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Why 2002 Is Like 1984: Revisiting Michael Radford’s film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984

By David McNair
October 07, 2002

Given the popularity of George Orwell’s novel 1984, it was inevitable that a film version of the book should be released in 1984. That honor went to British director Michael Radford and a cast that included: John Hurt as Winston Smith, the unremarkable hero of Orwell’s novel whose struggle for survival and eventual destruction are at the heart of the story; Richard Burton (who died of a brain hemorrhage shortly after the film was released) as O’Brien, the terrifying personification of the cruelty of Big Brother; and Suzanna Hamilton as Julia, the salacious member of the Anti-Sex League who becomes Winston’s lover. (Incidentally, 1984 was also the same year Apple introduced the Macintosh personal computer, stealing Radford’s fire by hiring Ridley Scott to make an anti-Orwellian commercial suggesting the Macintosh would liberate us from our drone-like servitude to Big Brother. With the slogan, "Why 1984 won’t be like 1984." Who was right? Orwell or Apple? You decide.) Although Radford’s film version of 1984 can’t begin to compete with the complexity of character and imagined historical detail found in Orwell’s novel, it does remain truer to its source than the 1956 version of 1984 starring Edmond O’Brien (Orwell’s O’Brien was changed to O’Connor to avoid confusion) as Winston. The 1956 version avoids the bleak, destroyed setting of Radford’s film, the nudity and sex scenes of course and, more importantly, the explicit torture scenes that horrifically illustrate the objectives of Big Brother.

Needless to say, almost everything about Michael Radford’s 1984 is bleak and oppressive, but to oppressingly beautiful effect. The bombed-out, blackened city, the decrepit interiors, Winston’s meaningless cubicle job in the Ministry of Truth where he helps the party re-write history, the lurid encounter with a prostitute, and even Hurt’s deeply crevassed and worried face itself all work together to create a powerful visual representation of Orwell’s nightmare world. It is difficult watching the slow-moving first quarter of the film. But when Julia’s daring seems to give Winston a pulse, there is suddenly a feeling of hope and possibility. And that’s when the film ambushes you. The most dramatic and unsettling scene in the movie comes when Winston and Julia are standing naked and vulnerable by the window as they listen to a woman singing below. It is a beautiful, tender moment, one anyone would recognize as a deeply private and intimate moment between lovers. And then it is shattered and violated as the Thought Police raid the apartment. The awful invasion of privacy is what stands out in my mind, made even more awful by the fact that Winston and Julia had no privacy to begin with and that the Thought Police were watching them all along. Watching this scene, I suddenly recalled the first time I saw the film in a theater 18 years ago. Recalling scenes from a movie you watched so long ago is in many ways like recalling memories from your own life. The emotions I felt first were the original ones of a 22-year-old just beginning to have an intellectual life, just beginning to understand what Orwell’s 1984 was about, and just beginning to realize I lived in a world where the threat of nuclear war made the future uncertain. I remember feeling helpless and angry during that scene, as if my own privacy had been invaded. And I also remember it reinforcing my hatred of authority and my desire to resist conformity. Then slowly my present self reacted to the scene, riffing off the old emotions, informed now by the years of running away from authority and resisting conformity, informed by the end of the Cold War, informed by the development of the ’information age’ and the greedy ’90s and the truly futuristic arrival of the millennium; informed also by the realities of making a living and getting married and having children. And informed by the 9/11 attacks and the transformation our country has gone through and the uncertain future of our freedoms, I felt that same anger and helplessness I did when I was 22. But the enemy now wasn’t the police or the government or some imaginary totalitarian world, it was the impulse within us, within me, to forget the past, to forget your own reality, to forget our responsibilities to remain vital and compassionate, and to be passively swept up in a world that seems too big, too fast, too complicated, and too glamorous to fight against.

For those of us who remember what the world was like in the year 1984, watching Michael Radford’s film version of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is like remembering what the world was like before the Great Wars, before it was divided up between Oceania and Eurasia, before the hearts and minds of the people were numbed with a new politically correct language and non-stop television coverage of disasters, scandals, wars, public confessions, and bad weather. That’s the beauty of this film and Orwell’s novel. The story isn’t simply a dated speculation on what might have happened if Russia had taken over the world. It is an indictment of the authoritarian impulse of all governments, of all that oppresses free thought and expression. And above all it is a warning. Our world today doesn’t look like the one portrayed in the film. But in many ways, Orwell’s vision of an authoritarian society where privacy and individual truth cease to exist has come to pass. It’s just hard to recognize unless you actively remember the way things were.

But that’s the way the film hit me—I suddenly remembered how different things were in 1984 and how much things have changed. Back in 1984, things like non-stop, 24-hour news coverage, surveillance cameras in public places, face-scanning technology, Drug Czars, Homeland Security Chiefs, secret government detentions and interrogations, and talk of a never-ending war against an invisible enemy would have seemed frighteningly Orwellian. Today, they are headlines we glance over as we sip our lattés. For me, revisiting Radford’s 1984 was a shocking reminder of the disconnect that can exist between the past and the present, between the reality of our own memories and feelings and those imposed upon us by a society in the perpetually ‘now’. "There is truth and untruth," says Winston as he lies naked in bed with his lover Julia just minutes before the Thought Police break in through the window. "To be in a minority of one doesn’t make you mad." But in a future where human life is devalued, where the state is all powerful—a future Winston’s torturer O’Brien describes as "a boot stomping on a human face forever"—how can the reality of our own memories survive? "Reality is not in the individual mind," says O’Brien while he is torturing Winston into submission, "but in the mind of the state."

When O’Brien turns off the giant television during their first meeting in the film, Winston says in astonishment, "You can turn that off?" Given the omnipresence of television today, the scene made me chuckle, then shudder, in a way I wouldn’t have in 1984. Television today is as invasive and continual as was suggested in Radford’s film. The talking heads aren’t actually talking to us, ordering us to do our morning calisthenics, but in many ways they might as well be. Hey, when Oprah says she likes a book a million people go out and buy it! Television has become the lens through which most Americans view the world and each other, get their information, get their entertainment, and get their ideas about who to vote for and what to buy. No wonder we were all a little unnerved and confused by the way our media stream was disrupted on September 11, 2001, by the way commercials ceased, and by the way our celebrities came out to answer phones at a telethon and tells us, like Tom Hanks, how much they really didn’t matter and that the real heroes were the fireman and rescue workers in New York and people like you. For a brief moment, the machinery of our commercial/entertainment society and the state shut down, and we, like Winston, were astonished. "You can turn that off?" we asked collectively, equally as stunned by the disruption of our accepted reality as by the tragic events themselves. Of course, the machinery was quickly turned on, and in no time it was pumping out unreality in even greater quantities. Despite all the pronouncements that irony was dead and shows like "Survivor" (and ironically enough "Big Brother") were now irrelevant, they came back stronger than ever. As it turned out, we couldn’t turn it off. It was too expensive to turn off. And I don’t think we really wanted to turn it off, anyway.

So who is Big Brother today? Is Orwell’s vision still a warning? Did Orwell mean Big Brother to be a metaphor for the way all governments and societies can grow monstrous if unchallenged, taking a freedom there, squashing a right here, invading a little privacy over there, hypnotizing us with propaganda until the outrageous seems acceptable and we can’t even recognize what we’ve lost?

"When will you shoot me?" Winston asked O’Brien in one of film history’s most chilling scenes. It is one that makes this film as much of a classic as Orwell’s novel for the work it does in creating a cautionary nightmare. "It may take a long time," says O’Brien almost tenderly. "But don’t give up hope, Winston."



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