1984: Coming Soon to a Country Near You

<em>1984:</em> Coming Soon to a Country Near You

1984, should you have managed to be unfamiliar with it thus far, is the tale of Winston Smith, an obedient, middle-ranking apparatchik in a murderous state with a masochistically servile population of proles. Ingsoc—short for English Socialism—rules. The ethos is totalitarian and echoes Stalin and Hitler both. It is Winston’s job to adjust history so that it corresponds with an ever-changing official narrative. He slips into privacy, writing, intellectual curiosity, and then sexual intimacy with and love for a person. This is all forbidden. Winston and Julia, his lover, are betrayed, are tortured in Room 101, and ultimately betray themselves and each other. Written in 1947 and 1948 by George Orwell, a dying man, the book is tired of monetized war, tired of lies and cruelty, and clear-eyed about humanity’s vulnerabilities.

The tale seems quintessentially British to Brits, if not rather more specifically English. The passivity in the face of horrors, the shoddiness and grime, the muted and yet hopeful sexuality, and the utterly cynical ruling class it presents ring any number of national bells. Of course, the book’s withering depth of political and human perception also makes it chillingly accessible across cultures and decades. It is properly a work of genius: uncomfortable, ugly, beautiful, inspiring, and shattering by turns. As such, it has naturally been adapted as drama dozens of times, for the large and small screen, the radio, and the stage—various writers and production teams facing the challenges of a disturbing book that is much more disturbing when you actually have to see (or hear) human actors being tortured, degraded, and reduced to haggard shells.

Orwell’s previous novel, 1945’s Animal Farm, had finally brought real commercial success to the masochistically hardworking editor and author. 1984 was similarly well received upon publication, and the world was eager for more of the story. The first dramatic adaptation, broadcast as part of the series NBC University Theater, reached radios in the United States within weeks of the novel appearing in U.S. bookshops in June 1949. Quintessential Englishman David Niven played Winston. In 1953, CBS boiled the novel down to fifty minutes of television, beginning the series of screen adaptations. Set in an Americanized dystopia, that 1984 was the highest-rated Studio One broadcast of the year. This may speak to people’s fascination, then as now, with the horror of totalitarianism as experienced in a shockingly familiar setting—as reassurance, or inoculation, or both.

As a number of our democracies now have the opportunity to actually experience the slide into totalitarianism in their own shockingly familiar domestic settings—including delusional Brexit UK—1984 is back on best-seller lists, and interest in stage and screen versions is once again on the rise. Rewatching Michael Radford’s 1984 version of 1984, I had first found myself swept by various despairs. I remembered how tough the Thatcher years were for Britain, how little hope they seemed to offer for young people, and that I had first watched the movie in a Glasgow cinema while distracted by an unhappy love affair. Nevertheless, I was unconvinced then that manipulation and mass hate could grip what was unmistakably the UK so deeply, or that psychological and linguistic engineering could degrade individual thought to such an extent. I’ve changed what’s left of my mind since then.

Radford’s film is the second of two remarkable UK dramatizations of 1984. The year 1954 saw the first one, also set in a recognizable England. The BBC, then Britain’s preeminent broadcaster, made its TV adaptation with wonderfully fragile Peter Cushing in the lead role. (His obviously breakable, gentle body is echoed by Radford’s choice of John Hurt as Winston.) The piece was directed by the vastly talented Rudolph Cartier, a Viennese Jew who had fled the Nazis in 1933 and possessed a vibrant awareness of totalitarianism’s grisly details that echoed Orwell’s own. Orwell’s liberating and yet masochistic embrace of privation brought with it a deep knowledge of the physical and mental collapse caused by simple poverty, by fear, and by war. Cartier reflected this and released the rats. For animal-loving Orwell, rats symbolized filth, violence, and degradation long before 1984. Radford made use of the rats too, although animal-welfare concerns meant that they were comparatively healthy, clean, and plump. When they cluster on a woman’s corpse, they seem rather more intent on nestling and cuddles than hideous devouring.

Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four went out live with prerecorded inserts on two evenings in mid-December. Cushing’s torture and his genuinely toothless final state—he took out his dental plate—were shocking. The novel’s grubby shortages and propagandizing appeared in the living rooms of a generation still emerging from rationing and wartime slogans—and a devastating fight with totalitarianism. Radford’s film appeared in Thatcher’s Britain, with its own manipulated language and undermining of agreed-upon postwar human rights. 

In 1954, viewers jammed the BBC switchboard with complaints. Competing motions of condemnation and praise were brought in the Houses of Parliament. The UK critical establishment—still relatively mature—was also able to be intelligently divided and engaged about it. Those were the days. Radford’s film garnered far less attention in an impoverished social discourse, already somewhat accustomed to torture porn as entertainment.

1984’s suggestion that the truth of love has the potential to overthrow any darkness remains remarkable, and remarkably true, even today. ”

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