This is for my Film & Lit. Class:
On Orwell: ideas, words, and pictures in motion
Of fundamental importance to any fictionalized telling of a dystopian tale, is the ability of the society to function on more than simply a surface level. The story and environment must wrap around one another in a way that not only furthers the plot, but furthers (or furthers subversion of) the ideology of a particular dystopia. This multi-layered dystopian model of storytelling is exemplified in George Orwell’s novel 1984 and it is grimly illuminated by the 1984 film adaptation of 1984.
Both the novel and then the film, employ numerous devices (verbal, aesthetic, ideological, etc.) to induce the reader/viewer into a particular position relative to the society being described. In this way, Orwell is in fact doing two things simultaneously; he is rendering dual worlds concurrently. In the first world, Orwell is crafting the society in which Winston (his protagonist, and - some would say - everyman-hero) lives. This first world is deceptively simple; the energy of all citizens is directed toward upholding (ideologically) and supporting (through physical labor) the reining government of Big Brother. In creating this first world (the world of the story), Orwell is using his powers as a writer. He renders a world that is grey and cold and dirty. The duality of Orwell’s writing becomes apparent though in the way that he is clearly seeking to evoke emotional reactions that can be linked to political realities. In this second world that Orwell builds (that of the reader), he is playing upon the reader’s preconceptions and, manipulating the reader in such a way that the emotional becomes tied to the social and political.
From the very first page of his book, Orwell works to carefully craft a well-thought-out and fully realized dystopian society, but more than that, he immediately connects the visceral to the political. Ever aware of the importance of even the most subtle of language, the author uses the novel’s first sentence to give the reader his first lesson in the sociopolitical reality that is being creating. Orwell wrote, “It was a bright and cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (Orwell, 5). The pluralization of clock to clocks lends itself to the idea of a communalization of society. The reference is not to Winston’s specific clock, but to all of the clocks of society, striking at once, as if of a single mind and purpose. Additionally, by referencing time as thirteen, Orwell is able to force the reader into making a cognitive connection between military-time and the society in which Winston lives. This first sentence served Orwell’s dual purpose well in that it established Winston’s world, but also provides the reader with a template for how to think about the novel. By immediately connecting the cold April day with the communal clocks, Orwell has bound these two worlds together. In other words, communization (re: Communism) is cold and lonely.
The 1984 film version of 1984 (directed by Michael Radford and staring John Hurt) uses a visual language of images and motifs to manipulate viewers, in this way, the film is participating in the same duality as the novel. Knowing that anyone who views the film version would be at least acquainted with the themes of the novel, Radford made very specific choices about how to visually present Winston’s world. Rather than presenting it as an efficient, futuristic, and fully industrialized society (of the type that Fritz Lang created in Metropolis) he chose to show the world as specifically lacking in technological progress. Every set and set-piece in the film looks weathered and old. The film portrays Winston’s world as one in which there has been no effort to modernize infrastructure. The film subtly asks it viewer to question this reality and by questioning, to subvert the authority in that world. Radford wants the viewer to wonder, why does the future look so old? By creating a 1984 that actually looks more like 1948, Radford is able to comment on the economy and social values of the totalitarian society; that a society which squashes individualism and creativity can not progress. Or that without a free-market economy, technology can not progress. In fact, the only progressive technology that exists in film which would separate it from 1948, is the telescreen, but even those are black and white and made to look dingy and aged, as if that period of technological progress ended some time ago.
By telling the ‘future’ world of 1984 with a visual language more suited to a World War II period piece, Radford gives shape and life to the era and the political climate in which Orwell was writing. Just as Orwell was extrapolating the evils of Communist ideology, Radford was extrapolating from technology and society as it existed in 1949 when the novel was first published. In this way, the visual style of the film is not just an idea encapsulated, but it is also homage to Orwell himself, because it is an Orwell might have imagined it.
In his article, “Orwell on Literature and Society” J.P. O’Flinn asserts, “that the history of the past two hundred years represents the cumulative ability of the written word to sway men’s minds,” (609). Of this idea, Orwell was most certainly aware. Many remember - and are quick to comment on the fact - that, in much of his literary fiction, Orwell was raging in protest against the evils of Soviet Communism. However, fewer seem to recall, that Soviet Communism itself was simply the (attempted) implementation of the Marxist ideals laid out in Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. That is to say, while Orwell was reacting to Communism, Communism itself was a reaction to imperialism and Capitalism.
However much they stand in opposition to one another, these various competing ideologies share a similar semantic component. The Communist Manifesto begins with a line as stark and foreboding as 1984, “A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of communism.” (Marx, 37). In this sentence (and in the ones that follow) Karl Marx and Frederick Engels represent Communism as a wily antagonist to the Capitalism that was making a slave of Europe in their time. Communism, to these men, offered a civilized answer at a de-civilized world.
Surely Orwell, at his typewriter in 1949, would have agreed that the specter of Communism was indeed haunting Europe. He might even have admired the language of the line, or recognized in it the duality of purpose.
In this way, Orwell and Radford could sit across a table from Marx and Engels and find agreement in that cumulative ability of the written word to sway the minds of men. Regardless of ideology, each was participating in that great dystopian project. Effective participation in that dystopian idea requires that language (or the language of images) be operating on many levels at once. That it engage the reader/viewer on both the surface emotional and deeper ideological levels; on both the visceral and political levels.
Orwell once explained, “All art is propaganda.” (O’Flinn, 608), in a similar way, one could say, all dystopias are both art and propaganda.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engles. The Communist Manifesto. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005.
O'Flinn, J.P.. "Orwell on Literature and Society". College English March 1970: 603-612.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic, 1950.