Film Review: ‘1984’

Orwell in limbo

‘1984’ Film Review

“I observe . . . some lines of an institution which, in its original, might have been tolerable; but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions.” Thus the king of Brobdingnag to Gulliver; thus one’s thoughts ran, watching the Associated British Studios’ film of 1984.

The credits describe it as “freely adapted” from George Orwell’s novel. Some alterations were to be expected, and the minor ones obviously have been made with a view to the American market. Goldstein and O’Brien have become Calador and O’Connor, the dollar currency of Britain in 1984 is converted back to sterling, and two of the leading actors are American.

The last may not sound like an alteration but it certainly looks like one, since all the principals are remarkably miscast. Winston Smith is played by Mr. Edmund O’Brien, whose bulky physique speaks well for nutrition in 1984. Wearing a permanent puzzled look, Mr. O’Brien makes Winston an earnest, plodding chap, getting into trouble less through clear-than thick-headedness. Similarly, Miss Jan Sterling conveys languor instead of the sexy vitality from which Julia’s rebellion arises, and thus never makes the point at all. O’Connor is played by Mr. Michael Redgrave, for all the world like a Frank Richards schoolmaster; indeed, one half expects him to flourish a birch in the torture-chamber and cry “Upon my word, Bunter! I shall deal with you most severely for this insensate behaviour.”

Still, some alterations were expected. What was not expected was the transformation of 1984 into a reaffirmation that Luv Conquers All. True, the ending is not happy in the usual sense: Winston and Julia are shot down, reaching for each other, after finding their love unaltered (like Winston’s weight) by the months of torture. The message remains, however. Brains can be washed, but not hearts; thought can be destroyed, but not Luv.

Orwell’s is the best, most intelligent of the novels which have tried prognosticating what man will come to: far better, for example, than Brave New World or Ape and Essence, because it gives a more coherent account of human activity. Basically it is a throwing-up of hands: at the growth of central power and its obsessional wielding by the post-war Labour government, at Russia, at the new ground gained for mass suggestion, at the awful thought that this was where “State Socialism” would lead. For all its mistakenness, it has the virtue of being a passionate protest against the regimentation of minds, and the film scarcely touches that. With its torture machines and the plug-ugly police, it makes the 1984 regime dependent on physical suppression far more than inculcated acceptance.

Was Orwell mistaken, then? Of course he was. The assumption on which he founded Big Brother’s utopia is that war can be kept up permanently to sustain a particular economy and that power is an end in itself: neither can be justified. His book describes but never explains a class-divided society without a class struggle. Indeed, 1984 never comes to grips with the question of the proles: they love squalidly, they loll in pubs, their culture is pornography and sentimental songs—but what do they do? Presumably they are productive workers, since Winston, Julia and their Outer Party colleagues are government clerks—but what sort of production? Dictators and all other rulers rule just because of the labour and acquiescence of the great mass of productive workers, and that is the factor which Orwell discounted.

Most people have appeared unsure quite what to make of 1984 (except the Communists, who have danced with blind rage as if some cap had not only fitted but fallen over their ears). A not-uncommon reaction has been that it may be mistaken, but, well, it’s a warning. So it is: a warning against prophetic works, especially when they are written with more indignation that understanding. All the same, Orwell’s book is sincere and serious enough to have deserved better treatment from the film-makers. Television did much better by it.

The publicity for 1984 says with emphasis: “A Film of To-morrow to SHOCK you To-day.” Fair enough.

Robert Barltrop

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