Staff Picks: 1984

Reviewed by Bill K., Materials Handler

1984 is also available on Hoopla.

Intellectual Freedom

George Orwell’s 1984 is one of those books most people read at some point and everyone knows. “Big Brother,” “War is Peace,” even the term “Orwellian” are regular phrases in our political vernacular.

It’s a shame people don’t seem as familiar with the film adaptation from the year 1984, directed by Michael Radford. Without hyperbole, it is as great a motion picture adapted from a book as The Godfather or Lord of the Rings (albeit quite different in look and tone from those pictures).

Orwell’s novel sometimes skirts the line between a work of fiction and one of political theory. Long sections of the prose are devoted to the author’s ideas on propaganda, cult of personality, language, state power, and other things (fictional only because they hadn't happened yet, perhaps). Arguably, it breaks that old rule of writing by telling instead of showing (not that it’s any worse for that).

The film incorporates some of that prose into the dialogue, but more often, it shows instead of tells. From the opening sequence—depicting the novel’s “Two Minutes Hate” in a scene both frightening and devastating—the depiction of the totalitarian state of Oceania is magnificently realized. The set design presents a decay and an all-encompassing oppressive regime that stands outside of time, still effective and scarily plausible even though we’re nearly 40 years past the year that gives the work its title. It’s so suffocating that to watch is almost to be under Big Brother’s iron fist.

Like the novel, the movie follows the lowly Ministry of Truth worker Winston Smith (John Hurt) as he pursues a forbidden love affair with fellow Party member Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and seeks to join the rumored Brotherhood resisting Big Brother (the unseen supposed leader of The Party). In the novel, the protagonist is a principled believer, as much of an idealist as can exist in such an oppressive regime. Hurt’s Winston is melancholy, then heartbreaking. From the start, it is clear there is no hope in his story, and to see him beaten down into (practically, and eventually literally) nothing is soul-crushing tragedy.

One of MCPL’s values is intellectual freedom. Orwell’s work explores how the state can suppress intellectual freedom, by crushing dissent and through a propaganda machine so pervasive that reality itself is what he powers that be say it is. Radford’s film lets the viewer experience the Party-line reality. Surreal sequences from Winston’s viewpoint play almost like intangible dreams, as The Party and the villainous Party official O’Brien (Richard Burton, chillingly sinister in his final film role) remake his mind. Not only does the viewer see Winston utterly broken by the state, but they’re right there with him, unsure at times whether what’s onscreen is real or what The Party wants him to believe is real.

Comparing political or public figures to Big Brother is almost a cliché at this point. But in this age of conflicting or partisan media overload, biased “unbiased” search engine algorithms, fake news and propaganda, and even disagreement on basic facts, Orwell’s 1984 seems to be in no danger of becoming irrelevant. Radford’s film is a worthy companion to the book, and a heartbreaking vision of the future that never seems to become outdated.

This is review is part of the Finding Value series, inspired by the eleven core values central to the Library's mission. Tune in as Library staff review books and movies that highlight the values accessibility, civil discourse, inclusiveness, integrity, intellectual freedom, lifelong learning, literacy, respect, safety, service, and stewardship.