By Tony Williams.

Although envisaged before the rise of Trump and his campaign hate clarion calls of “Send her back!” etc., on the part of his devoted base who love him as much as Orwell’s Party wants its victims to love Big Brother, 1984 contains resonances far beyond its initial appearance in 1949. Initially conceived as an attack on Stalinist totalitarianism merged with critiques of authoritarian aspects of “The Age of Austerity” and the BBC during the post-war Labour Government, the novel’s ideas are also applicable to Western surveillance societies with their acknowledged and unacknowledged use of rendition and torture against victims, whether innocent or guilty. “1984” is also a fluid term that can refer to a parallel world or “multiverse” concept seen recently in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Black Dossier (2007). There Mina and Allen enter the world of 1958 that has seen the fall of Orwell’s Big Brother government in search of the secret history of the foundation of their now-disbanded organization.

Director/scenarist Michael Radford (1946- ) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (1949- ), who previously collaborated on the successful Another Time, Another Place (1983), depict their version of Orwell’s nightmare scenario less within the realm of science fiction but more as a neo-kitchen sink social realist 1960s film. The visual style allegorically parallels the grimness and poverty of post-war rationing Britain that existed well-before Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan announced to a now materialist country, “You never had it so good” in 1957. The same is true of Winston’s memory sequences of the immediate post-war devastated landscape that sees his first betrayal that will eventually haunt him in room 101. In his 2019 interview specially recorded for this version, Deakins not only mentions his deliberate intention of using de-saturated color to compensate for the black-and-white cinematography that producers forbade but also location choices employing the devastated Beckton gas works area that Kubrick would later use for a Viet Nam devastated battlefield landscape in Full Metal Jacket (1986). In one scene, young Winston runs past a concrete object that over-zealous Kubrick fans believed to be a reference to the monolith in 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968). Then devastated by a 1980 fire, Alexandra Palace offers an ideal location for Victory Square meetings with its parades and display of captured prisoners on their way to execution shot in night-for-night noir cinematography. (1) These chosen cinematic styles evoke a neo-social realist and neo-noir visual emphasis that complements the tone of Orwell’s original novel. As director and cinematographer recognize, Orwell’s 1984 was actually a futuristic surrogate for the actual period the writer wrote his novel. Behind-the-scenes footage on the DVD Special Features section also mentions this. Thus, the film is less of an allegory set in the future but more so part of a multiverse very similar to those explored by creative talents such as Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, and others that better expresses the deeper implications of the source novel than this particular adaptation.

84 coverDifferences exist from the novel and various film and television adaptations. In several scenes, Winston appears going through a tunnel leading to Room 101. When the door opens, he sees the now lost ideological realm of England’s “green and pleasant land” set in Wiltshire. A marked contrast appears between William Blake’s utopian “Jerusalem” and the hellish urban environment of Airstrip One with its programmed subjects singing a Party song that composer Dominic Muldowney scores with religious overtones. When Winston finally betrays Julia, his dwarfed body often seen in long shot against the green landscape finally disappears from sight. The religious angle does appear to be an implicit part of the narrative. During the initial hate sequence, O’Brien (Richard Burton) looks behind him to observe the frenzied Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) as if thinking, “This Party member doth protest too much,” discerning the repressed sexuality lurking beneath her politically correct actions. When he later contacts Winston, he gives him a copy of the new Party dictionary within which is Goldstein’s heretical text that he himself has written though, of course, denying that he is an “auteur” but rather part of a collective. O’Brien acts as a tempting father figure stimulating both Winston and Julia to learn taboo knowledge of good and evil but not by eating an apple but engaging in another type of appetite before reading the Party’s version of a heretical Necronomicon. This also explains O’Brien’s presence as a comforting father figure to Winston when he sees rats consuming his mother’s body in a dream sequence. He will later cradle the tortured body of Winston in his arms like a consoling parent as if directly referring to that different sequence in Anderson’s 1984 when Michael Redgrave’s O’Brien briefly embraces Winston but with a triumphal look on his face rather than the sad face of Burton who expresses regret over the sacrifice of his chosen “son.” As with the Gospels, the Father has chosen to sacrifice his only beloved Son. Winston achieves a very different form of resurrection when he finally learns to love his tormenter after he has lost the Mother’s body for a second time. This, of course, explains the rationale for Julia’s full-frontal nudity in the film. She really represents the lost Mother for Winston who sees her move towards him in slow motion when they experience sexuality in their own version of a Garden of Eden.

This new DVD from the Criterion Collection also offers the viewer a choice between two soundtracks: the original Muldowney orchestral score and the Eurhythmics commissioned by Virgin’s Richard Branson against the objections of Radford. Although Muldowney’s musical contributions remained in the originally released version, several musical cues were later replaced by the Eurythmics. In many cases, these added musical contributions are redundant since they fill in a background that should be aesthetically silent in certain scenes. This is nothing against The Eurhythmics but more to do with the usual corporate insistence of getting a pop score to sell a film that does not really need it.

84-2As well as two interviews with Radford and Deakins another features David Ryan, author of George Orwell on Screen: Adaptations, Documentaries, and Docudramas on Film and Television (2018). He covers well-known previous versions such as the 1954 Rudolph Cartier/Nigel Kneale BBC TV version with Peter Cushing as Winston and future Professor Quatermass Andre Morell as ’Brien and the 1956 Michael Anderson film version starring Edmond 0’Brian as Winston. Ryan curiously omits the recently rediscovered 1966 BBC TV version with David Buck and Jane Merrow. (2) However, he does refer to the live Westinghouse Studio One 1953 TV version with Eddie Albert’s Winston and Lorne Green as 0’Brien as well as a radio version featuring David Niven that coincided with the novel’s release in 1949. In the 1953 Cold War TV version using (more-than-coincidentally) Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony as background music similar to Billion Dollar Brain’s (1967) ideologically loaded association with the deranged General Midwinter (Ed Begley) who chooses to repeat the Teutonic Knight’s failed strategy in Alexander Nevsky (1938), the message is all too obvious. However, Albert’s Winston will succumb also to the tender mercies of future Father figure Ben Cartwright who will achieve his own particular Comrade form of disciplining an errant son. Ryan meticulously examines the various versions of 1984 but questions why “Ing Soc” is never explained in Radford’s adaptation. Perhaps someone should have pointed out to him Mrs. Thatcher’s contemporary rejoicing over the death of Socialism and how she felt that 1984’s message was as irrelevant to her version of an authoritarian Britain as the celebration of the French revolution five years later was to her philosophy of “There is no alternative.”

Radford’s 1984 appeared in the middle of Thatcher’s ascendency when the majority of the working class British population found itself as despised by her new Tory Party in the same way the Inner Party regarded its docile and manipulated Outer Party members and the proles. Such associations appear in the specially commissioned essay by writer and stand-up-comic A.L. Kennedy who analyzes the film’s past, present and future associations.

During 1984, I recall many discussions about the degradation of UK English: the slow redefinition of almost every role as simply customer (3): removing rights and leaving only an obligation to pay. There was violent suppression of striking miners; AIDS threatened sex and love, as it seemed did the onward march of indifferent capitalism. We had never felt we were inside of 1984 as we did then.

One notable absence from this DVD is an audio-commentary. If director Michael Radford is now reluctant to give interviews, as he did for David Ryan’s book, surely Criterion could have invited this author to do one since his chapter on the film is extremely informative. It appears that Criterion have dropped the ball and rushed into this DVD without adequate preparation. Could not what is now regarded as the best documentary on Orwell, BBC’s The Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura (1983) and the BBC TV documentary 1984: Designing a Nightmare been included as special features? Ryan’s book provides plenty of examples of material that could have been used. One suspects this project was rushed into production without necessary hindsight.


  1. During 1915-19, the adjacent Alexandra Park location functioned as an internment camp for German and Austrian civilians torn away from their families like those victims of the Party such as Parsons and forced to live in conditions resembling a concentration camp. See “Alexandra Palace as a Concentration camp. https://web.archive.org/web/20111002034133/http://www.balh.co.uk/lhn/article.php?file=lhn-vol1iss87-6.xml. The Palace itself functioned as the BBC first transmission station from 1936. Parallels between The Ministry of Truth and the BBC have an ironic foundation in this particular location.
  2. See http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1413212/index.html. According to Wikipedia, the BBC Home service broadcast an adaptation in 1965 with Patrick Troughton, soon to become the second Dr. Who. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four_(British_TV_programme)#cite_note-24.
  3. Ironically, this term was later used by a former University President who referred to students similarly. He was later found guilty of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation but allowed to remain in power by a Board of Trustees once his original text had been rewritten in the best manner of Orwellian Newspeak and returned to the shelves of the University Library in its new version while the original was presumably “vaporized” (?).

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International.

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