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Nineteen Eighty-Four: to the future or to the past?

Published in 1949, George Orwell’s influential dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four has continued to resonate and provoke for more than seven decades. Robin Bunce tracks the work’s influence, adaptations and controversies, considering when and why we still find value in its historical parallels…

Book cover of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
Published: June 24, 2022 at 7:08 am
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We live in dystopian times: war in Europe, a global pandemic, and a deepening climate crisis. Faced with impending apocalypse, it is only natural to turn to Nigella, Jamie Oliver and the lifestyle utopias dished up by celebrity chefs. More surprising is the appetite for productions like The Matrix Resurrections, Blade Runner 2049, Squid Game, The Handmaid's Tale and the ever-chilling Black Mirror – escapism has never been so bleak.

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While there has been no TV or film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four for several decades, George Orwell’s ‘utopia gone wrong’ remains a touchstone for public discussion. Memes depicting Joe Biden, Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin as Big Brother appear regularly on Twitter, as do terms such as ‘thought crime’ and ‘doublethink’.

A protestor holds a sign reading "Big brother is watching you" Lille, France, 2021
A protestor holds a sign reading "Big Brother is watching you," Lille, France, 2021. "George Orwell’s ‘utopia gone wrong’ remains a touchstone for public discussion", writes Robin Bunce. (Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)

Remarkably, for a book which has enjoyed such longevity, Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) is very much a product of its time. As Orwell’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers notes, Nineteen Eighty-Four's vision of a dilapidated war-ravaged Britain was more of a synthesis of the contemporary world than a prophecy.

In essence, Orwell’s dystopia was an extrapolation of his worries about contemporary trends. The novel’s critique of American philosopher James Burnham is a good example. Burnham, who had been a Trotskyite in the 1930s, broke with Marxism in 1940 and proposed a new theory of social change. Industrial countries, he claimed, were experiencing a “managerial revolution”. A new ruling class of professional administrators was emerging in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and New Deal America. Satirising Burnham, Orwell presents the ruling Party of Oceania – his fictional society– as the heirs of the “bureaucrats, scientists, technicians”, the managerial class described by Burnham.

This “new aristocracy,” Orwell explains, were “shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government” which characterised capitalism’s final phase. The impoverishment of Oceanian society, Orwell claims, was a continuation of the dynamics of the Great Depression undergirded by the psychology of total war which emerged during the Second World War.

English writer George Orwell
English writer George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four critiqued ideas that he had railed against for much of his career, writes Bunce. (Image by Getty Images)

Equally, Nineteen Eighty-Four was a critique of the ideologies and movements which Orwell had railed against for the better part of his career. Big Brother reflects the kaleidoscopic nature of the book. While he could be based on Hitler or Stalin, his depiction in Party propaganda is also reminiscent of Herbert Kitchener, and the description of Big Brother as “[t]he colossus that bestrode the world”, is clearly a reference to archimperialist Cecil Rhodes as caricatured by Punch in 1892.

Nineteen Eighty-Four's adaptations

Given Nineteen Eighty-Four's intimate connection with its context, it is no surprise that in the decade after its publication, Orwell’s book was highly influential.

In the early years of the Cold War, adaptations tended to emphasise Orwell’s critique of totalitarianism and Stalinism. For example, the NBC University Theater Radio adaptation of 1949, which starred David Niven as Winston Smith, opened with the claim that Orwell’s novel “projected the totalitarian techniques abroad in the world today to their terrible extreme”.

Both Studio One’s 1984, the first television adaptation broadcast on the CBS network in 1953, and the Australian Lux Radio Theatre 1955 production contained prologues which struck a similar tone. The 1956 feature film 1984, starring Edmond O'Brien, was the apotheosis of this approach. Part funded by the United States Information Agency and supported by the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, the production, as film critic Kim Newman notes, was “sold as anti-communist propaganda”.

Edmond O'Brien, Jan Sterling in '1984'
A still from the 1956 feature film 1984, starring Edmond O'Brien and and Jan Sterling. (Photo by Columbia TriStar/Getty Images)

Yet early reactions to Nineteen Eighty-Four were not of a piece. The NBC University Theatre Radio adaptation in 1949, which starred David Niven, included a commentary by James Hilton, author of Goodbye, Mr Chips, warning listeners that “Mr Orwell’s satire does not bear exclusively against any one country”, rather the “early symptoms of the breakdown of the human soul . . . are diagnosable in all countries today.”

The BBC’s celebrated 1954 television adaptation also avoided any easy equation between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Stalinism. Directed by Rudolph Cartier and adapted by Nigel Kneale, the BBC production had an eclectic approach. The script never refers to totalitarianism, and socialism is only mentioned once. Certainly, posters of Big Brother were based on Communist propaganda and the Thought Police were modelled on the SS. But Big Brother and members of the Inner Party wore ‘Eisenhower-style’ jackets, Party banners recalled material produced by the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, and the division of London into Party and Prole Sectors was based explicitly on the division of Berlin. Moreover, Kneale’s script also embellished Orwell’s novel in interesting ways. In the wake of the first Soviet H-Bomb test, Kneale emphasised the impact of nuclear war on the politics of the future.

The 1956 feature film starring O’Brien was the last major adaptation for almost a decade. David Ryan, author of George Orwell on Screen, notes that Sonia Orwell, the writer’s widow, was horrified by the film, and became more cautious about working with filmmakers.

Changing perceptions

Equally, the times were changing. Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ of February 1956, which did not stay secret for long, signalled a decisive break with Stalinism. Moreover, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, questioned Orwell’s relevance. Huxley argued that Orwell had overestimated the danger of Stalinism and Nazism. The real danger, he claimed, was the conformity and intellectual degeneration brought about by consumerism and the mass media, not the sadism of Room 101.

Perceptions of the east and west also changed in the early 1960s. Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen’s ‘convergence theory’ suggested that western democracies were increasingly relying on economic management and welfarism, while the Soviet Union had embraced de-Stalinisation and economic reform. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse took the notion of convergence in a different direction. His 1964 book One-Dimensional Man argued that increasingly bureaucratic western democracies had pacified their populations through the mass media and consumerism, creating a western form of totalitarianism.

There were two notable adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the 1960s, one on BBC television – a reworking of Kneale’s 1954 script – the other on BBC Radio. Neither had the impact of their predecessors. In the affluent, liberated sixties, Orwell’s vision of a ruined, impoverished London appears to have lost its relevance.

A still showing The Orator from 1965 BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four
There were two notable adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the 1960s, one on BBC television (above), and the other on BBC Radio. (Photo by Larry Ellis/ Express/Getty Images)

Rather, the speculative fiction of the 1960s and 1970s highlighted new themes. Released in 1966 François Truffaut’s film Fahrenheit 451, for example, depicted a society stupefied by consumerism and puerile television. Nigel Kneale explored similar themes on the small screen in The Year of the Sex Olympics. Broadcast on BBC2 in 1968, Kneale’s dystopia was set in an overpopulated world ruled by the “high-drives”, a small elite who pacify the “low drives” through endless pornographic “reality television”.

During the 1970s, dystopian and speculative fiction took a feminist turn. Joanna Russ’s novel The Female Man (1970), for example, explored patriarchy in all its baleful forms, and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edgeof Time (1976) critiqued the systems of oppression she identified in modern America which flow from hierarchies of race and gender.

How was Nineteen Eighty-Four seen in 1984?

As 1984 approached there was renewed interest in Orwell’s novel. In December 1983 the BBC broadcastCrystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura, the first of a number of tv shows devoted to the author, a facsimile of Orwell’s original manuscript was published, and writers turned their attention to ‘How much is 1984 like Nineteen Eighty-Four?’, as sociologist Krishan Kumar put it. Conservative Peer Jock Bruce-Gardyne was quick off the mark. Writing in The Times at the end of 1983, he claimed that Labour’s defeat in the recent general election had spared Britain from Orwell’s nightmare. With inflation falling and Margaret Thatcher in Number 10 he concluded that 1984 promised to be a good year.

The triumph of Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganomics in the US, and the decline of the Soviet Union into a corrupt gerontocracy meant that Nineteen Eighty-Four, in so far as it was a critique of Stalinism, was no longer as relevant to East or West. Nonetheless, Michael Radford’s feature film released in 1984 proved that Orwell’s tale was still compelling. Doctor Who embraced Orwellian themes at the beginning of 1985 in ‘Vengeance on Varos’ which borrowed design details, particularly the capital V, from Radford’s film.

Ronald Reagan with Maragret Thatcher
The triumph of Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganomics in the US meant that Nineteen Eighty-Four, in so far as it was a critique of Stalinism, was no longer as relevant to East or West, says Bunce. (Image by Getty Images)

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, originally titled 1984½, reimagined many of Orwell’s themes for the 1980s. Rather than conscious sadism, Brazil explored the bureaucratising of oppression and the banality of evil. Befitting the period, Harry Tuttle, the film’s most obviously heroic character, is a plumber working on the free market, the nemesis of Central Services, the sclerotic nationalised corporation responsible for a form of managed consumerism.

Brazil is, perhaps, closer to Nineteen Eighty-Four in its suspicion of state policing. If Britain in the 1960s was a ‘permissive society’, cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued that the growing “authoritarian consensus” of the1970s was leading to the emergence of a “law-and-order society” with increasing support for police powers and repressive legislation. Brazil’s depiction of ‘Information Retrieval’, a euphemism for torture, and paranoia about terrorism was a satire on this aspect of 1980s Britain.

Nineteen Eighty-Four in the 21st century

Unexpectedly, 2013 was an important year in the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The BBC staged a radio production, starring Christopher Eccleston, and Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan brought the book to the stage. The theatre production made waves. Early reviews reported that the production had precipitated vomiting and fist fights. Icke wanted the stage show to “allow young people access” to the novel, to produce theatre that could compete with streaming services and video games. Icke and Macmillan built their show around the initial footnote and closing appendix which, they claim, frame the narrative. In so doing, they departed from existing film and television adaptations, and from a common narrative, which goes back to the book’s publication, that Nineteen Eighty-Four is entirely without hope.

Emphasising hope was a bold move, and, perhaps a response to the context. As the show opened Britain was three years into austerity’s biting cuts which followed the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–8. Worse still, in a context of economic stagnation and rising poverty there was no clear radical alternative. Political and cultural theorist Mark Fisher has described the view that market economics is the only viable system as ‘Capitalist Realism’. Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation was particularly powerful in this context, due to its message that there is hope, even when it looks like there is no alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy.

The revival of interest in Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2017 is easier to explain. In the week following Donald Trump’s inauguration sales of Orwell’s novel increased by 9,500 per cent. The performances of Kellyanne Conway, Senior Counselor to the President, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer appear to have prompted the surge. Together, they defended demonstrably false claims about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. When pressed, Conway justified the White House’s statements as “alternative facts”.

Kellyanne Conway, Senior Counselor to the President, in front of USA flags
Kellyanne Conway, Senior Counselor to the President, justified White House Statements as "alternative facts" in 2017. (Photo by GABRIELLA AUDI/AFP via Getty Images)

Orwell’s Party required its members to “deny the evidence of [their] senses”, to accept that “two and two made five”. Trump’s White House seemed to demand the same. At the same time, Trump’s left-wing critics do not have a monopoly on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Right-wing ‘thought leaders’ Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro both regard the book as a warning against the perils of socialism. Nor are radicals uncritical of sexist or colonial aspects of the novel, aspects which Sandra Newman’s forthcoming novel Julia, a feminist retelling of Nineteen Eighty-Four, will no doubt address. Today, as in the 1950s, Orwell’s text is contested.

Gregory Claeys, author of Dystopia: A Natural History argues that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the paradigmatic dystopian novel. It is certainly the most famous. Rooted in its context, as it is, it is perhaps less relevant to the problems of today than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale or Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Nonetheless, Orwell’s novel and its various adaptations are still valuable. Like all dystopias, it encourages an imaginative engagement with the problems of the world. A vital first step to seeking political solutions.

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Robin Bunce is a historian based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the politics of science fiction, and contemporary black radicalism. He is co-editor of Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy with Trip McCrossin

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