Posters pasted up in Seattle in the fall of 1999


  • Author:  George Orwell  (1903  –  1950)
  • Rank:  #17
  • Published:  1949
  • Publisher:  Secker and Warburg
  • Pages:  268
  • First Line:  “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
  • Last Lines:  “He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother.”
  • ML Edition:  none – the Modern Library must have had problems with licensing Orwell because 1984 and Animal Farm are the two most conspicuous omissions from the old Modern Library
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century – #13; All-TIME 100 Novels
  • Film:  1956  (**.5); 1984  (***.5)
  • First Read:  Fall, 1989

The Novel:  At first, I started to re-read 1984, with the thought of marking certain passages to quote as I wrote this piece.  And then I reconsidered.  What the hell do I need to do that for?  This isn’t like other books, where I have to point out how brilliant the writing is.  It isn’t a book like Jonathan Strange, where I expound on the plot and how magically it moves forward.  Who the hell needs that kind of review for this book?

Look at the first line and the last line.  There are a handful of books that do this – have great first and last lines.  The only other book that had first and last lines that became instantly iconic was A Tale of Two Cities (I assume they became instantly iconic – but who knows what iconic meant in 1859), though I think The Princess Bride is the one other book that matches up in both cases, with Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye close runners-up.  But it’s not just the lines.  People might not know the name of Winston Smith off the top of their heads, but everyone knows Big Brother.  The whole concept of Big Brother has been the major cultural icon of the late 20th Century / early 21st Century.  Those posters of Bill Gates – they didn’t have to say anything more than they did.  Looking at them, you knew instantly what was going on, and what the reference was.  And those aren’t fakes – I took that picture in October of 1999.

And it’s clear that this is the work of 20th Century literature that seems to stand up.  Popping over to Library Thing, there are only 9 books that are owned by more members than this one – the 7 Harry Potter books, Da Vinci Code and The Hobbit.  What’s clear is that everyone seems to have read it.  And for those few who haven’t read it, they at least know it.  That really says more than anything I could have said with some quotes (like “Winston was gelatinous with fatigue.  Gelatinous was the right word.  It had come into his head spontaneously.  His body seemed to have not only the weakness of a jelly, but its translucency.”, a quote I picked at random or “And then – no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope.  Too late, perhaps too late.  But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment – one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats.” which I did not).  In the end, just remember: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.

The Films:

The crappy film version.

1956 version  (dir. Michael Anderson)

In the same year that he would make this film, Michael Anderson would direct the winner of Best Picture at the Oscars: Around the World in 80 Days.  What is astounding is that these two films come from the same director.  Granted, there is no one who is going to make Michael Anderson an argument in favor of the Auteur Theory.  Among all the directors ever nominated by the Academy, I ranked him sixth to last.  But Around the World in 80 Days, though dominated by the producer, Mike Todd, was a film with a sense of fun and energy.  It understood that it was a story to be enjoyed and that the film would be a good time.  Clearly, Anderson here was on a different page.  It was like, well, this is serious literature, so this should be dour and bleak.  And relentlessly mediocre.

The first bad sign is in the credits themselves.  “Freely Adapted from the Novel by George Orwell” it tells us, right off the bat.  The irony here is that the script isn’t the real problem with the film.  The problem lies in the direction from Anderson, which is completely flat – certainly Todd hired him based on The Dam Busters and not on this.  But the bigger problem is the casting of Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith.  O’Brien might be an Oscar winner (in one of the worst choices the Academy ever made), but he is clearly out of his depth here.

The main issue here is that Smith is a person who slowly finds himself drawn to a book and then to the world around him.  But O’Brien never seems to be the kind of person who would have picked up the book in the first place.  He also inspires no thought that he would ever revolt against the status quo.  And even if he could make that kind of attempt, he would be found out within seconds – his face gives away every emotion in an instant.  But then, sadly, he gets no support either.  Jan Sterling is nearly as flat as O’Brien and Michael Redgrave looks like he’s trying to do high Shakespeare and doesn’t know what he’s doing dressed so oddly.  Granted, part of all of this could be that I had already seen the later version of the film and all three of the main characters here are just blown out of the water by the later performances.

It comes down to this – if you want to watch a film version of a novel, you want it to be something that you will take with you, because, sadly, it is often difficult to get the vision out of your head once you have it there.  So don’t make this your choice, because these aren’t the visual images you want with you when reading.

The good film version.

1984 version  (dir. Michael Radford)

Does this film suffer from the comparison to BrazilBrazil makes use of the same kind of sets, the same kind of friend / torturer, the same mythic heroine, and potential escape from the drudgery of the modern world.  But Brazil, of course, is a satire, a vicious comedy about the world we might be living in.  1984 was Orwell’s tortured fear that this was the world we already lived in and could not escape from.  Because Brazil is satire and not straight parody, it achieves greatness without diminishing its source.  Orwell’s horrific vision still stands up with this film version, partially because it does so clearly influence the Gilliam film, but also because it is a very good film of its own accord.

Perhaps the first advantage is that the film-makers waited until the right time to make it.  Because the film was made in 1984 (the opening scenes of Winston Smith were actually shot on April 4, 1984), we have a film that looks like an alternative vision of the world that we were living in.  The 1956 film looked like a bad science-fiction guess at the world we might be living in.  In one sense, that makes the first film science-fiction and the second version a dystopian horror film.

But the more important part of the film is the casting.  In a sense, John Hurt was born to play this role – he seems so perfectly suited as the small meek man, hidden away in the corner, making his small changes to history that really change nothing but words, yet, finding in himself, some kind of spark to keep life alive.  And Suzannah Hamilton, a sadly under-utilized actress gives a brave, strong performance, lending an air of sensuality that Jan Sterling could have never hoped to find (that the time changes allowed for the sex scenes also helped – the sad, desperate sex between the two of them lends pathos to the story which the first film version couldn’t ever find).

But the most important key to the film is the one they almost didn’t find – the casting of Richard Burton.  Burton hadn’t made a film in a few years, wasn’t wanted by the director, Michael Radford (a much better director than Anderson – he ranks 70 spots higher) and was in bad health, causing endless re-takes because he could no longer remember his lines.  Burton would die two months after filming ended – months before the film was released.  But Burton is fantastic, a cruel reminder that the Academy never gave him the Oscar he had so long deserved.  His cold, cynical, pale O’Brien, pulling Smith closer into the depths of betrayal, then finding a connection to him only through his brutal torture is a reminder of the worst fears that Orwell had.  It is one of the best performances of a long and very distinguished career and it brings the film to life.