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1984, written by Michael Radford from the book by George Orwell, directed by Michael Radford, 1985, 120 min.

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever."

This movie version of 1984 struck me as completely unnecessary. It is an extremely faithful adaptation, and the additions are interesting and well-considered. But the problem of the last half of the book (that it is dead in the water, dramatically speaking) is only accentuated in this movie. There's poor old Winston, on the rack, getting tortured. And there's nasty old O'Brien, talking to him, about how necessary it is to obey Big Brother and about Room 101. About this and that, droning on and on. Even Richard Burton's delivery of a famous line from the book (which I have quoted at the beginning of this review) can't save half of a two hour movie. The film has bright moments, but somehow it simply didn't capture my interest or gain my respect.

The story proceeds just as in the book. Winston Smith, played convincingly by John Hurt, is a thought criminal in a repressive society. He works for the Ministry of Truth, which is engaged in changing the record of the past as necessary. He meets a woman named Julia, and they have a love affair. I liked the way the film uses Winston's visions from the very beginning -- we see Winston's dream of himself as a child, and we also see him walking through a door labelled Room 101. In Winston's dream, Room 101 is a vast and sunny landscape, and it matches the view from the edge of the forest where Winston and Julia have their first rendezvous. When Winston's thought crimes catch up to him, he is interrogated by O'Brien and then taken to Room 101. Winston's actual stroll down the corridor to Room 101 is completely unlike his visions, and the contents of Room 101 are not anything Winston could have wished for. The movie ends with the words "I love you" but the careless viewer might assume that Winston is talking about Julia, and not Big Brother.

The film, in its rush to include as much as possible from the book, includes too much information, most of it poorly explained. I had re-read the book about two weeks before I saw the movie, and I nearly missed the significance of the sequence where Winston is called back to the Ministry of Truth. Oceania is no longer at war with Eurasia but rather Eastasia (or is it the other way around?), and the workers at the Ministry of Truth are putting in long hours to make sure the past agrees with the present. But the sleeping people in the aisles at first seemed like victims of an air raid, or something of the sort. Winston's job itself is also poorly explained. Maybe I'm not looking for explanation per se, but less clutter. Thankfully, the movie version cuts all but a few sentences of Winston reading his book. The "how" of this society is immediately obvious in the events of the first half of the movie, and O'Brien supplies the "why" in the course of his endless droning.

George Orwell's book is something that has to be experienced in its own right. This movie would possibly reach a wider audience than the book would, but that is a somewhat disturbing argument in itself. Some cultural critics have said that we don't need to worry about Big Brother watching us (or Big Brother burning our books, as in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451), because we are watching Big Brother already in the form of mindless entertainment. In other words, the explicit forms of social control are unnecessary (and in the Bradbury example, we are no longer bothering to read books). I don't know as if our society can be analysed so simplistically, but I don't think that this particular movie version of 1984 succeeds as an invasion of the realm of mindless entertainment. Of course the movie has not destroyed the book: Orwell's original vision is still out there, available to those who want to read it.


Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.


Last modified: March 15, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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