When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four became a bestseller again. To protest the Trump administration’s reduced funding for the arts, independent theatres across the US and Canada will screen the movie adaptation of Orwell’s 1949 novel on April 4.
But you need not wait for a bright cold day in April when the clocks are striking 13. The film is essential viewing, just as Orwell’s dystopic novel is essential reading. It’s never a bad time to wake up from a bad dream.
Michael Radford’s 1984 production, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton in his final role, is mostly faithful to the novel. It imagines a world in which thought is controlled. The world is divided into three mega-blocks, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastaisa, which are perpetually at war. Our story begins in London, now known as Airstrip One and the capital of Oceania. Airstrip One is under the ever-watchful eyes of Big Brother and is run by the totalitarian party INGSOC. Hate and propaganda are fed to the population for two minutes a day to maintain the need for war and establish the preferred tenets of nationalism. Screens convey sanctioned communication and newspeak to the party workers and the proletariat, along with keeping an eye on the “brothers and sisters” of the nation.
Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a part of this machine. He works at the Ministry of Truth, which is where politically inconvenient facts and controversial data are edited to fall in line with the party narrative. Those who fall out of line are erased from public memory. Smith follows the Newspeak dictionary, now in its tenth edition, which contains the alternate approved meanings of words.
But on April 4, 1984, Winston starts to write an unauthorised diary in the only corner of his one-room apartment that is hidden from Big Brother. Smith commits a crime through the act of writing – he is starting to think. When he meets Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), they resist Big Brother together. They dare to remember the past and what they knew to be true before the party turned thought into a crime. They fall in love. They question the war, and whether it is real. They question the existence of Big Brother. They decide to run away.
Richard Burton plays O’Brien, an Inner Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth. He encourages Winston’s disillusionment from the party, only to arrest him and Julia at the scene of the crime. Winston is physically, emotionally and mentally tortured. O’Brien tells Smith, “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
Should Winston believe that 2+2 makes 5? How is he supposed to believe alternate facts when he doesn’t believe in Big Brother anymore? O’Brien tells him that he must not only obey¸ but love Big Brother. He must believe in the war, fall in line with the control, and buy into the philosophy, untruths and rhetoric with all his mind and heart. The torture takes place in Room 101, where prisoners comes face to face with their most brutal, deep-seated nightmares.
Much like the dull and monotonous existence of the party members, the movie is devoid of bright colours or highly saturated hues. The palette is controlled greys, blues and blacks, except in memories. Winston and Julia’s remembrances are shot in a green field under a bright blue sky with no rubble and broken buildings around them, and no posters to remind them that “Big Brother is watching you.”
The film is bleak and not easy to watch. Especially today, when it resonates with so much of what is going on in the world around us. Dissent is not tolerated; the ruling powers are rolling out approved definitions of nationalism and patriotism through prominent media – much like the telescreens; war is glorified.
There may not be cameras inside our homes, and yet, our minds, bodies and thoughts are being controlled, regulated and intruded upon by a loud, inescapable conversation about loyalty and nationalism. Social media trolls and surveillance are turning our mobile phones into tiny telescreens monitoring what we say and think in the public domain. Multiple bans and frequent censorship equate our fundamental right to expression to thought crime. Educational institutions are being targetted as the perfect place to initiate young nationalists into the cause, like the junior spies in Orwell’s novel. We are being fed hate, and this hate is being spat out like venom by self-appointed brothers and sisters of the ruling party. We live in George Orwell’s 1984.