Monday, September 16, 2019

1984 x 2

George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 was published in 1949. Between 1953 and 1956 it was filmed three times: first as an American teleplay, then for British television and finally as a British movie with an American star. Worries about the reputed brainwashing of American POWs during the Korean War may have sparked this Orwellian spree. The first rendering, for the hourlong Studio One anthology program, I haven't seen yet. Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame wrote the British adaptation and gave Peter Cushing a big push toward stardom. For the movie version, William Templeton, who did the Studio One condensation, collaborated on the screenplay, which was directed by Michael Anderson, whose Around the World in 80 Days appeared that same year. Edmond O'Brien played a relatively well-fed Winston Smith for the movie, presumably as a draw for American audiences. An American Winston wasn't entirely implausible, since the novel's Oceania was an Anglo-American superstate. More to the point, however husky he appeared, O'Brien often played weaklings and mediocrities like Orwell's protagonist. His participation in the film, however, apparently made it necessary to change the name of the novel's inquisitor from O'Brien to O'Connor. The movie also changes the name of Big Brother's arch-enemy, the Trotsky to B.B.'s Stalin, from Goldstein to the (less Jewish-sounding?) Cellador. For what it's worth, the Kneale and Templeton scripts have in common Donald Pleasance, who plays Winston's co-worker in the British version and his neighbor in the movie, in essentially the same sniveling mode.

The basic story remains the same: Winston, discovering fellow party member Julia's love for him, gradually works himself up into potential rebellion against the Big Brother regime, but both are duped by O'Brien/O'Connor, who tricks them into thinking that he is an underground leader. Instead, the inquisitor systematically breaks them down, though we only see his handling of Winston. His goal is to reduce them to such a state of self-loathing that they find solace and meaning only in love for Big Brother. Each version has its virtues. While the Anderson film, actually shorter than the Kneale teleplay, spends more time, to more dramatic effect, on the physical and mental torture of Winston, Kneale actually drives home more effectively the sadism Orwell, embittered by his experiences in Spain and elsewhere, saw underlying totalitarian movements. The novel's famous line about imagining the future as a boot stomping a face forever is quoted by Kneale but not by Templeton and Ralph Bettison. The film tries to make the breaking of Winston more stark and tragic by establishing the protagonist as something of a rebel from the very beginning, first showing him starting a clandestine diary and questioning the party after abjectly unpacking his bags in front of his interactive home telescreen. Cushing's Winston awakens more gradually, but it's implicit that Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites news reports to confirm Big Brother's infallibility, is bound to make him question the party's bending of reality. Kneale spends more time explaining the insidious design of Newspeak to reduce people's ability to think outside the parameters set by the party, while the film, again presumably looking to the U.S. market, eschews such egghead talk. The rewriting of history Winston must do is awful enough.

The two versions are roughly equal in my eyes, with a slight advantage going to Kneale, but watching both in quick sequence regrettably made Orwell's dystopia seem quaint, and not just because of everyone's limited imagination regarding the telescreen.  Neither Orwell nor his cinematic translators could be expected to anticipate how the thing they warned against most passionately -- the willful distortion of reality by power and self-interest -- has spread beyond the totalitarian sector. When appeals to objective reality are widely seen as little more than power grabs, many people today seem to find the insistence that two and two make four oppressive. Freedom may not yet be slavery, but when freedom becomes a matter of believing whatever you want to believe -- on climate, on vaccines, elections, people, etc. -- with no reality beyond people's opinions to constrain you, it can be an Orwellian word in a not quite Orwellian world.

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