Friday, April 07, 2017
( 8:26 PM ) posted by Setsuled
I wouldn't recommend seeing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Michael Radford's 1984 adaptation of George Orwell's book, without having read the book. It's more like a series of moving illustrations for the book than an adaptation and would have benefited from some more creativity in general. But the film does feature great performances from John Hurt and Richard Burton--the latter in particular is brilliant, especially considering he died the same year the movie was released.
Many filmmakers dislike using voice-over narration because film is primarily a visual medium and a voice-over can have the effect of sterilising the visual by making it feel somewhat removed from the speaker's experience. However, in this case a simultaneous devotion to adhering to the source material while keeping narration to a minimum shows just how much the events at the beginning of the book benefit from a prose format. Much of the book 1984 is expository as the protagonist, Winston Smith, contemplates life in London, now called Airstrip One, controlled by the party Ingsoc and his memories of how the party of Big Brother came to power. Without the text of his contemplations, a lot of time is spent just watching Winston at home, work, and walking to and from.
John Hurt does a fine job as Winston Smith and his characteristic vulnerability makes him perfect to provoke sympathy for this meek intellect somehow effecting a meagre resistance in this nightmare world. But without the text, his thoughts on Newspeak and Thought Crime and how they're integrated into society only get brief mentions and later in the film. The tendency to stay true to events depicted in the book without the exposition leads to some confusion as well as when Winston first talks to O'Brien and O'Brien signals his willingness to collaborate with Winston in transgressing by making an oblique reference to Syme, the Newspeak expert who'd become an "unperson". Syme's disappearance isn't made clear in the film and the fact that O'Brien is doing something strange by mentioning him isn't pointed out at all.
The film improves a great deal after Winston and Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) are captured. Richard Burton is absolutely perfect as O'Brien who takes over exposition in the book with dialogue he actually delivers to the captive Winston. Whether Burton's weary, almost listless manner of speaking has anything to do with him being unwell in real life I don't know but it was perfect for this material. One line in particular when he's torturing Winston seemed almost ghoulishly perfect:
'You are thinking,' he said, 'that my face is old and tired. You are thinking that I talk of power, and yet I am not even able to prevent the decay of my own body. Can you not understand, Winston, that the individual is only a cell? The weariness of the cell is the vigour of the organism. Do you die when you cut your fingernails?'
Suzanna Hamilton as Julia isn't bad but I would have liked someone who came off as hornier. Suzanna's more physical rebellion is downplayed in the film which, along with the failure to mention the ulcer on Winston's ankle, seemed a failure of the film to notice how the physical health of individuals affected their conformity. The flashback to Winston stealing a chocolate bar from his sister lacks impact because we don't know, as we're told in the text, that the girl is starving to death. She doesn't even seem to care about the chocolate whereas in the book, when Winston takes the food, the infant girl "conscious of having been robbed of something . . . set up a feeble wail."
I heard places are screening this movie right now as part of a way to protest Trump. I would very much recommend reading the book first. Although we see Winston altering news items to fit Party message, it's not really discussed as it is in the book, which is the insight you're looking for.
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