Many people read George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in their high school or college literature classes, possibly making Big Brother jokes about the teachers who assigned the reading. Among the countless minds touched by the book, one very keen imagination was that of filmmaker Michael Radford. Out of a personal passion, Radford acquired the rights to the novel and directed his own adaptation under the same title.
The heart of Orwell’s story is a man’s failed search for truth in the totalitarian society of Oceania where conformity reigns and no space for individuality is available. The film starts off with a frontal view of the citizens hatefully screaming at those who are against Oceania, which immediately puts the audience at a disconnect, facing a whole set of governing rules of a radically different ideology. This jarring discomfort doesn’t subside, though, as the film continues to confront the audience with the spiritual realism of close-ups and extreme close-ups. Radford wisely decided that even black and white would have been too luminous for such bleakness. He creates a brilliant representation of this dismal reality through a blend of muted greys and blues where the drab, identical uniforms of Oceania citizens effectively blurs all individual identification into an ocean of anonymity.
The absolute star of the film, John Hurt’s face, soared in the cinematic choices of Radford. Whether he is visually monotone, viscerally shrieking in pain, or whispering “I love you” to Julia, Hurt’s depiction of Winston is filled with an emotional intensity, raw and engrossing. Hurt’s face is not the only one to be seen, though. The Big Brother (Bob Flag) is omnipresent throughout the film. In the form of a picture, he looks directly at the citizens of Oceania. The infiltrating and commanding eyes are always watching, as Winston eats, walks home, and rewrites history at his job at the Ministry of Truth.
Rooms are barely lit while the majority of the action takes place at night or in windowless buildings where time seems to not exist. The dull lighting Radford utilizes emphasizes the monotonous colors found in the set design. Somehow the dreary grey landscape becomes more lifeless without the vibrancy of three-point lighting. The lackluster illumination makes it difficult to decipher whether the walls are actually covered in dirt or if they are simply just that color. While Radford nails the bleak tone of Ninety Eighty-Four to perfection, his narrative adaptation has some issues.
When a novel is transformed into a film, inescapable shifts will occur, even if the director is loyal to the author’s tonal vision. Radford’s version of Nineteen Eighty-Four differs from Orwell’s original plot in a few very important ways. O’Brien is not part of the resistance as he is in the novel and Julia does not play as big a role either. The film gives its main focus to Winston Smith and reduces other sub-plots, possibly due to the limited space a feature-length film has to offer. While “the book is better” mentality often dominates the viewing experience of adaptations, it is indeed more profitable to consider the rationales behind these choices as well as the unique outcome they achieve.
Radford’s depiction of Julia, Winston’s love interest, is where the film most veers away from the book. Julia’s character is essentially boiled down to a sex object. Instead of including a rendering of a powerful woman who strives for truth and fights for justice by Winston’s side like the novel, Radford has Julia (played by Suzanna Hamilton) strip down for multiple full-frontal nude sex scenes. In an already male-driven story, the only strong female character is deprived of both clothing and substance in Radford’s adaptation. If the filmmaker’s depiction of Julia was more complex, like in the original text, the film would have been more powerful. One of the most beautiful elements of Orwell’s novel is how Winston and Julia act as individuals but then come together in their search for truth. This concept is assuaged in Radford’s adaptation.
Another critical element of Radford’s interpretation that does not stay true to the novel is the general attitude and disposition of Winston. Although he is incredibly emotional during some scenes, he is much more passive in the film than he is in the novel. Things just seem to happen to Winston in the adaptation while he is more of an aggressor in Orwell’s text. For example, in the novel Julia and Winston go to O’Brien’s house, searching for information about joining a resistance against Big Brother and The Party. In the film, Winston is called into O’Brien’s office and is not actively looking for information about the rebellious Brotherhood.
While Radford accurately depicts the despair that occurs at the end of the plot, his passive depiction of Winston takes some power out of Orwell’s story. As the novel progresses, readers becomes hopeful that Winston and Julia will join the Brotherhood and take down The Party. The ultimate failure of this adds to the hopelessness of the story. As director and screenwriter for this adaptation, Radford missed the opportunity to fully convey the anguish and despondency of the world in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
While Radford tonally succeeds by visually drowning the viewer in grey bleakness, the director betrays the characters of Orwell’s original novel. Radford’s visuals don’t do full justice to the complex characters in Orwell’s novel that make readers wonder. However, as a story, whether penned by Orwell or filmed by Radford, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a unique and durable tale that potently examines individuality, truth, and power relations.