It's hard enough to believe that the Sixties were fifty years ago, and that milestones like the half-century anniversary of Doctor Who are just around the corner. But what's even stranger is that iconic elements of the Sixties are drawing renewed interest as projects for idea-starved entertainment-industry moguls.
The problem is that the Sixties were such a distinctive cultural milieu that adapting anything that's intrinsically of the era involves the risk of creative disconnect from the meaning and motivation of the original material. The comedy and relationship dynamics of Bewitched, say, are as charming today as they were five decades ago; but the subtext involving mixed marriages is likely to be lost on us.
Free Love and Free Conscience
And then there are the elements of Sixties and Seventies culture that are soaked in the social experiments around sexual and drug permissiveness (and the entertainment industry's eagerness to capitalize on the same to draw in young audiences). Even a movie like Logan's Run (1976), which is supposedly still on track to be remade with Ryan Gosling, will arrive in cinemas without the real, visceral Seventies choice that faced Michael York between the inviting, youthful hedonism of drugs and sex versus mature responsibility.
So what are we to make of the news that Barbarella is to be adapted for television? Can this oh-so-Sixties paean to free love and provocative fashion be brought forward to 2012 with any shred left of its original meaning?
A New Interpretation
The word is that the television arm of the French motion picture studio Gaumont is partnering with writer-director Nicolas Refn (who, coincidentally or not, is attached to the Logan's Run project as well) and Martha De Laurentiis, Dino's widow, to develop a TV series based around new adventures for the liberated young woman. Gaumont has recently garnered attention for developing another juicy property for NBC, the new series Hannibal from Bryan Fuller, also produced in conjunction with Mrs. De Laurentiis and starring Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy. That project, at least, is a bit less "of its time" than Barbarella.
The "out" might seem to be that the project is based not around Roger Vadim's now-unbelievably-dated 1968 film starring Jane Fonda from the House of De Laurentiis, but the original Italian comic on which the film was based. But Jean-Claude Forest's comic is, if anything, even more of its time than the film. The comic, which started as serialized strips in 1962 before surfacing in bookstalls a couple of years later, prefigured the sexual revolution in print in much that same way that Barbarella, the movie, would shortly do on screens.
What Does She Stand for?
Barbarella, the woman, is rooted in the idea of both female empowerment and social progress being expressed in terms of sexual openness and open-mindedness. The retrograde past aligns with restrictiveness that constrains both individual and collective development; Barbarella's adventures involve breaking down barriers enforced by the past and exploring the opportunities that technology and future innovations might have to facilitate that kind of liberation.
Consider that in the classic poster for Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, it's our titular heroine who's holding that very phallicly shaped gun; today women with powerful guns are not an unusual sight, but in 1968 that poster looked like a female appropriation of a male prerogative, or even of a male bodily function.
It's Barbarella who encounters the idea of an orgasmatron as something to viewed as a tool toward that end, and it's her encounter with it as much as anything else that's parodied in Woody Allen's Sleeper. And like any tool, Barbarella's technological orgasm facilitator can be both enjoyed and misused: the point is not the pleasure involved, but the freedom from claustrophobic, stunting social mores that allow possibilities to be explored and choices to be made. It's the kind of consideration that gave the word "counterculture" meaning fifty years ago.
Translating Barbarella's sexually revolutionary stance into the present day would be pointless without reorienting her in what would now be a similarly provocative direction. By our standards the actual physical sensuality expressed in either the comic or the film is relatively mild: what's shocking about her is the kinds of choices unavailable then and taken for granted now. To take a vivacious young actress today and have her cat about and play with orgasmatrons when every woman in America knows what D-cells are for is to dilute the character; the challenge for Nicholas Refn as he develops the property is that to be true to the character and the concept, today's Barbarella must be shocking to us.
Sexual Freedom, Then and Now
This is not the first Barbarella project to be floated in recent years. Remake rights for the property were snatched up by Dino De Laurentiis and wife Martha in 2007, at which point a feature film was announced with Robert Rodriguez was named director. It would have been not so much a remake as a new adventure for the heroine, but that version never materialized. Nonetheless it's the same impetus -- a desire to tell further stories about this character -- that seems to lie behind the current project.
It's a positive thing, in and of itself, to present a sexually confident heroine in a science-fiction setting, presenting the question of how social progress -- i.e., the future -- interplays with personal sexuality. But if the new series results in just a character that's sexually open in a way that 1968 found provocative but 2012 does not, is she really Barbarella?