© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Michael Radford’s 1984 is the most successful of several film and television adaptations of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), one of the most influential and widely-read novels of the twentieth century. The film, of course, cannot capture certain elements of the novel, such as the fact that it is narrated in a colorless, bland style, which helps the book to convey the sense of spiritual impoverishment that pervade the dystopian society of Oceania. Otherwise, though, the film does an excellent job of capturing many of the elements of Orwell’s novel, which stands as a powerful cautionary tale about some of the darker tendencies of modern industrial society. Of course, Orwell wrote his book as a warning against those tendencies in the years just after World War II, but recent historical developments have in many ways made Orwell’s warnings more relevant (and urgent) than ever.
In Nineteen Eighty-four George Orwell creates a compelling dystopian vision that has haunted the popular imagination of the Western world to this day. The Party that rules the dystopian Oceania of Orwell’s book has no illusions about the nature of its mission. Unlike many dystopian regimes, it makes no real claims to attempt to save humanity or to improve the quality of human life, even though it does extensively use propaganda to further its power. And perpetuating that power seems to be the only goal of the Party’s reign, which the Party functionary O’Brien images as “a boot stamping on a human face, forever.” In short, the Party is consciously seeking to create the ultimate dystopia, a world that “is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined” (220). Indeed, Orwell’s book is one of the central defining texts of the genre of dystopian fiction, dealing in important ways with almost all of the central motifs associated with the genre. For example, in the Oceania of Orwell’s book certain mechanical applications of technology are used primarily as tools of political oppression, even while science itself remains a potentially liberating realm of free thought. Religion has been conscripted by the state in the service of its own ideology, sexuality is strictly controlled to prevent strong emotional attachments between partners, and art and culture are used as tools for direct propagation of the official ideology. Perhaps the two most striking motifs in Nineteen Eighty-four, however, are the revisionist manipulation of history in order to provide support for the programs of the ruling Party and the attempt to institute a new language, “Newspeak,” that will allow expression only of ideas that are consistent with the Party’s policies.
Technology is a key tool of the Party in the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-four, but the politicization of science and technology in this society has in fact had a suffocating effect on science itself. After all, science fundamentally involves a quest for truth, and the Party of Oceania is in the business of suppressing truth, not revealing it. As I have noted elsewhere:
“While older forms of tyranny like the medieval Church at least paid lip service to truth as a legitimation for their power, more recent experience with twentieth-century phenomena like fascism, Stalinism, and McCarthyism has shown that abusive governments now tend to operate not through an unwavering dedication to unequivocal truths but through a cynical acceptance of equivocation in all aspects of life” (Booker 83).
This aspect of Nineteen Eighty-four is also present in 1984, though it comes through less strongly, suggesting that the 1949 novel is actually more relevant to today’s “post-truth” political climate than is the 1984 film.This focus on blatant disregard for the truth is also one of the aspects of the novel that was routinely cited during the Cold War as a commentary on Stalinism, though a closer look shows that it is equally applicable to capitalism, if not more so. Thus, the prominent critic and theorist Terry Eagleton has noted that capitalism thrives on “gross deception, whitewash, cover-up, and lying through one’s teeth.” As a result,
“the true facts—concealed, suppressed, distorted—can be in themselves politically explosive; and those who have developed the nervous tic of placing such vulgar terms as ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ in fastidiously distancing scare quotes should be careful to avoid a certain collusion between their own high-toned theoretical gestures and the most banal, routine political strategies of the capitalist power-structure” (379).
Despite the suppression of science and scientific truth, there is a certain amount of advanced technology in Oceania, especially for the electronic surveillance of the behavior of individual citizens, but on the whole this dystopian society is rather backward technologically. Orwell’s Party still conducts some research, but only in support of the development of weaponry, and even that is relatively primitive. After all, the goal of their endless wars is not victory, but simply perpetuating war itself. Thus, the forbidden book of the demonized Party enemy Emmanuel Goldstein notes that “[a]s a whole the world is more primitive today than it was fifty years ago” (156).
Science as we know it has virtually ceased to exist in Oceania, being replaced by a purely instrumental technology. Perhaps the most striking instance of this technology involves the ever-present telescreens through which the Party of Oceania keeps track of its members, a technology envisioned by Orwell before television became a widely-used commercial medium. The homes of all Party members feature these video screens, as do all public places that Party members might frequent. The two-way screens allow the Party both to keep its members under surveillance and to bombard them with a constant barrage of video propaganda; these screens are on at all times, and can be turned off only in the homes of members of the elite “Inner Party.” One of the book’s best-known slogans—“Big Brother Is Watching You—nively captures this sense of always being under surveillance. It has also become a part of our everyday language, suggesting the extent to which many people feel this way in today’s world.
Clearly, the ideology of Orwell’s Party is much more in line with the conventional religion than with modern science, and one of the aspects of the book that now seems most relevant is its prescient view of the later rise of religious rhetoric as a technique of political power. O’Brien describes himself and his peers as “the priests of power” (217), and many of the Party’s objections to science echo those of the medieval Church. For example, O’Brien denies the theory of evolution and argues that the earth is no older than the human race. And he declares that the Party can, if it so chooses, proclaim that “the earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go around it” (219). Responding to the obvious objection that for certain practical purposes a heliocentric model of the universe seems necessary, O’Brien simply declares that the Party can (as did the Church after Copernicus) produce a dual system of astronomy if it so wishes. Orwell’s cynical O’Brien openly admits that his Party is interested purely in power, and this power is most clearly manifested in the Party’s ability to make people believe even blatant absurdities—their coldly calculated rational procedures, in fact, turn out to be the ultimate form of irrationality.
On the other hand, conventional religious activity is strictly forbidden in Oceania, at least to Party members, because it might serve as competition for the Party, which seeks to have total control of all ideological messages that those members might receive. Indeed, it is clear that the ban on religion comes about not because organized religion is so radically different from the Party, but because the two are all-too-similar and would therefore be competing for similar energies. On the other hand, Orwell suggests that the lowly proles (the common masses, short for “proletarians”) would have been allowed to practice religion had they so desired, because they are considered essentially to be animals, so devoid of intellectual capacity that manipulating their thoughts is not really worth the energy. Thus, the propaganda aimed at the proles is aimed not so much at ideological conversion as at simply entertaining them to keep them stupefied and out of trouble, with the main prole cultural products consisting of things such as pornography and cheap novels, pitched to a least-common-denominator level. The Party actively works to appropriate the energies traditionally associated with religious belief and to use those energies for its own purposes, giving the Party itself a quasi-religious air. In his job as official government propagandist Winston Smith, the story’s protagonist, invents the story of “Comrade Ogilvy,” an idealized Party hero who is intended to serve as an example for rank-and-file Party members. Smith describes Ogilvy in terms with clear religious undertones, making him a sort of secular saint: “He was a total abstainer and nonsmoker, had no recreations except a daily hour in the gymnasium, and had taken a vow of celibacy, believing marriage and the care of a family to be incompatible with a twenty-four-hour-a-day devotion to duty” (42).
The Party also furthers loyalty among its members through the use of numerous techniques borrowed from religion. As with many conventional religions, Party solidarity is furthered by communal rituals, but in a reversal of the Christian emphasis on love the central Party ritual is a phenomenon called the “Two Minutes Hate.” In this rite of hatred, Party members gather before a telescreen as programming focusing on the heinous treachery of the (manufactured) official Party enemy Emmanuel Goldstein gradually whips the crowd into a frenzy the intensity of which might be envied by any Bible-thumping Southern preacher. The viewers jump up and down, screaming at the screen, and even those who are initially less than enthusiastic find themselves caught up in the mass hysteria: “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in” (16). Eventually, though, the incendiary focus on Goldstein shifts to a calming focus on Big Brother, and the frenzy of hatred turns to a frenzy of devotion and loyalty whose religious echoes are unmistakable, making Big Brother a sort of substitute God. At the end of one such session, a woman runs toward the screen: “With a tremulous murmur that sounded like ‘My Savior!’ she extended her arms toward the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer” (17).
Given the Party’s opposition to pleasure, it is not surprising that they take a dim view of unrestrained sexual activity. As opposed to the dystopian societies of We or Brave New World, families do exist in Oceania; in fact, sexual relationships are officially forbidden outside the traditional structure of marriage. On the other hand, the Party is working slowly to eradicate the family as well, and it is careful to ensure that strong emotional attachments between family members do not develop. Family members are effectively turned against one another, as children are encouraged to inform on their parents and spouses encouraged to spy on one another. In Oceania, “[t]he family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police” (111).
The Party of Oceania accepts a Freudian energy-based model of sublimation, feeling that “[w]hen you make love you’re using up energy” that might be employed in the service of the Party. As a result, sexual pleasure is a waste of emotional energy, since “sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship” (110). The Party thus seeks strictly to control and limit the fulfillment of sexual desire. Echoing their predecessors in the Christian (especially Catholic) tradition, the Party sees sex as existing primarily for the purpose of manufacturing human beings. Their official view is that sexual intercourse should be a vaguely unpleasant activity dutifully engaged in only for purposes of procreation.
As a result of this policy of official repression, enemies of the Party identify sexuality as a potentially powerful locus for transgression against the Party’s rule. The would-be rebel Smith concludes that “[t]he sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion” (59). And Smith later enacts his subversive tendencies through an unauthorized sexual relationship with Julia, a young woman who shares his view of intercourse as rebellion. On the other hand, Smith later becomes concerned about Julia’s lack of theoretical awareness, accusing her of being “only a rebel from the waist downwards” (129). Indeed, the sexual rebellion of Smith and Julia turns out to be entirely ineffectual. Both are arrested by the authorities, then tortured and brainwashed and forced to turn against each other. In the book’s chilling conclusion, the official appropriation of Smith’s passion for Julia becomes complete; he sublimates his desire for the woman in a socially acceptable direction, realizing that his only love is now directed toward “Big Brother,” the book’s personification of official power.
One of the main ways the Party manipulates the feelings of its members is through direct control of Oceania’s culture industry. All culture in Oceania is produced directly by the Ministry of Truth, which works to supply Party members with “newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels—with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment” (39). Even the proles are not exempt from this strict cultural control, and one of the reasons they need not undergo constant surveillance is that they are effectively kept in line by the Ministry’s departments of proletarian culture, which produce a variety of products (mostly sentimental or pornographic) aimed at what the Party perceives as being the taste of the proles.
But the most potentially powerful force for government control of the population of Oceania is probably language itself. The attempts of the Party of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four to produce conformity and obedience in its members through the proliferation of a new language designed for that purpose represent probably the best known and most overt example of this kind of dystopian control of language. Orwell’s Party diligently works not only to produce mechanical cultural products but to make language itself mechanical through the development of “Newspeak,” an official language the authoritarian intentions of which are made clear in the book. The basic goal of Newspeak is simple—to deprive the populace of a vocabulary in which to express dissident ideas, and therefore literally to make those ideas unthinkable. Not surprisingly, the Newspeak project extends to works of literature as well, since the classics of past literature are informed by precisely the kinds of polyphonic energies and human passions that the Party seeks to suppress. Therefore, rather than ban the classics of past literature as in Brave New World, the Party instead undertakes a project to translatethe works of writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Byron into Newspeak and thereby to render them ideologically orthodox.
The Newspeak project is part of the Party’s attempts to manipulate reality (and thus to gain complete control of the minds of its members) by manipulating language. In particular (in an obvious reference to the continual revisions of history under Stalinism, but also in a general reference to the fact that the official history of the past is always written by those who hold power in the present), the key element of the ideology of the Party involves what they call the “mutability of the past.” “Who controls the present,” runs a related slogan, highlighted by on-screen text at the beginning of the film, “controls the past.” The Ministry of Truth thus proclaims that history is not recorded in texts, but that it is the texts in which it is recorded. The Ministry’s Records Department (where Smith is employed as the book begins) thus continually “updates” history by editing official records, effacing all indication of the existence of problematic persons or events and creating fictional records of nonexistent persons or events that help to support the Party line. Extending the distortion of facts and manipulation of statistics, Orwell’s Ministry not only controls the content of all newspapers in the present, but also continually modifies the filed back issues of those newspapers according to the latest Party line, leaving no official record of anything that might run counter to current Party policy.
The Party constantly appeals to history to
legitimate its claims to authority, but in point of fact this continual editing
of the past represents a radical effacement of history. Smith suggests that in
Oceania “[h]istory has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present
in which the Party is always right” (218). The Party’s belief in the
social construction of reality is so radical that their project of
reconstructing the past is quite literal. In their eyes they are not creating
false histories that do not conform to a “true past”: they are
literally recreating the past, which exists only in “texts” of which
they are fully in control.
This textualization of history threatens to strip the experiences of the real people who live through history of all significance. With no tangible evidence to the contrary, Party members tend to accept official accounts of the past even when those accounts contradict their own memories. The dictatorship of the Party in Oceania is relatively new, and citizens can commonly still remember the days before the Party’s rule. Yet the revisionary history of the Party has been so effective that even direct memory is becoming less and less effective as a counter to official fictionalizations of the past.
Nineteen Eighty-four refers most directly to the oppressive Stalinist regime then in power in Russia, but it echoes Hitler’s German Nazi regime in numerous ways as well. Moreover, the book stands as an eloquent plea that we remember the past and learn from it, that we in modern England and America not forget (and therefore repeat) the excesses of Hitler and Stalin in our attempts to defend our democratic way of life, something that Orwell believed was already beginning to happen when he wrote the book. Orwell’s major point may be that the complacency of the general population is one of the surest roads to the tyranny of those in official power. His goal was to shake his readers out of that complacency.
One advantage that Radford’s film adaptation has over the original novel is the performances of its stellar cast. O’Brien, for example, is played in the film by the distinguished Welsh actor Richard Burton, while Julia is very effectively played by the English actress Suzanna Hamilton and Mr. Charrington by the Irish actor Cyril Cusack. But the key performance in the film is the one delivered by Englishman John Hurt as Winston Smith. A distinguished actor who won multiple Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Hurt is perhaps best remembered as the victim of the chest-burster in Alien (1979). In 1984, he brilliantly captures the conflicts and torments of the film’s crucial character, a completely unremarkable individual who nevertheless stands as the main bastion of individual desire in the face of the communal demands of the Party. Indeed, the power of Hurt’s performance probably provides the biggest difference between the film and the novel, with the film seeming more of a personal story with a focus on Smith, thanks to Hurt’s ability to command attention and sympathy.
The film obviously also has the advantage of being able to represent the grim dystopian world of the novel visually, though the film’s modest budget imposed significant limitations on how much of this world could be shown. Indeed, the longer form of the novel actually provides much more opportunity for effective world-building. Nevertheless, the film—thanks to the talents of the renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins—successfully captures the flavor of this world, giving viewers a sense that they have seen more of it than they really have. Deakins and Radford had both hoped to shoot the film in black-and-white better to capture the grim and colorless flavor of this world, but Virgin Films, the film’s financial backers, were afraid that making the film in black-and-white would be box-office suicide. So, instead, Deakins shot the film in color but used a special processing technique to make the colors appear washed out, thus achieving the worn and dismal look of the world of the film.
For a highly entertaining (but still disturbing) postmodern re-inscription of many of the ideas of Nineteen Eighty-four, see Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil.
Booker, M. Keith. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature: Fiction as Social Criticism. Greenwood Press, 1994.
Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Grenier, Richard. “Did the Heart of Orwell’s ‘1984’ Get Lost in the Movie?” New York Times, Sect. 2, p. 1(February 24, 1985).
Orwell, George. Nineteen-Eighty-four. 1949. New American Library, 1961.
 Throughout this discussion, I will use 1984 to indicate the title of Radford’s film, which is common practice. I will use Nineteen Eighty-four to refer to the title of Orwell’s novel, which is its proper title.
 For a much more detailed discussion of the novel, see my chapter on it in The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature.
 Some reviewers have complained that the lack of detail in the film makes it much less powerful than the novel. See Grenier.
 Virgin also interceded and replaced the film’s original orchestral soundtrack with a an electronic, pop-oriented soundtrack by the Eurythmics. Several different versions of the film have been released over the years with different soundtracks. The version we are seeing features a combination of the two different scores.