“Who controls the past, controls the future”
– Opening statement in Micheal Radford’s1984
Although perhaps unknown to the present generation of young television viewers, for many of us the mere mention of the name “Big Brother” conjures up frightful images of the ever-watchful and omnipresent dictator of Oceania, the futuristic world of thought police, newspeak, and un-persons, imagined by George Orwell in his 1949 classic “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Having read the book in my high school English class and still remembering the class discussion that followed, I had a rather good idea of what to expect when I sat on my couch and popped in Micheal Radford’s critically acclaimed film version of the book.
Although I am usually a firm believer of the book being better than the film, seeing 1984 on a television screen seems almost more fitting. The cinematic adaptation was a success back in 1984, and is what brought Michael Radford into the international spotlight. It was filmed completely on location in London, and what’s even more fascinating is that the timeframe when it was shot often corresponds with the timeframe in the novel. To give an even more authentic feel, or perhaps so as not to bury the message under piles of special effects and colors, the director employed the technique of Bleach bypass, to wash-out the color of the film and give it a morbid and grey appearance. Radford’s most famous and critically acclaimed film is Il Postino, which was nominated for the Best Director and Adapted Screenplay Academy Awards. His most recent film was the Merchant of Venice, released in 2004, starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Iron.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the story of Winston, a pale and pathetic looking bloke played by John Hurt, who lives a harsh and meaningless existence in a totalitarian dystopia where “Big Brother” is always watching and two plus two is not always four. Oceania is war torn, colorless, and controlled by televisions and loud speakers that not only constantly watch and record the populace, but also indoctrinate them with non-stop propaganda. The film, as was the book, is a blatant critique of both communism and fascism, particularly Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, as can be seen by Big Brother’s resemblance to Stalin and the thought police’s resemblance to the Gestapo. Orwell, in his essay “Why I Write” states that: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism”. The desperate state of affairs we find in 1984 is believed by many critics, such as Thomas R. Pynchon, to represent a failed revolution, a revolution that got drunk on it’s own power.
The film also examines how communications and media can be used to control the masses and lead them to do, and believe, even that which goes against their very nature as rational human beings. For example, through the use of newspeak, a language that combines antonyms to form paradoxal and contradicting statements, the movie explores the concept of doublethink, the capacity for one individual to hold contradictory beliefs. The three pillars of Oceania: “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength” illustrate this well. They become so inherent to the psyche of the outer party members that they no longer question their validity or meaning. It is nonetheless in these very sayings that oppress them that they find inspiration. Only through believing such illogical affirmations can they keep the nationalistic fires burning. This is once more illustrated by the Ministry of Truth, which in reality does nothing but create lies. Winston and the other “brothers” working there, rewrite history to suit the powers that be, and end up accepting and believing what they themselves fabricate. By using voice over to communicate his inner thoughts, the director shows the viewer from the very beginning of the film that Winston is different, that he still holds the capacity of free and critical thought. He reflects upon what he sees around him and records it in his diary, stashed away behind a loose brick in his flat, hidden from the intrusive eye of Big Brother, watching him through one of the innumerable televisions. At one point, his diary reads: “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows.” For Winston however, freedom is never reached. Later in the movie, his girlfriend and he are arrested after their prohibited sexual affair is uncovered. Sex is strongly discouraged by the party, even going so far as to announce plans to remove the orgasm from the human biology, so that it does interfere with a person’s love and devotion for “Big Brother”. To rehabilitate him, he is brought to the Ministry of Love, where he is tortured and brainwashed by O’Brien, played by Richard Burton in his last role on the silver screen, into loving “Big Brother” and the dystopia in which he lives. He then becomes and un-person, devoid of all feeling and capacity for thought, waiting to be executed and erased from history.
The power of media portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four does not solely exist in the movies. One can see real live examples of it every day by turning on the local news. In the same way the Inner Party used propaganda and “two minute hate sessions” to encourage violence and hatred within the populace, so did the Hutus use radio in Rwanda to incite the genocide of Tutsi rebels. Just as the telescreens in Oceania keep diffusing propaganda against Goldstein and his Brotherhood party, the American media keeps broadcasting updates of the “War on Terror” against the Axis of Evil. Not that I wish in any way to equate the US with Oceania, but Nineteen Eighty-Four nonetheless should make us reflect upon how the media tries to control us everyday. Through direct and subliminal marketing and the hegemony exerted by the few media conglomerates that monopolize national and international media, we are also being watched and influenced, and it is important that we not merely accept all information at face value. Orwell stated: “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe WILL arrive, but I believe that something resembling it COULD arrive” . What 1984 does is warn us of the power of television and other media in its most extreme form of abuse, that of total control by the state. Nineteen Eighty-Four without a doubt shows us that the hand that controls information, if is not questioned by the populace, becomes the hand that rules the world. For those interested in measuring the current state of affairs and we are, or are not, approaching that of Oceania, The 1984 Index is worth a look.