‘1984’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is a classic science fiction dystopia. It’s a novel written by a socialist about socialism that’s gone insane. When I first read it (a long time ago now), it didn’t make much of an impact on me. I actually thought that it was boring.

It’s a literary science fiction novel and it reads like one, which is to say there are some great lines in it, but it’s definitely not an action-based genre story. It’s more of a slow-burning psychological and political, character based story.

I tried to re-read 1984 a couple of years ago. Once again, I found it tough to get into, and I gave up. A ‘classic’ it is, but the pace is slow and entire sections don’t feel like they are coming from the story but they’re the author speaking. I just don’t really like George Orwell as a writer. I have the same problem with Philip K Dick, who is a science fiction god — but I’ve never really enjoyed reading his novels. The similarities between Orwell and Dick are that they are amazing ideas people, but the fun reading experience just isn’t there for me.

Recently, I felt a need to ‘read’ 1984 again, because it’s such an important book. This time I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Andrew Wincott. He really brought it to life for me. It’s a wonderful performance. Finally, I’ve found a way to enjoy this novel.

1984 has become a defining document of the Cold War era, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The problem is that its success has turned the fictional scenario of a near future, repressive police state into a complete science fiction cliché.

For a contemporary audience, the storytelling cliché of the repressive police state might be less interesting than newspeak and fake news. Orwell understood the strangeness of language, how it lends itself to manipulation and propaganda. If Wittgenstein realised that the limitations of language made it impossible to attain any genuine philosophical truth, Orwell saw it the other way around — the limitations of language made it a useful political weapon to alter notions of what is and isn’t real.

Today, language is at the front line of political debate. You either have ‘correct thoughts’ or you don’t. You are a believer or a heretic. The concept of ‘right thinking’ originated from the Nazis. ‘Right thinking’ is deliberately about denying a nuanced debate. You are either ‘right’ or you are ‘wrong’ — us versus them. Everything is polarised. In 1984, the mass gatherings where people express their public hatred for alleged traitors and enemy nations is the ultimate expression of this process.

The ‘Ingsoc’ or English Socialism of 1984 is an authoritarian, Marxist, cult of personality. It has a lot in common with old fashioned puritanical religion. It demands ideological purity, in much the same way as any totalitarian religion where ‘the thought is the deed’. Religion invented thought crime long before Orwell and 1984. With ‘Ingsoc’, the party’s inner circle are the new priests. Like any religion, Winston must go beyond mere acceptance of Big Brother. He must ‘love’ Big Brother, because religions need true believers.

Ultimately, authoritarian power is not about the ‘truth’, it’s about winning. The end is power, and the means to the end is power.

While I was back in 1984-land, I re-watched the film of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. I've never seen a film with so much texture, and this isn’t some kind of literary metaphor. I mean it literally, I’ve never seen a film with so much physical texture. It’s as if the film has been been put through a texturising machine. Everything in it is scratched, crackled, dirty, mottled, spattered, dusty, worn, and cracked. The performances of John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, and Richard Burton are decent enough, although Richard Burton feels like he’s ‘phoning it in’. The 1980s synth soundtrack hasn't aged well and it’s intrusive.

Maybe the problem with Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it follows the book too closely? One of the challenges of adapting any big ideas book into a film is how to translate those ideas into something that’s visually emotive, without being trite. With Blade Runner, for example, I’m not even sure if Ridley Scott actually read Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Blade Runner was inspired by the novel, but it’s really based on the film-script and Ridley Scott’s vision.

1984: Interesting.
Andrew Wincott’s narration of the audiobook of 1984: Brilliant.
Nineteen Eighty-Four: Disappointing.