George Orwell’s dystopian novel was made into a great film in the year of its title: 1984.
I’m guessing most of you have at least heard of George Orwell’s novel “1984.” It’s about a totalitarian state in the future, one of constant surveillance, in which critical thinking is a crime, and authority is represented by a dictator named Big Brother. An office worker in one of the ministries, Winston Smith, starts to question authority, and initiates a secret love affair with a woman named Julia, even though unsanctioned relationships are illegal. This is the plot, in brief, but perhaps the book has become so familiar that we’ve neglected to read it carefully anymore. Crucially, Orwell’s ideas hinged on language and the way authoritarians use it to hide and distort the facts.
Making a good film version of 1984 is difficult. It’s been tried a few times, with varied success. My favorite version was released in 1984, adapted and directed by a young Englishman named Michael Radford. Radford’s producers and other backers were behind his project, but they insisted that the picture be released in the year 1984, when the media would inevitably start talking about the book, comparing what it said to what the year looked like now, and so forth. That meant they were in a hurry to get it done, and it’s impressive what Radford and his team, under pressure, managed to achieve on a pretty low budget.
The screenplay was very faithful to the book. The director’s first brilliant decision was to make the production design appear, not like some vision of the future, but similar to the styles of the year the book was written, 1948. There are computer, surveillance, and television screens in the film, but all the technology looks shabby and old-fashioned. The vehicles, the offices and other buildings, the clothes, look bleak, like England did after the war.
Roger Deakins, early in what would become a very long career, paints the film in stark gray—a world of grime and confinement. The color photography sometimes looks almost black and white. All the amazing visual effects, such as the crowd scenes at the hate rallies with the large screens and the image of Big Brother, were done in camera—in other words, they were shot just as they appear. Of course there was no computer generated imagery then, but Radford couldn’t even afford the current technology such as blue screens.
In the main role of Winston Smith, Radford cast John Hurt, who conveys a kind of wounded resentment and passivity that gives an edge to the character’s rebellion. The terrible punishment Winston endures Hurt makes palpable—his suffering has a visceral onscreen power. He truly went the extra mile. As Julia, a relative newcomer named Suzanna Hamilton has just the right mix of mischief and defiant strength. But the biggest coup was getting Richard Burton to play O’Brien, the drily sinister official who represents the intellectual voice of the state machine. He was not a well man, and had trouble remembering his lines. This caused some agonizing delays in the shoot. But the final result on screen is utterly compelling, one of his great performances. Instead of trying to act the villain as a lesser performer would do, Burton’s calm and deliberate manner, and the precision and thoughtfulness of his delivery, turns O’Brien into the epitome of totalitarian thinking. It was his last appearance on screen. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage two months before the movie was released.
1984 did OK at the time—not a big hit. Since then, however, its stature has steadily increased, and now it’s widely considered the best film version of Orwell’s great, still relevant book.