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George Orwell's 1948 novel 1984 is probably the most important political book of the last century. A story of a very possible dystopia, it outlined a totalitarian society's ability, through modern technology, to completely control the actions of a captive population, and their thoughts as well. Orwell meant it not as a tract specifically against Communism, as we were taught in school, but about Socialism, specifically the 'creeping socialism' feared by political scientists in post-war England.
This film version stars an excellent John Hurt, features Richard Burton in his last role, and has a lot to recommend it, even if it fails to deeply move us. Orwell's thin book is a riveting read that had us checking behind wall decorations for hidden Viewscreens - this version gets the letter of the book's descriptions, and reproduces a lot of its dialogue, but it doesn't capture the novel's baleful horror.
In the 1950s, there were two versions of this tale. A 1954 BBC television production was written by Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) and starred Peter Cushing. It was a huge success and gave both talents a big lift. A 1956 film version directed by Michael Anderson became unavailable in the 1970s because the Orwell estate disapproved of it - an ironic echo of the historical revisionism done by Winston Smith in the story itself. Starring Edmond O'Brien and Jan Sterling, it had the gall to be released with two endings - one of which showed Smith and Julia rebelling against Big Brother and being shot down for their trouble. Of yet, critics haven't demanded its revival.
Michael Radford's version was, as its trailer proudly boasts, shot in April of 1984. It's an accurate but limited interpretation that has less impact than it should, if only because most of the original novel's ideas were long ago employed for science fiction and spy movies. In dystopian thrillers, the concept of televisions that monitor citizens and rob them of their privacy is now a given. The onslaught of state propaganda screaming out lies from every direction, is the modern world of advertising simply turned political. The shrill, authoritarian cadence of 1984's war news, with its inducements to rage and carefully-selected 'human interest' stories, have also certainly come to pass. 1
Looking like a bombed England immediately after the war, the fictional land of Oceania is a blighted place that isn't even trying to recover - poverty and despair help keep Big Brother in power. Like America, Oceania is perpetually at war, with enemies that seem to be arbitrary. Constantly striving to keep up production, and fueled by lies and fantasies hurled at them 24 hours a day, the citizens of Oceania live in a constant state of terror.
Thanks to its ability to monitor the activities of each individual, and its Stalinist culture of denouncement and betrayal, the all-powerful government in Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be opposed or avoided. Constant intimidation keeps everyone on their best behavior, as the neighbor's kid might turn one in at any time. With each individual striving to appear to be faithful to the party, knowing that he might be unfairly denounced at any moment, resistance has no chance to even get a foothold. The party has a surfeit of candidates confessing to fictional crimes, displayed in televised daily show trials. Open questioning of anything, even a detail like the quality of the food in the cafeterias, is extremely risky. The party demands that its citizens cease to function as people (no sex, no marriages, no families) and devote themselves 100% to the state.
Winston Smith's dilemma is that he hasn't shaken his personal identity, and he can't avoid seeing the implications of the lies on the Viewscreens - some of which he manufactures himself at his day job.
Radford's Nineteen Eighty-Four can't match the poetry of Orwell's verse, or accurately depict the full depth of Winston Smith's paranoid state of terror. The rubble-strewn alleys and bedraggled citizens are made of the same generic stuff as dozens of post-apocalyptic thrillers (there's a passing mention of atomic wars). Cinematically, the next year's Brazil far outdistanced this film by turning Orwell's world into a fantastic freak show. It retained the pre-computer bureaucratic ugliness of Winston's work life, but added an irresistable element of macabre humor. Radford contributes only a couple of simple but effective conceits of his own, specifically a vision of a doorway to peace and contentment on a grassy hill. It works well enough as an emotional contrast to the colorless cold and pain of Winston's confinement.
One plus for this newer version has is that it alludes to some interesting unseen truths of Winston Smith's society, which manufactures Big Lies to delude its citizens. Although the propaganda drones on with reports of a traitorous resistance movement, there is none, only passive noncompliance with Big Brother's edicts. The constant hyping of traitors and terrorists is used to keep the population in line. The possibly fictional Big Brother has a probably fictional enemy counterpart, an intellectual with a Jewish-sounding name. The war may actually be real - Oceania is certainly aggressive enough to have trouble with its neighbors - but its true nature is difficult to assess. We see no soldiers on leave, but in a society without families, who needs leave? The real war of Nineteen Eighty-Four is being waged by a government on its own citizens, where the leaders frame the issues in simple lies: 'freedom, victory, righteousness' and create villains and enemies upon which a frustrated citizenry can vent its rage in organized Hate rallies. With enough propaganda weaponry, the leaders can fabricate an entire fantasy of lies, and force the population to believe them.
John Hurt makes a fine Winston Smith, small and ineffectual but showing a dangerous spark of independence in his sad eyes. Richard Burton is less apt as his tormentor O'Brien, and most of his dialogue seems to be verbatim catchphrases from the novel. Suzanna Hamilton makes Julia the perfect female thought criminal. All she wants to do is behave in a human manner, but the state wants behavior and thought controlled to the point where people no longer own their own bodies. The vague hopelessness of the lovers' quiet rebellion is thrilling and depressing at the same time. Cyril Cusack is a nice reminder of the derivative Fahrenheit 451, but hasn't much to do. The smaller part of a downtrodden citizen named Parsons is well-played by Gregor Fisher. Excellent extra casting pegs Oceania's average citizens with chilling accuracy - these people really do look and act like lumpen proles manipulated by fear.
The recreation of the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is accurate, but, as I said before, familiar from the borrowings of other films. Radford's flashbacks to Smith's youth are less successful; the most wrenching book passages for Savant were those with Smith and his mother and sister, living in wretched, hopeless misery. 2
The terror scenes of Winston Smith's torture, one of the first widely-circulated accounts of what has become a standard tool in modern politics, are rather dry and unmoving. Poor Smith's prognosis is so hopeless, there's little room for involvement. We certainly see why he would break his pact and denounce Julia, but we don't quite experience the breaking of his spirit, which is the true purpose of the torture sessions. It's an aesthetic problem - externalizing Smith's emotional convulsions with more theatrics (as Edmond O'Brien certainly did) might defeat the sombre tone the director has carefully built up. Curiously, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, cloaking its terror behind a smokescreen of black humor, reinterprets 1984 more effectively than Radford's more accurate retelling. Michael Palin's torture scenes in the giant, Quatermass-like dome are funny and appalling at the same time.
MGM's DVD of Nineteen Eighty-Four has met with a mini-controversy on the web; its nicely-transferred image is reportedly much brighter and colorful than the original theatrical prints, which enforced an even darker and oppressive look onto the picture. Other than that major aesthetic shift away from the director's intentions (!), there's nothing to complain about, as the print and the track are in fine shape. The only extra is a trailer that makes an effort to educate audiences about the relevance of Orwell.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Nineteen Eighty-Four rates:
Video: Excellent, but showing sinister traces of Orwellian filmic revisionism (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 6, 2003
1. 1984's waters run deep in film culture, in movies big and small. Fritz Lang's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, with its spy hotel wired with hundreds of television cameras, remains the ultimate statement on surveillance and techno-voyeurism. Dozens of dystopian futures owe Orwell everything, from Logan's Run to Scream and Scream Again, to George Lucas' THX 1138. Strain somewhat, and James Bond can be seen as a royalist backlash against socialist gangsters and their techological conspiracies. England's socialist tendencies prove to be a perfect target for outerspace invaders in Quatermass 2: the aliens find the regimented, secrecy-obsessed bureaucracy easy to infiltrate, and mimic it with their own totalitarian regime.
2. the book was an eye-opener to the true nature of the world, when I, a protected middle-class kid of the early 60s, first read it in the 5th grade. The horror of a newsreel inviting us to cheer as refugee boats of women and children are machine-gunned from the air ... 1984 may have coined the use of helicopters as the weapon of choice in science fiction - sinister metal dragonflies that can harass and dog helpless individuals on the ground. A hovering helicopter's movement isn't fluid, but instead directly reflects its pilot's slightest guidance ... it's a faceless technical amplification of his will.