Thinking On Your Feet: George Orwell and 1984

On 24 January I was invited by the Thinking On Your Feet arts group to introduce a screening of Michael Radford’s 1984 (1984), which was part of a series of local events celebrating the author George Orwell.

Here’s what I said…

1984 means a lot of different things to different people.

Some people see nothing but the Party, The State, any State, The States, a traffic warden. Others see CCTV, mass surveillance, Facebook and the internet of things. Some focus on the language. The loss of words, changing meanings, political correctness. One local politician invoked it when some students at a university decided they wanted Maya Angelou’s words on their common room wall rather than Kipling’s. For me, Orwell’s genius lies in the personal. Or rather the portrayal of obliteration of the personal, private experience in the face of the party.

Tonight’s film is Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation of 1984. There have been numerous films and TV productions that play with the themes but we are perhaps most familiar with two of the direct adaptations. The first being the BBC / Nigel Kneale adaptation starring Peter Cushing, broadcast live in 1953. Questions were asked in Parliament about the violence and it was repeated, live, to a much bigger audience, the largest since the Coronation. In 1956 Michael Anderson directed a feature film adaptation starring Edmund O’Brien. Whilst the film retains much of the spirit by far the interesting aspect is that, like the wonderful Halas and Batchelor animation of Animal Farm, it was partly funded by the CIA. Ironically Orwell had already been branded ‘prematurely – anti fascist’ by the US Government.

Both of these versions are fine in their own right but Radford’s film succeeds for me because it is tactile and grounded in physicality. John Hurt as Winston looks broken and weathered. You can almost feel him rattle. The same is true of the surroundings and supporting cast. You can feel the room at the two minutes hate, the breath and the spit. You can almost taste the dust of the locations, the bitter cigarettes and oily gin. This is important because it’s a film about being human and human contact, it’s about intimacy, moments freely given and received, when all the world disappears. In a society without fixed meanings, where love isn’t for people but only for the Party, touch, the first gift we receive at birth, is everything, even if it is a boot stamping on your face – forever. Freely given and received.

Some quick notes on the film. On its original release the film featured music by the Eurhythmics. Michael Radford detested this change, forced on the film by Virgin Films, and much preferred Dominic Muldowney’s original score. The colour palette is cinematographer Roger Deakins’ answer to not being allowed to shoot in black and white. This was Richard Burton’s last film performance.

For further watching I would suggest Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, original title 1984 and a half, a film that sees totalitarianism run not by Big Brother but petty middle management. Dystopia brought to you by the people who can’t even run the bin rounds. I also implore you to seek out The Missing Picture, a documentary about the Khymer Rouge and the degradation of the private life, told by survivors and, as no film exists, illustrated by hand made dioramas.

Thank you again to Thinking on Your feet for inviting me to introduce the film. I hope that the film speaks to you and that it pops into your head when you are least expecting it in a few day’s time. Reread the book, because you’ll find something new there, turn off the voice command function on your TV and, no matter what, remain human.

Oddly, on the night, I said Burt Lancaster rather than Richard Burton and, looking back, here’s what I said in 2017 about the film…

Personally, I don’t think they really crack Winston Smith’s inner monologue (his diary) and that single piece of privacy is vital to the whole work. Also, although John Hurt is perfect as Smith, I’ve never quite liked Richard Burton as O’Brien. For me, the only actor who springs to mind when I think of the immortal line “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” is Burt Lancaster. But as one of Smith’s musings is whether O’Brien feels the same way he does… I wonder if Lancaster would just be too imposing for this to be credible?

If you are interested in diving into the film a bit more you can always try on of the following…

The Projection Booth’s podcast episode on the various adaptations

Local arts blogger Tom Girard’s review of 1984 (1984)

The film, and I suppose the book, is available on loan from Guille-Allès Public Library, Guernsey

Thinking On Your Feet

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