1984: 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. ”

Orwell was raised in all-male schools and worked in all-male occupations, in a still-Edwardian, middle-class English culture that praised reticence. But he was just the kind of dry, witty, and wounded intellectual who could do well with women—and he did. He also seems unusual for having genuinely liked women, their company, and their intellects. In that culture, however, sex was not something wives, or nice women, were expected to enjoy, and sex in Orwell’s work often seems complicatedly sullying and shameful. Julia is Orwell’s first and last female character who embraces the power of enjoyed sex (the others may even be shattered and sent into a weeks-long fugue state by the imposition of sex or sexual attention). The unselfconscious nudity and unsettlingly pragmatic approach to sex that the character displays in Radford’s film grant her a still-unusual degree of agency and power. The filmmaker offers us the pale, bony, everyday bodies of Julia and Winston: humans who will hurt like animals, glorious in their lack of Hollywood glory. 

When the love affair is precipitated by a few words and glances, which may be hard to understand as foreplay or flirtation, bear in mind that those small tokens are not just about avoiding oversight—such things can be implacably incendiary to the properly English soul. The blend of loathing and adoration expressed by the lovers in Orwell’s book, and captured in Radford’s film, is strangely endearing and honest. It’s something I’ve only really seen elsewhere in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s similarly reticent and tender Punch-Drunk Love. Radford’s lovers are clearly unreliable: passionate and conjoined yet detached and perhaps deceptive. Julia may be just a thrill seeker, she may be an informer, she may be suicidally in love—possibilities are allowed to shimmer as Winston’s life within the safety of the Party collapses.

Radford’s inclusion of rather confused flashbacks to Winston’s boyhood and liaison with a prostitute speak to totalitarianism’s degradation of women but work less well now—in light of #MeToo, the inherent sexism of Edwardian assumptions may seem morally repugnant in a way that is voyeuristic, rather than critical of the amorality of Big Brother’s world. The film’s equal-opportunity nudity—albeit not full-frontal from Mr. Hurt—is still striking, and the juxtaposition of blows, uniforms, and violence with two lovers’ nakedness is rightly disturbing rather than sadistic.

1984’s suggestion that the truth of love has the potential to overthrow any darkness remains remarkable, and remarkably true, even today. It is hard to emphasize enough how wonderful, strange, and challenging a conclusion it was for Orwell to reach at any time—never mind as he worked himself to death in harsh isolation on a small Scottish island, smoking and writing through nights dominated by tubercular pain and constriction. Just as his body was failing, the connection between body, heart, and mind seemed to flare and redefine a tenderness that might temper the world. Once a teacher, Orwell sent this lesson out at a time when totalitarianism had partly retreated but nuclear doom had advanced. Hollywood may have found the Radford project to be too downbeat, but it has at its heart a kindness and hope that many report finding in Orwell himself: funny, gleefully glum, clever, fragile, insightful, complex Orwell.

Orwell’s obsession with expression and truth runs through Radford’s film too. Even in the twenties and thirties, the meaningless repetition of Marxian phraseology was beginning to repulse many fervent leftists, and although Orwell was drawn to the left and fought for it in Spain, he could not tolerate the circumlocutions Stalinism draped over cruelty and murder. He hated politics as expressed in violence in any form, and his novel makes an intellectual and literary point very human. Radford’s addition of Ingsoc imagery and paraphernalia helps to evoke an absolutely controlled and intellectually sterile state. We can blame the fact that everyone from the Boy Scouts to Mussolini to Monty Python’s Life of Brian got there first when it came to viable gestures for the rather eighties-boy-band V salute used by Big Brother’s loyalists. The V is unfortunately especially unsuitable for marching troops, as it leaves them unable to hold weapons and suggests ardent surrender. (Radford’s troops wear repurposed Red Army helmets painted Nazi-black, in an evenhanded and economical comment on both Stalin and Hitler.)

During 1984, I recall many discussions about the degradation of UK English: the slow redefinition of almost every role as simply customer: removing rights and leaving only an obligation to pay. There was violent suppression of striking miners; AIDS threatened sex and love, as it seemed did the onward march of indifferent capitalism. We had never felt we were inside 1984 as we did then. But those who encounter 1984 so often feel that way. Now it seems our age of Brexit, with its language manipulation and scapegoating, its utter degradation of the public discourse and loathing for established facts, has embraced Ingsoc as never before in my homeland.

Radford had just the year before gained critical acclaim for his theatrical feature debut, Another Time, Another Place—a sexually tense and morally complex wartime romance involving another transgressive couple. His ability to adapt, in that case, Jessie Kesson’s novel, and to work successfully and quickly on a shoestring budget, would certainly have made him seem a good bet for 1984. He was close enough to Orwell’s book to deliver his script—as promised—in only three weeks. His love of the nouvelle vague is apparent as a strength in the documentary feel of some passages, and is perhaps less helpful in those subjective flashbacks. Radford’s longtime girlfriend, the Czech filmmaker Jana Boková, gave him an insight into the powerful nihilism that follows the failure of indoctrination. 

Radford chose former child star Suzanna Hamilton to play fiery, sexy Julia. Hamilton projects a sense of agency and risk limited in part by the novel’s rather slight characterization. Her place in the film is consciously edged toward a more liberated idea of womanhood’s capacities and appetites. She balances the physical frailty and soft-voiced approach of Hurt’s Winston. Hurt was a heavy drinker at the time and seems pre-raddled as he shuffles about, suffers love, and suffers torment. A delicate, nuanced performer, always gifted in the portrayal of outsiders, he was relatively unknown as a mainstream leading man. Together, Hurt and Hamilton prevent a Hollywood gloss from undermining the piece’s reality. 

Agent provocateur and torturer O’Brien is played by another perfect risk—the fading lion and alcoholic Richard Burton. This was Burton’s last film performance, and he struggled to recall his lines, but like the star he was, he uses all he has—his aging face, the ghost of his purring voice, his human collapse—and brings astonishing depth to scenes basically taken up with ethical debate and physical torment. 

The face of Big Brother was picked by a competition run in the left-leaning Guardian. Winner Bob Flag was a comedian/clown/actor—his casting seems even more suitable in this age of clownish, prefabricated leaders. It also echoes the conscious theatricality and absurdity of demagogues like Mussolini and Hitler—posing and throwing shapes to fatal effect. 

Radford’s opening scene could today depict the audience for a talent show or far-right rally. On both sides of the Atlantic, we have more screaming now. What seemed animalistic and bizarre to me in 1984 is simply what entertainments require now to be considered engaging. Our public discourse and its favored sons and daughters behave like those weird, unloved kids who shit on the floor or start fires just for attention. Room 101 is now a TV format, as is Big Brother. Of course.

The shoddy, gray-brown palette of the film, as it continues, is one perversely dear to Britain. Even as our Brexit disaster continues to unfurl—perhaps over the course of a generation—our media Little Brothers insist on telling us that we enjoyed World War II, from its bombing raids and rationing to its hideous and limited color scheme. Our future has always looked grubby, even if we have also always been at least a little convinced that we should rule the world and inflict bland cookery upon all right-thinking nations. The one beat that Orwell and therefore Radford’s movie missed was the rise of computers and computerized propaganda. Still, using clunky vacuum tubes and paperwork, the fake news in 1984 is faked and disseminated—and does what it always does. The broadcasting of self-condemnations of public enemies may seem odd to us, but only because we are less familiar with the ritualized Shame of the Left and overexposed to the ritualized Shamelessness of the Right.

I am aware that, for the U.S. and many other countries, Britain is associated with dreadful food. We are fond of our steak-and-kidney pies. We are nostalgic about rationing—and public figures anxious to break all ties with Europe talk up rationing as a good thing, even as pensioner survivors have to take alternative medication for their ills. I will point out that, while possessing a refined and squeamish sense of smell, Orwell was famous for gobbling down unsightly, revolting, and even unsafe food. He had endured boarding-school fare, colonial dining, and deprivations on the road as a tramp and at home as a broke artist. He had been hungry and seemed intent on eliminating waste and mortifying any overly sensual taking of pleasure. 1984 is filled with enforced mortification, starving body and soul. (The idea of meat-free meat has, of course, developed positive connotations for today’s audiences.)

War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength. The landscape of upside-down morality, the prudish condemnation of enemies as perverts, the loveless orgasms of pornography—well, that’s just an evening online now, a flick through available channels on our TVs. But we may still hope, as Orwell seemed to. We may whisper to each other that we’ll meet in the place with no shadows, that love and its practical applications may prevail.