A cruel dictator is named “Big Brother”, the Ministry of Love conducts hate rallies, and the Ministry of Truth redrafts history.
It’s a cautionary tale for any age. Sadly, because human history has recurring themes, despotic governments are not relics from the past.
What is curious about 1984, though, is the number of times it’s been adapted to the big screen. As of this writing, the novel has been adapted to the big screen only twice – in 1984 and 1956.
Our focus today is the 1956 version, criticized for its loose adaptation of Orwell’s novel, even though the opening credits say it was freely adapted.
It’s also been censured for its casting. This version was filmed in Britain, but two of the main characters, Winston Smith and Julia, are portrayed by American actors. Jan Sterling, who plays Julia, blends into this dystopian London society, but Smith (Edmond O’Brien) does not, which we’ll examine later.
The film has also been criticized for downplaying the level of terror in the novel and turning the story into a melodrama. For example:
In effect, the movie becomes the ol’ Thwarted Romance trope: Star-crossed lovers denied happiness by someone Out To Get Them.
Given all these criticisms, you’d think the film is a dismal failure.
But it’s not. In fact, we think these elements make it a film to watch.
O’Brien’s character, officially known as 6748 Smith W, is guilty of many seemingly minor infractions: He forgets his name badge, he skips mandatory public rallies, he records his anti-establishment thoughts in a diary.
As noted earlier, O’Brien doesn’t look like everyone else in this film. He’s bulky, not slim, and his slightly-rumpled appearance doesn’t mesh with those around him.
His accent also makes him stick out. Every time he speaks, he’s basically shouting, I Do Not Belong. Everything about him is nonconformist, which – as you know – means Trouble sooner or later.
Also, the poor slob has a fatal flaw: He’s a romantic.
He falls in love with Sterling, which is a Problem because nothing must override love for Big Brother. (We see this at work in at least one regime today.)
Therefore, in true melodramatic fashion, romantic love must be squashed. This is achieved through a continual brainwashing: Loudspeakers trumpet “Long live Big Brother!” and, “Even in your sleep, Big Brother is watching.”
This is manageable melodrama so far, if a bit claustrophobic. But then we’re introduced to the mandatory Two Minutes of Hate, where attendees chant, “Liar! Liar!” at footage of the enemy leader. They scream, “Hate! Hate! Hate!” with clenched fists.
This is not a feel-good moment. This is terrifying. There’s no melodrama now.
The 1956 version of 1984 is a bleak, gritty-looking film that keeps you a little off balance. Shots are narrow and tight, like the society we seen on screen. Camera angles increasingly unsettle and confuse us, as though we’re trapped with O’Brien’s character.
This is most evident after he has been denounced and is detained in the Ministry of Love. The interrogation is conducted by Michael Redgrave, who has all the smug, restrained power of a man who chooses not to crush you, yet.
“We do not destroy the heretic; we convert him,” explains Redgrave in the manner of a no-nonsense medical specialist. “You will be hollow. We will squeeze you empty, then we will fill you with the love of Big Brother.”
1984 shows us a world where dissension is heresy and people who disagree are Enemies. Melodrama or no, it warns us of a society were no one is safe.
This is part of the END OF THE WORLD BLOGATHON hosted by MovieMovie BlogBlog and The Midnite Drive-In.
1984: starring Edmond O’Brien, Michael Redgrave, Jan Sterling. Directed by Michael Anderson. Written by William Templeton & Ralph Gilbert Bettinson. Columbia Pictures Corp., B&W, 1956, 90 mins.