Friday, September 27, 2013

Film Adaptations of 1984 by George Orwell

[A series in which I go through the film adaptations of novels, authors, comics, television shows, video games, etc.]

1984 by George Orwell paperbackNineteen Eighty-Four [1984] is a dystopian novel written by George Orwell in 1948. It's a brilliant book that tells the story of a totalitarian society, a tyrannical Big Brother, and a man who rebels and finds love. Orwell had previously written the also political warning that is Animal Farm, which, like 1984, shows that out-of-check politics can be a very scary thing. Orwell himself was a devoted socialist, so devoted in fact that he made it his goal with all his writings to warn people of false-socialism and how it can be abused by leaders. I think it is without doubt that he achieved that goal. Terms like "Big Brother" and "doublethink" have worked their way into everyday vocabulary, and we owe 1984 for that. Even the author's name is constantly used to describe similar works, with nearly every dystopian work that followed 1984 being called "Orwellian" by at least someone.

George Orwell on a typewriterDuring the first half of the 20th century there were many popular dystopian (or perhaps better called Negative Utopian) novels written, many even before 1984, like Zamyatin's We or Huxley's Brave New World. It's not hard to see why; two World Wars and the beginning of a paranoid-filled Cold War all in less than half a century tend to cause people to reevaluate their governments and societies. Orwell wasn't quite original in his concept of a dystopian future, but he undoubtedly was in his delivery and details. 

Before watching any movies based on 1984, I would highly recommend reading the original novel, as it is unmatched by any imitators or adaptations.

Along with its massive influence on the genre of dystopian fiction, 1984 spawned many adaptations in all fields of media and art. Countless musicians and bands such as The Clash or Radiohead or The Kooks or Bad Religion have turned the novel into song. It's been adapted to radio plays and stage plays and even operas. Even other authors have paid tribute to 1984 with Anthony Burgess's 1985 or Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.

But today I point my focus towards the film adaptations. I will go through them chronologically and compare each one to the novel and, in the end, conclude which one is not only the best of the lot, but also the most faithful. Spoilers will follow.

1984 (1953)
The first ever screen adaptation aired on September 21, 1953 on the CBS anthology series Studio One in Hollywood. It starred Eddie Albert as Winston, Norma Crane as Julia, and Lorne Greene as O'Brien. Directed by Paul Nickell.

1984 - Studio One - Title ScreenThe first thing any 1984 fan will notice while watching this is how many classic lines and quotes from the novel it misses, including the famous “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever," or  the famous proclaiming of love towards Big Brother at the end. Then again, this was made less than five years after the book was published so maybe they didn't adore those quotes as we do today, perhaps it took time to reach the iconic status.  

The plot gets all the basics down, though the total run-time is less than an hour so some necessary simplification was required. The one disappointing scene (unsurprisingly) was the torture/interrogation scene with Winston and O'Brien. It's incredibly hard to live up to how excellent that part was in the novel but this portrayal of it was much of a let down. Also, Emmanuel Goldstein's name was, for one reason or another, changed to Cassandra. 

Eddie Albert in Studio One's 1984The characters are pretty accurate to the novel's, but they just didn't feel real. Maybe it was a lack of passion on the acting part or an over-simplification in the writing, but they just didn't feel likable or even believable.

The rendition of "Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me" sounds very good here. It's a chilling and haunting delivery.

Overall it's not a terrible adaptation and it never strays too far from the novel, but at the same time it misses many of the novel's best traits and in the end fails to capture its essence. There are, as we will get to, better alternatives to this first screen adaptation.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)
Only a year after the first screen adaptation another one was broadcast in the UK by BBC. Created by director-writer duo of The Quatermass Experiment fame Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale and starring pre-Hammer Films Peter Cushing.

Peter Cushing as Winston with Julia in Nineteen Eighty-FourThis live teleplay, which runs for nearly two hours, captures the novel's plot excellently. Just about all of it is there, including, unlike the last adaptation, all the best quotes. I was actually fairly surprised how truthful it stayed to the novel. It does have the advantage of being double the running time of the American television adaptation, but everything is very well executed. As one must expect from a film adapting a much longer novel, not everything is as thawed out or as well paced as the novel, but the effort is impressive.

I did feel like it might be a bit confusing for people watching it that have never read the book. It's visuals didn't relay all the information as well as the novel's words did. Someone who didn't read the novel may feel a bit lost at times. It's hard, however, for me to say whether this is absolutely true or not, being that I am indeed familiar with the novel, but it's just the way I felt while watching.

One of my favorite scenes was the scene where Winston and Julia were arrested. I found that scene in particular to be very well executed, with the telescreen on the wall being vocalized so well. The torture/interrogation scene, though an improvement over the last film's, could have been better, I think. It wasn't bad but it again lacked the intensity and length it had in the novel. Some scenes were done fantastically, some were bit lackluster, some were just decent.

Big Brother in 1954 BBC teleplay of Nineteen Eighty-FourThe characters here are also very spot on. The marvelous Peter Cushing portrays Winston excellently, there is no doubt there, but it is not only the acting that make the characters very accurate, but the writing too. The writing really did capture Winston, Julia, and even Syme very well. O'Brien was well written and solidly performed, but for some reason I felt he could have been better.

When it aired it flared much controversy with people complaining of the film's "subversive content and horrific nature," which, I think, is a good indication that the film captures the essence of the novel. 1984 is indeed a frightening story.

Overall this is a very good adaptation, and though not perfect it is an impressive effort and a largely under-appreciated work.

1984 (1956)
Here is the first theatrical adaptation and, at the time, the largest budgeted and highest produced adaptation. And it certainly shows.

Big Brother in 1984 (1956)Like the 1954 version, this is a UK production, though it feels more like the 1953 American version. This makes sense being that the same writer from the 1953 American version, William Templeton, also co-wrote this one. However, not only does this film have connections with the 1953 one, but it also does with the 1954 in that Donald Pleasence, who played Syme in the 1954 version, returns here as Parsons.

The film is nowhere near as faithful as the 1954 one was, unfortunately. It's an improvement over the first one in 1953 both in terms of faithfulness and quality, but the Peter Cushing 1954 one still has it beat when it comes to faithfulness. The story here seems to focus more on the love between Winston and Julia and turns it almost completely into a love story. That's terribly unfortunate; as any 1984 fan knows it is far more than a love story. However, despite its inaccuracy, the love story, I thought, was very well done.

Winston and Julia in 1984 (1956) movieThe torture scene was the best hitherto, though it still had room for improvement. The film has absolutely beautiful cinematography and what the camera angles did so well during the torture scene was to put you in the same position as Winston. During the torture scene much of it plays out through Winston's perspective, like a POV shot, so it makes you feel like you're Winston. What made the torture part in the book so effective was that it put you in Winston's shoes; this film adaptation attempted to achieve the same thing and, all in all, succeeded.

As expected, the film changed a few minor things from the novel. Again, as with Templeton's last 1984 screenplay, Emmanuel Goldstein's name is changed, this time to Cellador. O'Brien is also changed to O'Connor, my guess being in order to avoid confusion between actor Eddie O'Brien who played Winston. The film missed a few great quotes from the novel, but it manages to get some of them. The ending was solid.

1984 (1956) movieAll the characters were portrayed very well, especially Julia and O'Connor. Winston, however, was not very good at all. Eddie O'Brien is a fine actor, but he's just no Winston. He doesn't look like Winston, talk like Winston, act like Winston. It was a terrible casting decision, especially since the last two adaptations had pretty good Winstons.

This adaptation is not as faithful as the 1954 one, but as a film I feel it is better. Its larger budget and high production values really make clear the difference between film and teleplay. It's a worthy adaptation, though far from perfect.

1984 Commercial (1984)
This isn't exactly a film, it's actually a 1 minute advertisement for the Apple Macintosh that aired during Superbowl XVIII. It was directed by Ridley Scott, of Alien and Blade Runner fame.

1984 Apple Macintosh superbowl commercialObviously there's not much of a plot here, and in terms of faithfulness to the novel, it has little. It has a nameless heroin whom is not from the novel and the only character recognizable is Big Brother, played wonderfully by David Graham.

The commercial intended to associate Apple with non-conformity and IBM with the power-hungry Big Brother (a bit ironic by today's standards). It's often hailed as one of the greatest commercials of all time and it certainly is very well-made. Ridley Scott directed this on a budget of $900,000. Yes, nearly one million dollars just to make the one-minute commercial, and that's not even accounting for the money they paid for the Superbowl spot.

It has cinematic nods to Metropolis (another great dystopian work) and it's a very beautiful looking world (as expected from the man behind Blade Runner). I just felt I should mention this, though it's not really an adaptation. Hell, it's only one minute long, go watch it on YouTube.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
This is the film that most people will think of first when thinking of Orwell films. A British production, directed by Michael Radford and, very appropriately, released in the year 1984.

Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)The plot here follows the novel's story very closely. Of course there were the obligatory omissions, as a 2 hour film can rarely adapt everything from a 300-plus page book. But what it does do it does well, and stays faithful to the source text. It does a fantastic job of maintaining Orwell's vision, world, and message.

The film visualizes a very melancholy and depressing world, devoid of color and emotion. Like the novel, it's a world that is dystopic yet believable. The film's sets and color schemes definitely match the tone of the novel. It's quite the downer of the film, not unlike the novel, but that is the job of a warning, after all. In contrast to the industrial visuals, Winston imagines a world of green grass and love, with a landscape less resembling a Hugh Feriss sketch and more like an Andrew Wyeth painting.

Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)The characters are written and portrayed great. They're mostly carbon copies of their prose counterparts, and the performances here are very impressive. John Hurt as Winston is perfect, capturing the weariness and helplessness of the character. Richard Burton is great as the intimidating though somewhat sympathetic O'Brien. Suzanna Hamilton as Julia is good here also.

The 1954 teleplay still stays a bit more faithful, but the larger production values and wonderful performances make this one a very worthwhile adaptation. It also conveys the atmosphere of the novel, I feel, better than any other adaptation.

Brazil (1985)
Directed by former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, Brazil, which was developed under the working titles The Ministry and 1984 ½ (a nod not only to the novel but to Fellini's 8½ as well), is perhaps the loosest Orwell adaptation there is. Terry Gilliam has even admitted that he wrote the script before ever even reading the novel.

Typewriter in Brazil (1985)Expectedly, the film's story isn't very faithful to the novel; aside from some similarities and parallels, it's very much a work of its own. What Brazil does share with 1984 though is the totalitarian themes and dystopian world. It achieves almost all of the same messages and warnings that 1984 did, and in that respect is a faithful adaptation.

It's also interesting to see an adaptation done by someone who has never read the source material. It brings a certain freshness and unique perspective to the Orwellian dystopia. It also goes to show just how much Orwell's novel has seeped into the public consciousness and culture, making itself familiar to people who haven't even read it.

Baby face mask from torture scene in Brazil (1985)The visual style evokes not only a dystopian aesthetic but a a blend of German expressionism, film noir, retro futurism, and surrealism as well. Mixed with comedy and fantasy, this may not be the 1984 adaptation one would expect, but it's undoubtedly a masterful work that, at its core, I'm sure would do Orwell proud.

This also, out of all the adaptations, has possibly the best rendition of the torture scene.

A loose adaptation that touches on many of the same things Orwell did. If anything an enjoyable film for its visuals and set design.

Though very rarely does an adaptation outdo its source, there have been some interesting adaptations of Orwell's novel. None of them are perfect, and none are, I'd argue, as good as the novel, but every one is worth watching at least once.

Best Winston portrayal: John Hurt in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
Most faithful adaptation: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)
Least faithful adaptation: Brazil (1985)
Best film: 1984 (1956)
Worst film: 1984 (1953)

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