Wednesday, January 19, 2011


"Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past."  Man, that is such a good line!  Even Zach de la Rocha rap-rocking can't dilute that quote's cynical analysis of power and education.  That line provides the introduction to 1984, the timely (it was made in the year of the title) film adaptation of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel.

If you somehow managed to miss out on reading 1984 in high school, here's the basics.  In the far-flung future of 1984, England is a great big crap hole.  The Americas, Australia and England have merged into one supernation, Oceania.  We are forever battling our fellow supernations, Eurasia and Eastasia for dominion over Northern Africa and the Middle East.  Wait...constant war in 1984...America merging with soccer-loving nations...does that mean that the 1985 Bears will never happen?  What a nightmarish future/past!  In Oceania, freedom of expression is forbidden, and independent thought is a crime (creatively titled "thoughtcrime").  The government's needs come first and foremost, and civilians that do not capitulate are not just killed, but erased from history.  Winston Smith (John Hurt), part of the upper-middle class, works for the government's Ministry of Truth, where he spends every day amending previously published books and newspapers to fit with the government's current take on what history should be.  That changes from day to day, so Winston is always busy.  Like everyone else, Winston is under the constant supervision of the government, shown in omnipresent monitor screens as a glaring face.  Big Brother, the leader of the government, is watching everyone at all times.

Winston isn't happy with his situation, but what can he do to fight against the way the world works?  So, he spends a little time every day in a corner of his home that is in Big Brother's blind spot and he writes in a journal.  One day, he meets Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), and they begin an affair; since independent thought is a crime, you shouldn't be surprised to find that sex is, too.  Through Julia and Winston's relationship, we begin to see just how controlled their lives are, and just how different life can be without a few key liberties.  But how do you fight Big Brother?

There are only a few important characters in this movie, so much of the acting burden falls on John Hurt because he plays the point of view character.  I thought he did a pretty solid job; Winston Smith is basically an intellectual, and that is a trait that Hurt can show in his sleep.  When you give him lines like "I hate purity.  I want everyone to be corrupt" --- in a bedroom scene, no less --- and have the lines spoken in his fairly uptight British cadence, you have yourself a disenchanted academic.  Basically, Hurt fits the role to a tee.  Suzanna Hamilton fit her role well, too, but her character is pretty unemotional, so it's hard to judge just how good of a job she did.  This movie also had Richard Burton in his final role; I usually like Burton, even though he has a tendency to be melodramatic.  Here, he takes a more subtle (for him) approach, and has several scenes where his nonchalance is chilling.

This was the first film Michael Radford directed that got much attention, and part of that is because it is a good adaptation of a well-known novel.  The film had a rusty, dilapidated feel to it, which fits the post-nuclear England where the film is set.  Honestly, I thought all the production values were true to the novel, from the Big Brother monitoring screens to the disgusting food, to the Victory brand gin --- it all looked good and, more importantly, it all looked like things that existed in the 1984 of our reality.  After all, this would not be an adequate warning against nationalism and totalitarianism if it didn't have a sense of immediacy.  Since the characters in the story have deadened emotions, for the most part, I'm not sure how good Radford is with the actors, but he told the story well and the movie looked pretty much how I imagined it in high school English class.

While this is probably the best adaptation of 1984 that we're going to see made (after January 1, 1985, this story became historical fiction instead of a warning to the future), the film isn't great.  The draw of this story is not based on the main characters so much as it is about the world they live in.  Figuring out what really happened in the past, whether Big Brother is real or fake, alive or dead --- those are the parts that mess with your head when reading the book.  Here, the plot moves at the speed of film, so some of the more important (but subtle) plot twists are lost to the film's pace.  Yes, the director does point out several instances where Winston knowingly alters past documents that he knows, from first-hand experience, are the truth, so we get the gist of what's going on, but there is so much more that we're missing.  There is almost no discussion of Newspeak, and the numerous but socially inferior Prole class is barely mentioned.  Granted, those are gripes coming from someone who has read the book and knows they are missing from the film.  Still, I think this film fails to show just how deep Big Brother's control goes.  Aside from a mention of scientifically eliminating the orgasm, this film focuses on the obvious and somewhat superficial government tactics.

Perhaps it is inevitable that this film adaptation would be missing the detail of the source material.  The overall message is conveyed, though, and --- wait, what was that about the orgasm?  Man, you can tell this movie was not made in Hollywood, because that little idea, casually mentioned, would have had at least five minutes of exposition to explain it. 
"Yes, you see my naked butt in this movie.  No, I was never young."
Heck, it could have gotten an entire screenplay based on it!  Just imagine...Orgasm Killer: "If you thought 1984 was tough, look out for '85!"  Yes, it would be a horrible bastardization of the original concept that takes all the bite from the book.  But what would be more Orwellian than that?



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