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Non-Review Review: 1984

1984 is a solid adaptation of a classic novel, featuring a fantastic leading performance from John Hurt as Winston Smith. The movie (released to coincide with the year) suffered a bit at the time (and in retrospect) from not being the best adaptation of Orwell’s ground-breaking novel to make it the big screen in 1984-5 – being somewhat upstaged by Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil. While obviously not a direct adaptation of the novel (in fact, Gilliam has admitted he hadn’t even read the book at the time of release), the latter film explores the same core themes and ideas. However, virtually any film would pale in comparison when measured against a movie like Brazil (which ranks in my top ten films ever), and 1984 really deserves to be seen on its own merits.

Welcome to an edition of Big Brother where every room is a "Diary Room"...

Everyone knows the story of 1984. Even if you’ve never heard of or picked up the book, Orwell’s cynical and depressing world view has filtered through pop culture osmosis into our collective subconscious. It was, after all, this book which introduced concepts like “big brother” or “room 101”. Hell, most people will even have encountered other concepts like an “unperson” or “doublespeak” or “we are the dead” without ever having any direct interaction with Orwell’s core text. Indeed, Orwell’s depiction of a completely hopeless fascist future pretty much defined what a soulless futuristic dystopias should look like. Hell, most of us even recognise that famous Apple commercial.

Anyway, the story is that of Winston Smith, a man who works censoring newspaper articles. Winston begins to get a bit curious about things and how they work, daring to kep a diary and even fall in love with a follow individual. In a world that is celebrating “the triumph of will over the orgasm” to the point where the state wishes to abolish the family unit to the point that, within a generation, nobody will be able to conceptualise it, that makes Winston a threat, and guilty of “thoughtcrime”, that most rebellious of acts.

So good it Hurts?

Of course, the sad thing is that Orwell wasn’t necessarily writing fiction. Inspired by what he witnessed in Germany and Russia, 1984 just takes things that were already occurring and placed them within the context of a post-apocalyptic Britain. A lot of this is foreshadowed in his own writing on the history of the mid-twentieth-century, such as his essay Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War, which articulated his “2 + 2 = 5” idea years before he would use it in his novel. Throughout the book and the film, there are countless allusions to these old regimes, such as the black uniforms of the soldiers and the “thought police”, the flags and insignia and even reference to “the ninth Three Year Plan”, recalling Stalin’s similar initiative.

It’s simultaneously a little funny and a little depressing to hear the announcements from “Big Brother” declare that the state is winning “the war on production”, in an age where it has become all too common to stage a war on a concept for a cheap soundbyte. The “war on drugs” and the “war on crime” might sound just a little more reasonable, but they are similarly distracting terms. At the same time, it’s interesting to note how the film has the inhabitants of this world passively absorbing media, be it video or sound, droning away in the background like a constant hum. There’s been a lot of debate about we passively absorb information these days, and it just illustrates how far Orwell was ahead of his time.

Oh, OBrien...

Still, I’m not here to discuss Orwell’s legendary text. There are people far more qualified to do that than I am, so I’ll spare you my ramblings. However, the film itself merits a lot of discussion. Michael Radford deserves credit for sticking to the depressingly downbeat atmosphere of the book, offering a bleak and depressing future which is completely soul-destroying and devoid of any energy. Given how Gilliam had to fight with the studios over his ending to Brazil, one can only imagine what the studio executives must have thought of this film.

The production design on the film is spectacular, as we get the sense of a society living among the ruins. We’re presented with a wasteland populated with rubble and broken shards of concrete, while announcements continually inform us about the rising standards of living and increased health. It’s telling that Winston’s flashbacks to the time of the war show that things look exactly the same. There has been no attempt to rebuild or repair, people have just been living in the wreckage of the world, and nobody is engaged enough to care.

You Winston, you lose some..

The movie is grim and unrelenting. “Bleak” is certainly a word, to the point of oppression. Of course, that’s entirely the point and it’s to the credit of the film that it can maintain that tone, but it’s also exhausting. it’s hard to withstand even an hour-and-forty minutes of this horrible world, which is something that Orwell himself would undoubtedly be quite proud of.

On the other hand, I did notice something of interest towards the end of the film. I consider the book to be popular enough that this isn’t a spoiler and also, to be frank, the ending is a rather foregone conclusion considering the tone of the piece. However, you should consider yourself warned that I am going to talk about the movie’s final scene.

Face the future...

It’s interesting that the movie maintains a slight hint of hope. In te final moments of the movie, we see Winston sitting alone, writing in the dust. With his finger, he trails out the simple equation “2 + 2 =”… having been brutally tortured until he believed that the answer is five. Here, Smith hesitates, and does not write the answer, as if he knows that the question itself is important. This is an interesting inclusion in the adaptation, partially because it gives us the smallest possibility of Winston somehow overcoming or triumphing, even in the face of what was done to him, but also because this is also an interesting hint of ambiguity that was created by a typo.

In Orwell’s original draft of the story, Smith writes “2 + 2 = 5.” He’s completely broken, destroyed and demolished. However, some printings of the book contain a typographical error which suggests that Smith questions that answer, even after enduring what he did. It’s absolutely fascinating, given how Orwell’s book suggests that censorship and revision are tools that re-write the past to control the future, that it should be a revision created by accident rather than a sinister plot which completely changes the ending of the story.

It’s a faithful adaptation, with two strong leading performances from John Hurt and Richard Burton (who was dying even as the movie filmed). It’s not perfect, and I don’t believe that it’s the best possible adaptation of the material, but it’s well-made and it captures the spirit of the source material.

2 Responses

  1. Honestly…i didn’t read your review as i don”t want to be spoilt by it. I am currently reading the book.
    What makes me click to your title is the surprise that the book had already adapted. i didn’t know about this at all. I will try to find it once I finished reading it.

    • It’s well worth a look. If you’re into that sort of thing, and can stand the idea of a black comedy around the same themes, do try to watch Brazil. Possibly in my top ten films. Ever.

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