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AT&T : Escape Stressful Times ... in the Great Depression?

07/06/2020 | 12:39pm EST

By Tobias Grey

As a barrage of economic forecasts veer between overnight recovery and meltdown, several coming novels, TV series, films and videogames are offering escape by holding up a mirror to the financial trauma of the early 1930s.

The Great Depression underpins HBO's "Perry Mason" reboot and, more indirectly, Universal's new series adaptation of Aldous Huxley's classic science fiction novel "Brave New World," which premieres on NBC's Peacock streaming platform on July 15.

Huxley wrote his novel in 1931 during the height of the Depression in the U.K., where he became disillusioned by mass unemployment and street rioting. The new TV version, starring Alden Ehrenreich and Demi Moore, bills itself as a show about "a utopian society that has achieved peace and stability through the prohibition of monogamy, privacy, money, family and history itself."

Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro's new movie "Nightmare Alley" also has the Depression as a backdrop. The thriller suspended filming in March because of the coronavirus pandemic but plans to resume shooting in the fall.

Contemporary novelists are digging into the Depression: Christina Schwarz's "Bonnie," out on July 7, looks at the life of notorious bank robber Bonnie Parker, who made headline news during the 1930s with her accomplice and lover, Clyde Barrow. Meanwhile Kristin Hannah's new novel "The Four Winds," out next February, will focus on the 1930s drought that devastated the Great Plains.

Finally, the popular videogame Mafia, set during the Depression, is being remade and will launch this August as Mafia: Definitive Edition.

In "Bonnie," life begins promisingly enough for young Bonnie Parker, growing up in the 1920s with her widowed mother in the former town of Cement City, in West Dallas. "It seems that she may have been a straight-A student before she dropped out of school to marry at the age of 15," Ms. Schwarz said. "We know that she won a big Dallas spelling bee and spent a lot of time writing poetry."

When the Depression hits, her marriage collapses and the cafe where she works as a waitress goes out of business. Into this vacuum steps Clyde Barrow, who promises to transform her drab existence. "Everything was shutting down and Bonnie really wanted more life and more liveliness," Ms. Schwarz said. "So indirectly, the Depression encouraged her to look somewhere else for a different kind of life."

Ms. Schwarz fondly recalls going to the cinema to watch Arthur Penn's film "Bonnie and Clyde," starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, when it came out in 1967. She said she was careful not to re-watch it while working on her novel, because its sense of glamour and its stylish tics were far from the kind of world she wanted to project. "I like gritty details generally," she said, "so I think the idea of showing something more psychologically and emotionally real, and in terms of the setting, was part of what I was trying to do with my novel."

Instead of a string of impressive bank heists, most of the robberies in "Bonnie" are holdups of mom-and-pop groceries and service stations. "This was something I was very surprised to discover when I did my research," Ms. Schwarz said. "At the most extreme end of their poverty, Bonnie and Clyde literally broke into gumball machines for the pennies."

Showrunners Rolin Jones and Ron Fitzgerald sought a similar degree of Depression-era veracity for their "Perry Mason" reboot. The eight-part series, which drew 1.7 million HBO viewers for its first episode when it premiered last month, depicts a less-ethical, more-tortured Perry Mason, as played by Matthew Rhys, than the long-running TV series starring Raymond Burr that ran from 1957 to 1966.

"Nightmare Alley," which stars Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett as scheming grifters, is also a reboot. The original novel by William Lindsay Gresham came out in 1946 and was made into a film noir starring Tyrone Power a year later.

The original versions of "Nightmare Alley" and "Perry Mason" were respectively subject to the Motion Picture Production Code and the Television Code, which sought to enforce moral standards.

HBO's Perry Mason might give viewers who knew the older TV character a bit of a jolt.

"Maybe our take on 'Perry Mason' comes across as more hard-core and angry because we have associations with movies and shows that were done when those codes were in place," Mr. Jones said.

Messrs. Jones and Fitzgerald revisited Erle Stanley Gardner's early "Perry Mason" novels from the 1930s to excavate an origins story tracing Mason's unconventional journey from private investigator to attorney-at-law.

"The America he described was one where wages were quite low and a lot of people were scraping by," Mr. Jones said. "Overall our portrait is of a harder, tougher American character. Men and women of the time were tougher people back then because on a daily basis they had to suck it up."

Set in Los-Angeles, the series uses a murder investigation to explore such themes as institutional racism, police malfeasance, closeted homosexuality, media manipulation and the right to demonstrate.

"Those sorts of things were all whitewashed for a more tender-footed audience, but if you read any crime reports from the time you'd be like: 'Well, there you go,'" Mr. Jones said.

"Sadly not a whole lot has changed in the 90 years between when we set this series and today," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "For us it was an opportunity to write about what we're seeing outside our windows, but also tell a story that takes place in 1932."

Write to Tobias Grey at wsje.weekend@wsj.com


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