Hello, everyone! You might have noticed that there have been a lot of film reviews lately. That’s because, going by traffic and likes, they are by far the most popular content on this site—so why not make more? Besides, it’s a lot of fun putting them together, especially when I’m talking about my favorite movies. This week’s topic is definitely one of my favorites: I’ll be discussing the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, directed by Michael Radford, and starring John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, and Richard Burton in the roles of Winston, Julia, and O’Brien.
The year is 1984. Probably. Nobody really knows for sure, because at this point history is whatever the Party wants it to be, and anyone who objects gets swiftly vaporized. After the atomic wars of the 1950s the entire world was divided into three vast superstates: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia; these powers constantly fight amongst each other, and the alliances shift every few years, with the general population quickly forgetting that any change ever took place. Oceania has always been at war with
Eastasia Eurasia. Eastasia is our traditional ally, of course.
You’ve probably heard at least some of the terms invented by this book: thoughtcrime, unperson, telescreen, Big Brother, doublethink, Newspeak (doublespeak isn’t a thing, contrary to popular belief). It has its own sophisticated lingo, governed by the fictional language of Newspeak—a state-mandated language seeking to control thought by limiting the range of human expression. It’s quite a nifty idea, actually. One character brags about how Newspeak is the only language that shrinks with every passing year.
As for Oceanian society, it is highly stratified, divided into the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the Proles (Proletarians). Members of the Inner Party enjoy luxuries such as wine, servants, and large flats; they are the Party’s unquestioned leaders, exercising a considerable degree of authority over their peers. The Outer Party, meanwhile, comprises administrators, office workers, and other skilled employees of the state, given mediocre living standards and subjected to constant surveillance by the Thought Police. The proles live in utter squalor without access to education or medicine, but on the plus side they aren’t surveiled as much. As the Party adage goes, “the proles, like the animals, are free.”
Our protagonist is one Winston Smith, an Outer Party member whose job is rewriting history at the Ministry of Truth. Every day he goes back and corrects old newspaper articles—removing the names of unpersons, revising predictions of pig iron production to match current figures, that sort of thing. If someone falls out of favor with the Party, it is made as if they never existed; all records are changed accordingly.
Winston is a thought criminal, and has been for some time. He secretly doubts Party orthodoxy; he writes in a notebook, which is highly illegal; he frequents prole neighborhoods and consorts with prostitutes. During the events of the movie, he adds to his crimes by meeting and falling in love with a coworker, Julia, with whom he escapes on several trysts to the countryside. He even makes contact with an Inner Party member, O’Brien, who seems to be part of a secretive resistance movement…
Now, I am not about to spoil the book or the movie, both of which you really must check out if you haven’t read/seen them. Let’s just say that it is not a cheerful tale; 1984 routinely makes lists of “Top 10 most depressing books,” alongside one of my other favorites, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The movie, too, pulls no punches, either with the plot or the relentlessly grim presentation.
One of the many things I like about this movie is that it doesn’t take the sleek, futuristic approach to its dystopian setting. One sees this in older adaptations of 1984, where everything has a chrome-plated ’50s B-movie vibe, and as a result they haven’t aged well—whereas this film has aged wonderfully. It uses an utterly drab, dilapidated, and miserable aesthetic to great effect. Almost the only bold colors we see are the red and white of the Party flag. It is a world permanently stuck in the 1940s, decaying with every passing year—though the Party’s power remains eternal.
As an adaptation, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a triumph. It works almost as well as a film as Orwell’s work does as a book. The setting is brilliantly realized, the characters are conveyed subtly, the plot moves along at a stately pace without feeling bloated—my only gripe is that the film struggles to translate Winston’s inner monologues from the book onto the screen. Oftentimes it just has John Hurt narrate his thoughts, which feels a tad cheesy. Nevertheless, this is not a hard film to take seriously. Michael Radford did a killer job.
The soundtrack is phenomenal, too. Not the weird ’80s synth stuff, so much, but the in-universe propaganda pieces are really well done. “Oceania, ‘Tis for Thee” ranks pretty highly as far as fictional anthems go:
So that’s my review. Classic movie, definitely the best adaptation yet of George Orwell’s greatest novel. Highly recommended! It is available for sale on YouTube, Vudu, and I believe Amazon Prime.
Rating: 10/10. I’d give it more, but that would risk inflating the scale. Long live INGSOC!