On rare occasions, novels become culturally synonymous with the ideas they express.
When describing a person as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” for example, one can infer that they are alternately cruel and kind, even without reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella.
That’s certainly the case for George Orwell’s 1984.
Now a staple of high school reading lists, its name has been used to dictate totalitarianism since its initial publication in 1949. Labeling something as Orwellian has become so common that, when conservative political cartoonist Gary Varvel made a comic comparing former President Trump’s removal from Twitter to the book’s vision of dystopia, it became a widely mocked meme.
Michael Radford’s movie adaptation of Orwell’s book, which hit theaters in 1984, was able to adapt the story without cowering within its massive cultural footprint. It’s a stunning adaptation that remembers the story at the center of the book and lets it live out in horror.
At its core, 1984 is a love story between Winston (John Hurt) and Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), who live in Airstrip One, formerly London, in a country now known as Oceania. Winston has a low-level government job working at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites old newspapers to keep them consistent with the Party’s current plans. Shortages of chocolate, for example, are now archived as surplus.
Winston’s life is a mundane one: he does exercises in the morning on television, where leaders critique his stretching. He has a few acquaintances who ask if he has any razors he can spare. He goes to large rallies proclaiming his love of Big Brother, the Party’s always-watching leader, and to other rallies proclaiming his overwhelming hate for the Party’s terrorist enemy Emmanuel Goldstein (John Boswall).
In the book, Orwell lays out Winston’s understanding of the world as an Outer Party member, giving him the chance to document various ministries of government and political structures. One of the Party’s most insidious inventions, doublespeak, is presented on the page for readers to study.
Radford’s movie operates differently, following Winston through a slice of life. At times, this can be confusing. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: life in the world of Airstrip One is very confusing. Doublespeak isn’t always clear, which is to its point. The world around Winston isn’t very easy to navigate, which is intentional.
The goal of the Party is to transform the world around it, and the viewer is placed in the midst of that upheaval. One fellow brother tells Winston that, with the efficiencies of the new doublespeak dictionaries, conversations like the one they are having will soon be functionally impossible. Eventually, the Party hopes to develop artificial insemination to the extent that people will no longer have recognizable families, allowing further allegiance to the party.
While the audience learns little about the world surrounding Winston, we also learn a lot. Numbers are constantly broadcast in the background. Food production numbers. Infant mortality rates. What various traitors have done under the influence of Goldstein. War updates from the never-ending conflicts with Eastasia and Eurasia. Intruding on characters at all times, these updates start to feel, well, oppressive.
Winston, who has been keeping a diary, has his life turned upside down when fellow Outer Party member Julia (Hamilton) starts flirting with him. Acting against the Party’s chastity campaigns, they begin to secretly meet up for sex. Having intimate and passionate sex is a form of liberation in 1984 — an argument the Wachowskis would take up decades later with their rave in The Matrix Reloaded. However, there is no Neo coming to save Winston or Julia.
The acting is phenomenal throughout, from the chemistry between Hurt and Hamilton to the calmly terrifying Richard Burton as Inner Party member O’Brien. Hurt especially stands out.
As Radford told Little White Lies in a remembrance published in 2017, Hurt was a perfect Winston because he was “so scrawny in those days and so unhealthy looking. At the same time, he had that sort of desperate look in his eyes.” Winston wants terribly to live, but his definition of what that means changes radically through the movie.
Radford was a fairly obscure director when he made 1984. He got the rights to the movie in 1983 by simply asking his agent to look into who owned them, he told Den of Geek in 2008. Surprisingly, the rights to one of the most popular books of the 20th century were owned by a Chicago lawyer named Marvin Rosenblum who had no previous film production experience.
With funding from current space entrepreneur Richard Branson, Radford at first wanted to shoot in black-and-white. When that idea was rejected, cinematographer Roger Deakins washed out color from his analog film using what’s known as a “bleach bypass,” creating striking visuals with deep, almost shiny blacks.
Making sure to note on-screen that the film was shot during the exact time period described in the book, Radford sought to make sure that Orwell’s story did not fall into cliché. In doing so, he made a movie that honored the story’s original power.
1984 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.