In a totalitarian future society, a man, whose daily work is re-writing history, tries to rebel by falling in love.
It was inevitable someone would film George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four for the year 1984. After all, even the best-known television ad of that year—Ridley Scott’s Super Bowl commercial for the first Apple Macintosh—alluded to Orwell’s acclaimed story. But what’s surprising about Michael Radford’s 1984 is just how well it translated Orwell to the big screen.
That couldn’t be taken for granted because, although Nineteen Eighty-Four appears on lists of the greatest works of English literature, and has entrenched itself in our culture (notions like the Thought Police and Big Brother are familiar even to those who haven’t read it), what Orwell wrote in 1949 was decidedly weird by the standards of fiction both then and now. It was a highly didactic text packed with long passages of theoretical exposition about an imaginary future (there’s even a 4000-word appendix), the slimmest of plots, and a small cast of characters who are barely sketched in and not particularly likeable.
Set in a Britain called Airstrip One (which is merely a corner of the larger nation of Oceania), it follows a mid-level civil servant called Winston Smith who’s plagued by doubts about the authoritarian Ingsoc party, its possibly mythical leader Big Brother, and its constant wars with demonised foreign powers. Winston begins a secret relationship with a younger woman, Julia, and dreams of joining a resistance movement. But, eventually, both he and Julia are arrested…
But Orwell didn’t mean it as a conventional novel about individual human lives, nor as a prediction of how the world would actually be in 35 years’ time—even if one often hears about things “Orwell got right.” Instead, it was a warning about totalitarianism and the potential for propaganda to shape the way we think, which reflected directly his own times: the year 1984 is a subtle reference to 1948 when he finished writing it.
What’s remarkable about Radford’s movie is how well it captures these peculiar aspects of the book. For example, the film’s dystopia wasn’t intended to seem plausible to anyone in the real year of 1984 (there are no modern computers, for a start), but to be, in line with Orwell’s vision, a horrifyingly bleak version of 1948.
Writing as well as directing, Radford stuck close to the source material (although there may be one big difference implied by the ending). And while he inevitably had to trim back the lengthy theoretical discussions, enough of them remain to convey Orwell’s central points. For instance, we see John Hurt’s Winston at work rewriting old newspapers to remove truths the party now finds inconvenient, and later we notice the lies he’s inserted repeated on ubiquitous telescreens, giving us a sense of the vast project of manipulating the truth.
Of course, it may have been unlikely many would watch the movie without having first read the novel. But 1984 isn’t only a success in translating Orwell into cinema. It has many fine features in its own right, not least the cinematography by Roger Deakins, for whom 1984 came near the beginning of a stellar career that culminated in his Academy Award win for Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
It was with 1984 that Deakins popularised a film processing technique known as “bleach bypass”, which essentially superimposes a greyscale image on a colour one, leading to a highly contrasting and unsaturated feel. 300 (2007) and Sin City (2005) are well-known later examples of its use.
The result is a pervasive sense of grey desolation that complements the grubby production design in creating a deprived, ugly, crudely mechanised Britain—so much so that occasional glimpses of ordinary green countryside seem heavenly in comparison. It’s not realistic at all, yet at the same time it achieves a kind of hyper-realistic effect in its rejection of sleekly futuristic sci-fi, in a similar way to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) five years earlier and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (released in 1985 but in production before 1984 and also quite Orwellian).
The imagery of 1984 contributes a great deal to its impact. It conjures up the bombed-out British streets that Orwell knew in 1948 but also, fittingly given how it’s set a few decades after a nuclear war, is sometimes reminiscent of the acclaimed and devastating anti-nuclear TV Movie Threads (1984) which premiered the same year.
The music by Eurythmics stands up equally well, much as Radford didn’t like it. He’d wanted to use a more conventional instrumental score by Dominic Muldowney, but the production company Virgin Films insisted on replacing that with the electronic sounds of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. The only Muldowney material that remains in most versions of the film is the diegetic patriotic music of Oceania. But his original score can still be heard on the Spanish-language soundtrack of MGM’s DVD release, and it’s certainly subtler than Eurythmics’ contribution. But still, theirs has a timeless and other-worldly quality that complements the altered reality of the film well, even if the final song “Julia” is something of an incongruous embarrassment.
Equally effective are many of the performances. John Hurt as Winston brought a strong track record to the part, having earned kudos wallowing in similar misery for Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978) and then playing the tragically isolated title role in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). He even looked rather like Orwell himself. On-screen almost throughout, Hurt inhabits the character for the most part convincingly—frustrated, sometimes angry, scared, but above all sad and lonely—although there are times when his utterly bewildered air doesn’t quite fit with Winston’s status as a trusted civil servant or the confident rage he expresses at his oppressive society.
Also slightly jarring is the age discrepancy between him and Suzanna Hamilton as Julia. In the novel, he’s 39 and she’s 26, but the actress was two decades younger than Hurt and, thanks to Hurt’s naturally haggard appearance, the gap looks even greater. Still, Hamilton’s a magnetic presence, and she was briefly in the limelight as a result of 1984 (with Vincent Canby of The New York Times calling her “a major find”), although her screen career never achieved the high profile some expected.
Among the smaller roles, Cyril Cusack is memorably supercilious and briefly terrifying as the pawnbroker Charrington who rents Winston and Julia a room to conduct their illicit affair. But the outstanding performance in 1984 comes from Richard Burton as O’Brien—the bureaucrat who seems to befriend Hurt’s unhappy everyman Winston but eventually becomes his torturer. It was to be his final screen appearance before dying months after filming was completed.
Burton is restrained and enigmatic, as befits a character whose motivation and inner thoughts are never fully clear. In some ways, this compelling ambiguity is even greater in the film than in the novel. For instance, Orwell has O’Brien pose overtly as a member of the Brotherhood resistance movement when paid a visit by Winston and Julia; on the surface, it’s a clear case of entrapment. But in Radford’s film, he’s much less direct and the discussion of resistance between O’Brien and Winston seems to be taking place in an unspoken dialogue of glances and silences.
Later (as in the novel) the mystery deepens when Winston, after being apprehended for “thoughtcrime”, re-encounters O’Brien in a prison cell and asks if he, too, has been arrested. “They got me a long time ago,” replies O’Brien in a famously cryptic comment: could he really mean was a revolutionary once, but switched to Big Brother’s side? We never know. And this not knowing—as well as the way that nothing was said outright between Winston and O’Brien in the latter’s office earlier—gives us a sense of Winston’s and Julia’s helplessness in a society where all information is controlled and distorted. We can never truly know what’s real and what isn’t in this bleak world. We can never comprehend the agenda of Ingsoc because we can never comprehend its incarnation, O’Brien.
Here, Radford’s slight changes are essentially enhancing points already made by Orwell. But some potentially far bigger alterations, though again they are ambiguous, come at the very end of the movie. Toward the close of the novel, after both Winston and Julia have been released from imprisonment (apparently brainwashed into betraying each other and learning to love Big Brother and his regime), they have a brief and rather unfriendly reunion. In the film, however, three significant differences open up the possibility, while not stating outright, that something of their previous humanity has survived…which, if you care to interpret it that way, makes the movie more positive than the novel.
First, Winston and Julia’s conversation, while hesitant and somewhat distant, evinces little of the hostility that Orwell describes. Second, the very last line of the movie—“I love you”, a voiceover from Winston, still sitting at the table where he spoke with Julia although she has now left—can be interpreted in differing ways. Is he saying it to the image of Big Brother playing on the screen behind him, or is he saying it to Julia’s empty chair? It may be significant that just before this line, he turns away from the screen and toward the chair…
The third difference, perhaps the most telling of all, comes in the form of a detail. Winston, tortured by O’Brien, had been forced to accept that if the ruling Party declared two plus two to equal five, then indeed it would. And in Orwell’s novel, a broken Winston at the end traces in the dust on that table the equation “2+2=5”. But in Radford’s movie, he starts writing “2+2=” with his finger… and then stops.
Is there still residual defiance within him (and perhaps Julia too), a refusal to submit to the Party’s rewriting of objective reality? These differences are suggestive, rather than conclusive, but Radford does seem to be pointing in that direction. He may, conceivably, have had in mind the thesis put forward by some commentators including Margaret Atwood that the novel’s appendix on the official language Newspeak, non-narrative and not really filmable, is also hinting at a brighter interpretation by describing the Party regime in the past tense.
“They can’t get inside you, they can’t get to your heart,” Julia had said earlier. Most readers of the Orwell novel come away with the sad conclusion that she was mistaken. But if Radford is saying that she could have been right after all, then this is surely the key scene in the movie. Indeed, while the original visual style and the performances help to hold together a slightly disjointed script, it is very much a film whose power comes from a few particularly dramatic points.
One of these is the opening. The movie starts (as it will end) with the singing of Oceania’s bombastically stirring national anthem as a crowd of workers watch a giant screen. Huge Ingsoc emblems combine a Nazi red-and-black colour scheme with Soviet-style typography; on the screen, meanwhile, a soldier from the enemy Eurasian army looks obviously Chinese. The throng yells “death! traitor!” at the image of the hated resistance leader Goldstein, who appears as almost a caricature of Jewishness. Big Brother, when he appears there shortly, will somewhat resemble Stalin.
In this one scene, Radford manages both to link the world of 1984 with the totalitarianism of the mid-20th-century and to vividly demonstrate the mixture of xenophobic hatred and blind adulation which its leaders cultivate.
Similarly potent is our first sight of the depressing Chestnut Tree café, which comes soon after. A group of hopeless-looking men play chess; on another screen, someone is confessing to a long string of crimes against society. We see that one of the men is crying, and we realise that he is the same man shown on the screen.
Here, in no more than a few seconds, Radford not only prefigures Winston’s eventual fate but also underlines the supreme importance of thought to the Oceania regime: what matters is not just that a resistance member is caught, but that they admit their crimes and repent. We start to understand that the Party’s ambition is to govern forever not by force, but by moulding minds until they cannot contemplate an alternative.
If these are chilling, the long torture sequence much later is outright disturbing. Strapped to a device like a medieval rack (the book is less explicit), Winston lies helpless, head shorn, sobbing, talking like a child. O’Brien—once again, such an inscrutable character—is almost paternally sympathetic in his concern that Winston should give his mind over to the Party and stop clinging on to independent thought but, at the same time, he’s ruthless in inflicting pain. At one point he says to Winston “you unexist”, and it’s even more shocking than the physical torture.
It’s a masterful segment of the movie not only for its visceral effect but also because Radford is able, here more than anywhere else, to have O’Brien speak plainly about the brutal Party’s philosophy without it seeming like he’s lecturing the audience; his exposition flows naturally from the situation.
In fact, this passage completely overshadows the shorter and (in Orwell’s work) much more famous climactic scene with the rats in Room 101, which is oddly flatly portrayed in the movie—perhaps because Radford has failed to adequately establish Winston’s phobia of rats earlier on.
Other slight misjudgements, like the fantasy sequences interpolated throughout the movie, may also suggest that Radford was still finding his cinematic feet. Although he had released Another Time, Another Place the previous year, before that he had been a documentary filmmaker and 1984 was his first high-profile feature. He would later become best known for Il Postino: The Postman (1994).
Yet the stronger points of 1984 make up for its occasional lapses, and it undoubtedly holds its own against other adaptations of Orwell’s masterpiece. These had started in 1953 with a short US TV version, but the first highly-regarded transfer of Oceania to the screen came the following year with a live TV production in the UK that became controversial for its extreme darkness. For instance, in the torture sequence, Winston (played by Peter Cushing) is encased in an apparatus that very much resembles a coffin.
Though technically crude by modern standards, this 1954 TV drama is superior to the feature film that Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run) delivered in 1956. Here, though there are many well-realised scenes and a great final moment with Winston enthusing over Big Brother, the overall flavour is more straight science-fiction than grim political allegory. Edmond O’Brien as Winston looks far better-nourished than Cushing or Hurt and doesn’t act convincingly downtrodden; even the room he rents from Charrington is much more comfortable than in Radford’s movie.
There are rumours, though it’s unclear if they’re well-founded, that Anderson shot an alternatively happier ending for the American market. If so, Radford might have had that in mind when he decided to leave a glimmer of hope visible at the conclusion of his movie.
But in any case, and despite its flaws, Radford’s remains the definitive big-screen version of Orwell’s novel—so far. While the atmosphere and concept of the novel have influenced countless works of fiction and film (for example 2015’s Equals) there has been no other straight adaptation in 35 years. A version of 1984 directed by Paul Greengrass was at expected to be released in 2019, but that project appears to have stalled.
Back in 1984, 1984 performed only modestly at the box office—its market was always likely to be primarily British in origin, and perhaps Britons in the mid-1980s of Thatcherism didn’t feel they needed to go to the cinema for a dystopia? But it was well-received critically, with Roger Ebert enthusing that it “looks, feels, and almost tastes and smells like Orwell’s bleak and angry vision”, and it remains every bit as powerful today.
Being built around an already long-past imagining of the future, with no concessions made to the reality of the ’80s, means it’s dated far less than most movies of the same period. And while only the most melodramatic pessimist would say that we actually live in the world of Winston Smith, there are enough hints of his in ours that its relentless depiction of absolute, inhuman tyranny is still unsettling.
director: Michael Radford.
writer: Michael Radford (based on the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell).
starring: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton & Cyril Cusack.