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Last Night to the Flicks George Orwell’s 1984

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Last Night to the Flicks: 1984

“April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.”

So begins the diary of Winston Smith, arguably one of literature’s most famous journals, from 1984, written by Eric Blair—whose better-known pseudonym was George Orwell.

Orwell’s last fictional effort was published in 1949, only one year before his death. Terms like “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “thoughtcrime,” “newspeak,” and “Room 101” are in our lexicon for totalitarianism because of 1984. Orwell’s work cuts across the political spectrum as those on both the left and right freely channel him when excoriating contemporary examples of governmental power abuse.

There’s a logical irony in this because Orwell’s own personal views seem contradictory by today’s standards and make it impossible to pin him neatly down to either side of the political divide. Even though “Ingsoc,” Oceania’s guiding ideology in 1984, was Newspeak for “English Socialism,” Orwell—pro-life, anti-gay, atheist—was an unabashed Socialist to the very end. Of 1984, he stated, “My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions ... which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism.”

Christopher Hitchens’ book on the author, Why Orwell Matters, discusses at great length how partisans of all stripes who would adopt Orwell as one of their own often do so on tenuous grounds. Or, as the New Yorker’s George Packer observes, “When writers use the word ’Orwellian,’ you can be pretty sure they’ve read very little of him.”

Although its protagonist, Smith, isn’t sure exactly what year it is, 1984 takes place in a future imagined by Orwell where the second world war didn’t really end. Civil unrest and sporadic nuclear conflicts have left three superstates in control. Smith lives in Air Strip One, a province of what is called Oceania (formerly the United States and Britain). The other two are Eurasia (Soviet controlled Europe) and Eastasia (an alliance of China, Japan, Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet).

Winston Smith’s job rewriting history for the ironically named “Ministry of Truth” gives him a unique vantage point into the workings of Ingsoc in Oceania. Under the banner of Big Brother, a fictional figurehead, Oceania’s oppressive government controls the population by maintaining an unending state of martial law and steady flow of propaganda. For Outer Party members, such as Smith, this includes the installation of a two-way telescreen in his home that pumps out a diet of misinformation and allows the Thought Police to keep a constant watch on him. While browsing in an antique shop, Smith buys a diary; an act of “thoughtcrime” that he predicts will lead to his downfall. Three characters play pivotal roles in his life. First, Inner Party member O’Brien, who Smith mistakenly sees as a kindred spirit that will initiate him to an underground revolutionary movement. Julia, a twenty-six year old fellow worker at the Ministry of Truth, with whom Smith enters into an unsanctioned sexual relationship. Finally, Mr. Charrington, the man who owns the antique shop where Smith bought the diary and from whom he rents a flat for his trysts with Julia. When it’s revealed that Charrington actually works for the Thought Police, Smith’s prophecy about the diary comes disastrously true. This diary is tactically used against him during weeks of torture in the Ministry of Love at the hands of O’Brien (who turns out to have only pretended to be part of an underground movement). In Room 101, faced with his worst fear (rats), Smith is ultimately broken, renounces Julia, and comes to realize that he has “won the victory over himself” and loved Big Brother.

Both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and Orwell’s 1984 portray dystopian societies that have taken their respective guiding principle to absurdly extreme levels. Capitalism is satirized in Brave New World as mass production has become a worldview and replaced religion with mantras encouraging new product consumption such as “Ending is better than mending” and “the more stitches, the less riches.” Cloning and genetic engineering factories have eliminated sexual intercourse as the primary method of procreation. However, the distraction of wanton casual sex, the accumulation of material goods, and other hedonistic pursuits have become the foundation upon which that social order is built.

In 1984, Orwell describes a socialistic society that disdains capitalism and discourages consumption through draconian rationing. A perpetual war with Eurasia and Eastasia is sustained to justify an economic system that leaves Oceania’s inhabitants in a state of constant squalor. Whereas in vitro engineering and Pavlovian conditioning are used to mollify the citizens of Brave New World, Oceanians are subjugated by their poverty along with a sense of forced patriotism drummed up by state propaganda. Referred to as “proles,” eighty-five percent of the population live under the worst conditions and are too distracted by their plight to even consider revolt. The Inner Party takes a puritanical stance on sexuality because the families potentially resulting from sexual activity lead to personal, not communal, attachments and, as such, are at odds with the precepts of Ingsoc. Therefore, “artsem” (artificial insemination) is one of the few technological advancements still being pursued in Oceania.

Just as some theologians argue that the book of Revelations is not meant to be a prediction of the future but, instead, a warning from its author on contemporary issues of the day, 1984, like Animal Farm before it, is, in large part, Orwell’s commentary on the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Big Brother and Joseph Stalin are both “black-haired, black-moustachio’d” men. Emmanuel Goldstein, a figure held up by the government as a traitor, but viewed by a few remaining dissidents as a savior, parallels Leon Trotsky (whose real name was Lev Bronstein). The three slogans of the party, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength” could be classic Marxist dialectics where contradictory ideas clash to form a synthesis.

Much of the political landscape laid out by Orwell in 1984 was derived from his concern for how a post-atomic age could actually make it easier for oppressive regimes to exist. Though he doesn’t often receive credit for it, Orwell coined the term “cold war” in his 1945 article “You and the Atomic Bomb.” The article prefigures what he will later fictionalize in 1984.

“More and more obviously the surface of the earth is being parceled off into three great empires, each self-contained and cut off from contact with the outer world, and each ruled, under one disguise or another, by a self-elected oligarchy.

...looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications—that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ’cold war’ with its neighbors.

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralised police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ’peace that is no peace’.”

There are many theories as to why Orwell ultimately chose the title 1984. One holds that as if to hold up a mirror to the times in which he wrote it (1948), Orwell simply reversed the last two digits of that year. Whatever the reason, Orwell’s use of numbers in 1984 does seem more than arbitrary.

A common motif in book is summed up in one of Smith’s journal entries that reads: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Later, during Smith’s interrogation in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien challenges this by stating that if the Party wanted it so, five could be the answer. This is a not so subtle reference to the Soviet slogan “two plus two equals five.” Meaning that the Communist Five-Year Plan could be achieved in four if the people tried hard enough. Furthermore, the date of Smith’s very first journal entry: “April, 4, 1984” is the fourth day of the fourth month of the fourth year of that decade. In addition to the diary, Smith buys a paperweight at Charrington’s shop. It is a piece of coral encased in glass which aesthetically appeals to Smith’s nostalgia for a time before Ingsoc. The price of the paperweight is four dollars. Thus, Orwell associates the number four with Smith’s quest for self-determination and freedom of thought.

Between bouts of torture, O’Brien confronts the idea of freedom of thought by explaining the Inner Party’s philosophy that, like a tree falling in the forest only making a sound if someone’s auditory system processes it; reality only exists as a construct in the human mind.

“Anything could be true. The so-called laws of Nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. “If I wished,” O’Brien had said, “I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.” Winston worked it out. “If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.” Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: “It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.” He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.”

Just as Goldstein’s fictional book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism was banned, in a case of life imitating art, Orwell’s 1984 was itself banned in Communist Poland. Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who suffered under Stalin, wrote about this in 1953:

“A few have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.

A few years after the book’s release, two television versions of 1984 were broadcast. The first, from 1953, had Eddie Albert playing Smith to Lorne Green’s “Big Brother” for Studio One. A BBC production from 1954 starred Peter Cushing. The BBC version is available on YouTube and is an interesting, if not flawed, interpretation.

Staging 1984 faithfully presents many challenges. Not the least of which is the temptation to treat the material more like science fiction than a vehicle for social commentary. This can be seen in the BBC version which, to a certain extent, plays up the gadgetry of Smith’s world in direct opposition to Orwell’s vision of arrested technological advancement. It’s also hard to imagine 1950’s television being able to faithfully depict the sadistic treatment Smith receives in the Ministry of Love.

This can also be said of Michael Anderson’s film version of 1984 (1956), which cast Edmond O’Brien as Smith. A number of shortcomings in this adaptation blunt the force of Orwell’s novel. First of all, Oceania doesn’t seem all that dreary a place. Again, the production designers succumb to the temptation of setting the story in a gleaming, futuristic environment. The cityscapes are clean, dome-like, glass houses, rather than the bombed out, deteriorating urban dwellings Orwell imagined. Furthermore, Edmond O’Brien is miscast. He’s far too healthy looking for the frail, sickly Smith as described. And his portrayal as the brave, would-be revolutionary is a bit too melodramatic when compared to the more tentative, fatalistic, paranoid Smith of the novel.

This is even more apparent when the Thought Police bust in on Smith and Julia’s love nest. Rather than being completely terrified, there’s a hint of defiance in Smith’s demeanor as soldiers surround the couple.

Finally, the torture scene, while still somewhat disturbing, is quite sanitized from the novel’s version.

The definitive film version of 1984, was actually produced in 1984. Michael Radford’s film, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is an extremely faithful adaption that perfectly captures the dark tone and texture of Orwell’s novel. John Hurt plays a sickly Winston Smith with the appropriate yearning for freedom tempered by a justifiable fatalism and sense of dread. Hurt’s Smith is no hero. Richard Burton, in his last film role, is equally well-cast as O’Brien. He brings a calm, quiet conviction to his role of a brutally uncompromising true-believer. Unlike Jan Sterling’s more romanticized performance in the 1956 film, Suzanna Hamilton as Julia displays the right level of mater-of-fact sexuality and pragmatic live for the moment demeanor.

Not that it really mattered, but, as the closing credits proclaim, Nineteen Eighty-Four was shot during the same time frame and in the exact locations as envisioned by Orwell. For example, the scene showing Smith making his first journal entry was actually filmed on April 4, 1984.

As opposed to the earlier attempts to dramatize 1984, Radford had a different challenge. Since the real world of 1984 didn’t resemble Orwell’s version, the temptation might have been to update the material and sidestep the discrepancies. A rumored Francis Ford Coppola adaptation was supposedly going to do just that. The film would have been set further in the future with some sort of explanation provided for the title. Fortunately, George Orwell’s widow, who disliked the 1956 version, would only sign over the film rights as long as a futuristic, sci-fi approach wasn’t employed.

The Radford film assumes that the audience can make a mental leap and accept that the world didn’t “turn out” as it did in the book. One comprise, albeit very minor, is Radford’s choice to present the title in its spelled out version (Nineteen Eighty-Four) rather than using the actual digits. Instead of looking forward, as previous adaptations had, Radford actually looks backward and creates a society that has more in common with the forties than the eighties. He also seems to assume that the viewer has read the book. For instance, the scene where Smith “rectifies” the Party’s incorrect chocolate predictions to make it appear that they exceeded expectations may not make sense to those without an understanding of the material beforehand. The film infuses Orwell’s voice in Nineteen Eighty-Four through the effective use of narrations from Smith’s diary and Goldstein’s book.

Except for inventions Orwell described in the novel (telescreens, speakwrite devices, synthetic food), there’s nothing in Nineteen Eighty-Four that appears more advanced than late 1940s technology. Smith even uses uses a rotary dial, rather than a touch pad, to call up information on his terminal. While the Eurythmics had recorded a soundtrack for Nineteen Eighty-Four, not much of it can actually be heard. The pop group’s synthetic sound was mostly buried in the background while Dominic Muldowney’s uber-patriotic anthem music figures more prominently (more details on the controversy between Radford and Virgin Films over the final soundtrack can be found here).

Highlighting Nineteen Eighty-Four are the Party propaganda pieces created for the film, as shown below in the “Two Minutes Hate” opening. They are themselves polished films within films, clearly inspired by works such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumpth of the Will. If there’s a silver anniversary DVD release of Nineteen Eighty-Four, one would hope for a special features section of just these telescreen broadcasts.

It’s worth comparing this version of Smith and Julia’s arrest with the 1956 version. That both are naked (something unlikely for a 1956 film) adds to the sense of intrusion and vulnerability in the scene. Also, unlike the 1956 version, Smith and Julia are, at that moment, clearly more focused on their individual predicaments than their love for each other. The telescreen voice parroting the couple’s words exactly save for the pronouns (“you are the dead” in place of “we are the dead”) plays out more eerily on film than in the book. For what it’s worth, the movie contains a line not from the book that sets the rent for Smith and Julia’s love nest at FOUR dollars.

Likewise, while the torture of Smith by O’Brien is perhaps a bit tame by today’s standards (Saw, Hostel), it’s still difficult to watch. Burton and Hurt really shine here as O’Brien explains the precepts of Ingsoc to the slowly deteriorating Smith.

Some final random thoughts:

1. Donald Pleasence, who appeared in both the BBC version of 1984 from 1954 and the 1956 film, was also in the similarly dystopian THX-1138.

2. Edmond O’Brien played an old West reporter in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance who lived by the mantra that could very well have also been found in Goldstein’s book: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.”

3. Nineteen Eighty-Four has a great scene set in a lecture hall where the speaker discusses how the elimination of the orgasm is a necessary aspect of Artsem as it relates to Ingsoc.

4. Cyril Cusack, Mr. Charrington in Nineteen Eighty-Four was also the captain of the fire brigade from the 1966 film verision of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 directed by François Truffaut.

5. John Hurt played a Big Brother like character in V for Vendetta.

6. A new version directed by Tim Robbins is due out in 2010.

Lastly, here’s a YouTube of the infamous Ridley Scott-directed 1984 Apple Super Bowl ad. In this clip, the ad was being screened for an audience. The irony is that it shows a crowd reacting wildly to a movie screen depicting a crowd reacting wildly to a telescreen:

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.