them.
It naturally goes into the obvious political overtones of the film: it was influenced by IRA bombings and the Baader-Meinhof gang of the 1970s. The even more obvious connections were to George W. Bush’s war on terror, and Gilliam famously joked he was going to sue Dick Cheney and Bush over their unauthorized remake of Brazil. It also quite brilliantly dissects the entire film scene by scene, which is quite astonishing giving the book’s slim length of 96 pages. Gilliam aficionados may not learn much new information about the film, but it’s a highly enjoyable quick read that fans of Gilliam, sci-fi films, and simply film in general will enjoy.