How Amazon’s Utopia predicted a pandemic: ‘I’d kind of marvel sometimes, in a horrible way, at how similar the scenes were’
Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of the Channel 4 original is full of deadly flus and controversial vaccines – but the real story is something more insidious
It’s 2019 – and on the Chicago set of Utopia, Gillian Flynn is getting ready to predict the future.
“I think we all feel like we’re right on the edge of this crisis,” the Gone Girl author, now adapting Channel 4’s acclaimed 2013 sci-fi thriller for a US audience, tells RadioTimes.com and other press.
“Unfortunately, in the past six years, I have become the go-to person for all my friends and family to send any link that’s about the end of the world. Global warming, overpopulation, fires in the west... every morning it’s like I wake up and go 'Oh my god, why, why why...'."
Months on, we know how right she was – but surprisingly, the real danger was a little closer to home. Months before coronavirus became a dirty word, before anybody knew how to social distance or had endured a Zoom quiz (or forty), Flynn’s Utopia script was already preparing a tale of a mysterious flu virus, controversial vaccines, school outbreaks and deadly cover-ups.
When Dennis Kelly’s original version of this story aired on Channel 4 in 2013, it felt like a sci-fi nightmare – but today the story feels eerily reminiscent of the pandemic-stricken world we’re living in. And when we caught up with Flynn recently, she said the experience of watching the real COVID-19 outbreak unfold was truly stranger than fiction.
“I felt like Utopia was not science fiction, but on the edge of it in terms of how some of the plotlines went,” Flynn told RadioTimes.com. “And then as this started rolling out, it really felt very surreal and unlikely.
“I would be in the edit on an episode, and look up at the TV and kind of marvel sometimes, in a horrible way, at how similar the scenes were that I was looking at. So it was very alarming, it was very strange.”
As post-production continued, Flynn and the production team had conversations about how these real-life developments were reflected in their storyline – but they weren’t overly worried about the comparisons.
In fact, rather than deciding to cut any of the references to deadly flus or vaccines, the Utopia team actually considered cleaving even closer to real life by adding in a few nods to the real world pandemic, making the series feel more relevant and up-to-date.
“I mean we definitely had conversations about, do we ever use the word coronavirus?” Flynn revealed.
“We decided no, because we hadn't planned for it. Let's not add that, that feels one step too far.
“And in a way, I sort of like that it didn’t feel like we were trying to exactly mimic reality,” she added.
“For me that's not the point of the show, it's not a pandemic procedural. It's not Outbreak. That's one of the threads that are in a wider conspiracy about what's happening.”
The “Russian flu” in Utopia is just one part of a larger story, after all, which largely tracks the movement of a group of comic book nerds who get caught up in a deadly plot organised by a group called The Harvest. Overall, it’s unlikely anyone could interpret Utopia as a series solely focused on the danger of a pandemic.
Though for any real-life conspiracy theorists the Amazon drama may give some food for thought, with the story showcasing shadowy figures and organisations who manipulate events for their own profit. And in the end, these conspiracy theories were one of the crossovers with real life that Flynn says she found the most unsettling.
“This is why I first became interested in Utopia – that idea of conspiracy, lack of truth, spin, social media, that way that we're slowly agreeing that there is no actual truth, it's just whoever spins the best story,” she told us.
“And watching these different stories around the [real] virus take hold – one theory that was so close to one that I had just made up from scratch... those fears and paranoias coming to grip was kind of shocking.”
Overall, it’s hard not to see Utopia as a drama about our times, even if it was never intended to be. Full of world-changing outbreaks, cover-ups, spin and paranoia, it’s more relevant today than the UK version was when it first debuted – and, in fact, more relevant than the new adaptation itself would have been if it was released before March 2020.
“I look back at how smug we were as Americans - obviously, we haven't had a pandemic in 100 years! I just don't really think we got it,” Flynn said.
“Even though I had just spent a year filming it, there was still something about me that was pushing the reality of it away.”
Additional reporting by Ben Allen