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Monday, August 25, 2008


Orwell's novel was written in 1949, but this movie adaptation fits into the fabric of 50s sci-fi. It was not intended to be a fastidious screen version of the book. That would take far more than a feature film audience would tolerate. Instead, the opening credits announce that it is "freely adapted from the novel". The tale is much the same, though significantly thinned for the screen. Nonetheless, Michael Anderson's 1984 is a powerful tale of dystopia, despair and betrayal. It is still a haunting portrayal of The State as supremely sovereign.

Quick Plot Synopsis
From the destruction caused by the nuclear war of 1965, three dominant and supreme police states emerged. They stay in a perpetual state of war as a tool to control their various populations. During a missile attack on London, Winston Smith rushes home to his dingy little apartment, sneaking in a forbidden diary he bought. A neighbor invites him out for a drink. Two "traitors", Jones and Rutherford, are arrested. At work the next day in the Ministry of Truth, Winston comes across a news photo of Jones and Rutherford proving they weren't guilty. His supervisor, O'Connor, denies the photo ever existed and orders him to destroy it. Winston's belief in an objective truth and faith to the state is shaken even more. He finally meets with a woman, Julia, who says she loves him. They begin a surreptitious romance. They have a few secret meetings in distant woods. They rent a room over the little antique shop, supposedly free from the omnipresent cameras, in order to eke out a small life together. Winston wonders about "the underground" and whether his boss, O'Connor, is part of it. When O'Connor invites Winston and Julia over to his house one evening, they decide to trust him. They swear allegiance to the underground. Shortly afterward, they are arrested. Both are interrogated and tortured into mind-breaking submission. The two of them meet briefly after being "rehabilitated" but any love or spirit has been weeded out of them. In the end, Winston chants and shouts at a Hate Week rally just as passionately as the crowd does. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Fun it isn't. It is powerful and still a relevant tale for today. It gives the viewer much to ponder over, long after the final credits have rolled.

Cold War Angle
1984 isn't an allegory of the Cold War. It's an outright scare story of what would happen if the Communists won. The narrator says, at the end of the film, "This then, is the story of the future. It may be our children's future, if we fail to protect their heritage of freedom." It doesn't get much more plain than that.

Past Prime -- Edmond O'Brian and Jan Sterling are not the typical Hollywood leading characters. They're both a bit dowdy and past their youthful prime. This bothers some viewers who imagine the furtive love story belonging to young people. However, their past-peak-ness actually fits well. They've lived long enough to have risen into "outer party" positions, and been their long enough for disenchantment to fester. Julia admits to having brought others to her secret glade for rendezvous. She's been around. Winston exhibits a loneliness and quiet frustration that fits a middle-aged man in a dead-end career.

Foolish Trust -- It seems incongruous that Winston so easily trusts people. He not only takes them at face value, (such as the antique shop owner), but especially his supervisor, O'Connor. On very little than wishful projection, Winston takes the leap of faith that O'Connor is a secret member of the resistance. This naive trust has it's own poignance. Winston wanted to believe in this better life so badly, that he was willing to see hope where there was none.

Surprise Sincerity -- Audiences identify with Winston's rebellion against Big Brother's oppression. It's easy to imagine that most people in Oceania dislike the State. Two characters paint a very different picture. Winston's neighbor, Parsons, is turned in by his neo-nazi daughter who said he muttered "Down with Big Brother" in his sleep. He doesn't doubt it. He's proud of her for helping him. Rebellion was sickness needing early treatment.
O'Connor, exhibits a sincere devotion to his work when he's converting Winston -- not a separate sadism. The unbuttoned collar, the dabbing of sweat from his brow. He's not cruelly torturing a man. He's patiently, almost lovingly, trying to help Winston through a sort of mindset de-tox treatment. O'Connor is not a mindless slogan chanter. He is a competent, rational professional who sincerely wants to treat Winston and cure him. Rebellion is an addiction.

Big Brother Is Watching -- One of the lasting impressions from the movie is how pervasively the State was able to watch its citizens. A TV camera in every room, but further, someone obviously watching their monitor's closely. Almost everyone was a real or potential informant. In today's easily monitored world of cameras and phone call logging, etc., such an oppressive control would be easier than what Orwell imagined. Are we "Winstons" in imagining that no one sees our "private" sins?

Bottom line? Anderson's 1956 version of Orwell's story is well worth watching. The movie cannot contain all that was in the book, so get over it. Watch it for what it is. It was remade in 1984 with a rather different spin and feel. This older version has its own merits.


Anonymous said...

People should read this.

Nightowl said...

I quite agree, Carla.

Mike Scott said...

Even better is the 1954 BBC production starring Peter Cushing as "Winston Smith".

Here is a link to pt. 1 (of 15) on YouTube: