Adapting Nineteen Eighty-Four for Our Times

George OrwellA group in Hollywood is planning a new movie adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Two production companies have teamed up to buy the rights, after apparently being brought together by Shepard Fairey – the street artist behind the iconic Obama “hope” poster. Adam Stock, who has recently completed a PhD on twentieth-century dystopias, considers the ways in which the book might be adapted for our contemporary moment.

As an Orwell scholar, I await the results of a new production of Nineteen Eighty-Four with equal parts interest and trepidation. As someone pointed out to me at the George Orwell Festival last summer, everyone has her or his own Orwell, and Nineteen Eighty-Four is an ambiguous and open text. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been both appropriated by scholars of all political persuasions, and denounced from across the political spectrum: to the Marxist Isaac Deutscher it was a gift to right-wing reactionary Cold-War politicians, “a cry from the abyss of despair” made by a “simple-minded anarchist.” For the British cultural materialist Raymond Williams it was a bourgeois “putropia”. Eric Fromm believed that it expressed “the powerlessness and hopelessness of modern man”. To Lionel Trilling “the exposition of the mystique of power is the heart and essence of Orwell’s book”, and as such it is written in the spirit of liberal politics. At another extreme, to Philip Goldstein the reception of Nineteen Eighty-Four apparently demonstrates that the novel supported neo-conservativism in the 1990s against more radical postmodernist literary critique.

It is the fate of Nineteen Eighty-Four to remain a literary hot potato even twenty-five years after the date in which the novel is set has passed. In criticism of the text, aesthetic and political judgements continue to be almost impossible to disentangle.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the enduring controversy surrounding its interpretation, it was really only a matter of time before Hollywood sought to re-visit Orwell’s text. Nineteen Eighty-Four sits at the crosshairs of two recent cultural trends. The first is the growth of remakes, particularly remakes of films based on literary texts such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The second trend is what I will call the dystopian turn in contemporary culture.

Dystopia is a word with increasing cultural currency. From Charlie Brooker’s superbly satiric Channel 4 drama Black Mirror to the latest box office smash The Hunger Games dystopian fictions are increasingly prevalent. Moreover, the word “dystopia” is now routinely used where phrases like “anti-utopian nightmare” or – tellingly – “Orwellian” might have been used in the past. The riots of summer 2011, for example, were described by one Telegraph columnist as evidence of a “Hobbesian dystopia of chaos and brutality” on England’s streets.

People have become far more attuned to the basic structural manoeuvre of most dystopian fiction: the narrative projects forwards into a future that extrapolates some current trends to their logical and horrific conclusions. But dystopias do this only so that they can turn round and look backwards towards the past – our own present and immediate future. What we are really witnessing, in other words, is the widespread use of a set of generic tools that allow writers and directors to make criticisms of the present by setting the story in a future that has resulted from our own actions and inactions. As Orwell himself put it in a press release dictated to his publisher from his sickbed a few months before his death, “don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” While Orwell passionately believed in what he termed “democratic Socialism”, his political focus was first on avoiding further catastrophes in the present era.

Orwell’s text is the classic example of the power of this sort of dystopian narrative structure, a power that has remained with the book to this day. There is no longer a Cold War. The atom bombs that the novel casually predicts will rain down on Chichester in the 1950s thankfully never materialised, and neither did the formal annexing of the UK into the empire of Oceania as “Airstrip One”. But the specific predictions of the text are not what have made it last beyond the year 1984. Indeed, many of the predictions still have the capacity to make us think in spite of their inaccuracy, reminding us of just how different a world Orwell wrote in, as well as how similar. For example, Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, works in the records department of the nationalised Times newspaper, adjusting old stories to fit with the current narrative that the State wishes to propagate. Orwell, we should remember, wrote the novel against the backdrop of the postwar Labour government creating the National Health Service and nationalising industries such as the coalmines, and with first hand knowledge of wartime censorship from his own time at the BBC during the War years. Since the 1980s, however, there has barely been a government agency that privatisation has not affected or in some way altered, from the police force to secondary school education. The idea that the state could nationalise part of the Murdoch empire, even post-Leveson, is unthinkable. Furthermore, while political spin and attempts to alter historical narratives have become ever more sophisticated, to actually change a national newspaper retrospectively would seem largely futile in the age of the internet and social networking.

Nevertheless, censorship, vested interests, realpolitik, power, corruption and lies all still exist. As long as they do so, Nineteen Eighty-Four will have the capacity to make us think about the problems in the world in which we live, and what sort of world we would like to see replace it. In 2012, the relationship we have to Nineteen Eighty-Four acquires another chronological level of meaning: we now look back not only on a history that never was, but on the promise of a future that has never been.

What, then, might the new film focus on? My own reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four (following Margaret Atwood) is as a dark but ultimately hopeful text, and one that is full of problems. For example, there can be no getting around the fact that the protagonist Winston Smith is a deeply misogynistic character who fantasises about rape and is prepared to murder or throw acid in the face of a child if it helps bring about the downfall of Big Brother. In my work I have emphasised that Nineteen Eighty-Four is an experimental text in dialogue with modernism, that it is fiercely pro-socialist and that it critiques both totalitarianism and consumer society (the “prolefeed” publications, fixed lottery and pornographic writing machines for which Julia is a mechanic are easily overlooked, but they are as important to the social and economic structure of Oceania as the “feelies” are in Aldous Huxley’s consumerist Brave New World).

My suspicion is that a new version of Nineteen Eighty-Four will use the book to focus on contemporary issues such as the ubiquitous presence of news media and surveillance in Orwell’s text through technological innovation, the massive military expenditure on foreign wars, or the presence of secret prisons with their analogues in Guantanamo Bay. There may also be time spent on the wealth gap and social inequality in the text between the lives of the impoverished “proles”, who comprise the vast majority of the population of Oceania, and the shadowy elite of privileged inner Party members, with their servants, luxurious apartments and black market gourmet foodstuffs. It will be interesting to see how the filmmakers respond to the “dystopian turn”, and what sort of reference they make to some of the new dystopias, like The Matrix trilogy, The Truman Show and Hunger Games, which Orwell’s text has undoubtedly influenced. The film has the capacity to raise critical debate about the big questions about fundamental cultural and political values, which the language of mainstream contemporary politics tends to dampen in the name of pragmatic piecemeal action. I for one think that such a move can only be doubleplusgood.

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