To say English writer and journalist Eric Arthur Blair, alias George Orwell, has had a lasting impact on the modern canon of Western literature is to say such bold and breathtaking statements as: “The sky is blue,” “Grass is green,” and fan-favorite the world over: [insert witty opinion here]
Jokes aside, Orwell’s legacy as an author of tremendous insight and social commentary in both fiction and nonfiction has netted the writer a permanent place in history, and there stands no better a testament to this fact than the final two most significant works of his career: 1945’s satire of Stalinism Animal Farm, and the last novel published before his premature death at age 46, 1949’s dystopian juggernaut 1984.
The tale of Winston Smith and his place within a totalitarian society submerged in eternal warfare and unending control over the populace, a place challenged by an affair with rebellious party member Julia, 1984 became a bedrock foundation for totalitarianism in not only media, but a continuous reference point for real-world discourse, with its nationwide surveillance state, rewritten histories, and complete regimentation of a citizen’s life maintaining a fascinating and oft-times frightening prescience over 70 years on from its release.
Even in the sudden twilight of his career, Orwell’s novel never stopped striking chords, and was naturally a choice pick for adaptation to various media. A string of mid-50s televised interpretations on both sides of the Atlantic seemed to push the issue enough for a full-on feature to be made, one seemingly memory-holed in its own right, and would not see company until nearly 30 years later, and would come out of the ether in the much-fabled year itself.
From the director of The Dam Busters and Logan’s Run comes what I will go on record as saying is one of the most unfairly maligned adaptations of the novel.
Equipped with a stacked cast of talent, lean and expressionistic production values, and a clear-minded sense of direction, Michael Anderson helms the tale of Winston Smith and the near-future dystopia he resides in with economy and power. The production was something of a hodgepodge, spurred by the success of the 1954 BBC televised production led by Peter Cushing (but only retaining Donald Pleasence in a renamed variant on the Syme role), with the film adaptation co-authored by William Templeton, the writer behind the 1953 American production on Westinghouse Studio One.
While the story as retold is explicit to a near-didactic extreme, characters oft-times stating their feelings, and beliefs in such a forthright and stage-like manner, the conviction with which the material is delivered carries it through, right to the bottom of its gravely ironic conclusion. Edmund O’Brien, contrary to his stocky gruff build, manages the common man role of Smith exceedingly well, playing it dead straight without any true heroics to speak of. This aids him amply in the grueling final third, where you can feel the anguish of the unspeakable tortures and conditioning he is subjected to in a bid to “cleanse” him of his imperfections. He is beautifully contrasted by the sincerity of Jan Sterling’s “Julia,” who while still a blunt-forced portrayal of the character, manages to charm and build up chemistry with O’Brien. The quiet commanding of Sir Michael Redgrave as “O’Connor,” the renamed “O’Brien” character done to avoid confusion with the leading man’s real surname, is a superb addition, managing to put one on edge and at ease all at once.
Anderson manages to make it all feel truly real within the postwar noir landscape conjured up by production design and cinematography, and amplified by the sparse, classically inclined score from the legendary Sir Malcolm Arnold. Bonus points are also to be rolled out for including what is arguably the most famous depiction of Big Brother, the stern disembodied face watching over all from the center of posters and within the frame of the giant telescreens still managing to pack just as much unsettling menace and paranoia as any other depiction before or since. While not as gripping as the rendition yet to come, Anderson’s 1984 stands tall on its own as a respectable take of an endlessly prescient story.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
The populace assembled are brought together to exhibit a vitriolic rage against a man’s image. A traitor, he is called. All think him the same, all act out in one sea of vicious unrest. Glances are exchanged for but a brief moment, before all rise for their soaring national anthem. Thus begins Michael Radford’s adaptation of 1984.
I have to preface this with the final verdict right out of the gate, Radford’s 1984 is not only the superior work, but is one of my all-time favorite films. Top 10 without a doubt, and sitting at No. 7 to be precise. It is a film that I cherish and adore, and I hope can succinctly itemize what makes it so spellbinding.
The main components that make it tick are as follows: its bleak atmosphere, the complete brilliance of John Hurt & Richard Burton’s performances as Winston Smith and O’Brien respectively, Suzanna Hamilton’s wonderful rendering of the rebellious Julia, Radford’s staging & pacing, director of photography Roger Deakins’s inventively desaturated & claustrophobically framed cinematography, & the combined nationalistic spirit of Dominic Muldowney’s orchestral score with the chilly synthetic stylings of Eurythmics. They are the parts that make up the whole. Of particular note is Sir Hurt, who in a bombing run of incredible character performances across the 70s and 80s, once again turns his identifiable voice and image into an unassuming cog set free, if only for a brief moment, before suffering for his taste of freedom.
One of the ever-key ingredients is Radford’s adaptation of the novel. He captures the philosophy behind Orwell’s writing with such a terrifying accuracy. Particularly of note are seeing the character of Winston Smith rewriting headlines and history with such a blasé demeanor and attitude, facts of the past eradicated and remade in the name of the perpetual revolution. It’s moments like these that make the film both frightening & hypnotic, like a nightmare slowly enveloping you. Never bludgeoning you with a hammer, never the boot stamping on the human face forever, but subtly changing the world around you to trap you in an unending, monotonous façade. Simply put, a masterpiece of modern literature turned into a masterpiece of cinema. Recommended without reservation.
As a speculative fiction author myself, 1984 is beyond required reading. It’s a sharp weapon of social commentary packaged in near-future world of sprawling bureaucracy and inescapable surveillance. It, in tandem with Aldous Huxley’s equally iconic Brave New World form the foundation upon which all modern dystopias sit, real or imagined. And while I’ve made my allegiances clear on the matter of which version is superior, there are perks and benefits to both. Above all else, what makes Anderson’s adaptation pop in a way Radford’s doesn’t is its proximity to Orwell’s inspirations.
1984 is not just a story of what’s to come, it was a story of what was at the time of its creation, in the aftermath of WWII, it became a sort of stillborn depiction of postwar life, where we never left the bombed-out shell of London, and never left the global warfare that brought many to ruins. Anderson manages to capture that quality with perfect clarity in a way Radford had to arduously recreate. In that respect, the budget-noir look of the film never becomes a detriment, and always remains an asset, especially with a noir veteran like Edmund O’Brien on deck.
Regardless of which version you lean towards, there is no arguing both still hold some of the spark, imagination, and forward-thinking that Orwell imbued the original novel with. You can find Anderson’s 1984 available via television print on YouTube, and Radford’s having been treated to a dazzling Criterion Collection release which I am proud to own on blu-ray. Anyway you slice it, a doubleplusgood pair of pictures worth throwing on the telescreen for many a year to come.