By T.J. Foster
The YouTuber Now You See It posted a very insightful video about the difference between novels and films. It his video, he pointed out that Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger has never been adapted into a movie. The novel is naturally difficult to adapt because most of it takes place in the character’s head, detailing his thoughts . 1984 by George Orwell has similar qualities that would make a successful film adaptation challenging. Sadly, this movie did not manage to pull it off.
1984 takes place in the Country of Oceania, which is ruled by a totalitarian government called the Party. The country’s citizens are motivated by possibly fictionalized wars between Oceania and the two other countries of Eurasia and Eastasia. The party maintains control over every aspect of its citizen’s lives including video surveillance, constant rewriting and censoring of newspapers, and thought police. Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a worker for the newspaper service who decides for some reason to rebel against the government. He also meets a woman named Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), who, after a secretive declaration of love, has an affair with him, in rebellion against the party’s anti sexual policies. Knowing that they can’t maintain their affair for long, they essentially wait for the party to finally capture them.
The original novel by George Orwell is very much a book of ideas more than a book of character or plot points. Long stretches of the novel are dedicated to complicated philosophical discourses about government, media, control, etc. with little to nothing actually happening. Most of these discussions happen in the character’s head. Naturally it would be difficult to translate such a book a movie. Unfortunately, this movie does not do it well. The movie goes through the motions of the book and touches on many of the concepts, but does not fully explain them. The book connected the ideas together through the characters thoughts or dialogues. The same ideas and presented in the movie, but not explained sufficiently, making it hard to care about them. If one had not already read the book, they would not necessarily understand how the world of this movie works. There are a few attempts at further explanation in the form of voice over, but even those are scant and disjointed.
Similarly, the motivations and desires of the characters are not established. The film follows the scenes and story beats of the book, but does not give the explanations of why the decisions were made. Based solely on the movie, one might not even be sure why Winston rebelled or why he made a connection with Julia or anything of that nature. Unfortunately, there is insufficient exposition or visual storytelling to become invested in the characters. Furthermore, John Hurt’s uninteresting performance mostly consists of the same confused and pained look throughout. Because there is little emotional connection or narrative thrust for most of the running time, the movie becomes terribly dull.
The ending sequence is when the movie starts to pick up. Although the philosophy is still disjointed, there is enough exposition for it to make sense. Richard Burton’s cold, mono-toned performance is chilling. The final scenes successful evoke the sense of horror and hopelessness, conveyed effectively by John Hurt.
Fortunately, the movie looks the part. The incomparably bleak and dull look of the film fits the world. The staging and designs of the environment make the impact they needed to convey the hopelessness of the situation.
Although a more faithful adaptation that most other movies, 1984 only goes through the motions of the book, failing to function on its own. Someone who doesn’t first understand the book will likely not understand this film or enjoy it.