1984 in 1954 (Watch the 1954 BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty Four)
December 12, 2010 4:00 AM   Subscribe

Nigel Kneale's adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four was one of the most controversial television programmes of its time. Broadcast live, it made "unusually extensive and imaginative use of filmed inserts (14 in total). These sequences bought time for the more elaborate costume changes or scene set-ups, but also served to 'open out' the action." And now you can watch it too! The full version is currently on Youtube. Short of the John Hurt film released in 1984 being posted online, the 1954 BBC TV adaptation is about as doubleplusgood as it gets for now.

Further reading; Some background (PDF) on its production and a review, for those who need to be told what to think about things they saw.

While we're on the subject, you may also be interested to learn Nineteen Eighty Four has also been adapted into a comic book (free to read), an Opera and an MP3 recording of a radio play done by NBC University Theater. But failing all of that, you can always just read the text of the original book over at Project Gutenberg.
posted by Effigy2000 (12 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
*cough* - though you have plenty of other links here too, so I hope this stays.
posted by Abiezer at 4:22 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also available for download at archive.org.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 5:17 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

That Kneale interview (includes an answer about this production) in the older post is at a new URL I see. Good read.
posted by Abiezer at 5:36 AM on December 12, 2010

Would it be trite and predictable to say doubleplusgood? Almost certainly, so I'll just get it out of the way right now.
posted by Daddy-O at 8:02 AM on December 12, 2010

There is another British film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four released in 1956 (see link to Chapter 1 here), directed by Michael Anderson and starring an inappropriately plump Edmond O'Brian as Winston Smith.

It might be interesting to compare the two. If my memory serves me accurately, though, this version would be more accurately described as ungood.

I look forward to checking out this rendition. Thanks!
posted by duvatney at 8:23 AM on December 12, 2010


I'm fascinated with how adaptations deal with the ending of Orwell's novel -- the last sentence, which is "He loved Big Brother." If I was teaching screenwriting, I would assign this scene for my students to adapt. It's an all-important moment, but it happens inside a character's head. I think doing it with a voice-over (the character thinking "I love you") is weak. I wouldn't want that for the last moment in my film. But I can't think of too many better ways to do it.

The only version I've seen is the one with John Hurt. The ending is really interesting, and I go back and forth in terms of loving it and hating it. I hated it when I first saw it, because I had Orwell's novel in my head, and I thought the film's ending muddied something that Orwell made really clear. I still think that, but when I consider the film as an independent story, I like the ambiguity of its ending.

Earlier in the film, Hurt's character says "I love you" to Julia, the female protagonist. At the end of the movie, after he's been tortured to the point where he rats on Julia, he finds himself in a cafe, staring at a portrait of Big Brother. HE THEN TURNS AWAY FROM THE PORTRAIT and, with tears in his eyes, says, "I love you." He says it with the same inflections as when he said it to Julia.

So, is he saying "I love you" to Big Brother or to Julia? I think you could very reasonably interpret the ending of the movie in either way. And I've met people -- who saw the movie but never read the book -- who thought it was definitely Julia he was talking to (in his mind: she's not in the room). In fact, they were surprised when I told them that, in the novel, it was Big Brother. "If that's who he meant, why did he turn away?" On the other hand, he could turn away because he's overwhelmed with emotion -- and that emotion could be love for Big Brother.

I don't know if the filmmakers intended this ambiguity or not. I suspect they did, because they also conflate O'Brian with Winston's father, which to me is a brilliant move, but one that's not in the novel. In general, the movie seems more interested in these kinds of siippages than the novel. In any case, whether they intended it or not, it's there.

Here's how they could have ended it:

WINSTON sits in the cafe, across the room from a huge poster of Big Brother. He's facing the poster. Cut to his eyes, staring. Cut to his point-of-view, the poster. Cut back to his face.

I love you.

That would be a totally unambiguous, literal rendering of the end of the novel.

I look forward to seeing how the 1954 version deals with this.
posted by grumblebee at 8:54 AM on December 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think I would handle the ending by directing the Winston Smith actor to not smile the entire movie but at the end to silently gaze at a picture of Big Brother, smiling ear to ear. It's subtle but I think it works.
posted by fuq at 10:36 AM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting this; I just watched it (almost 2 hours in length). It really captures the spirit of the novel. It helps that it is black and white, and the telescreens are so primitive looking. Well worth watching.
posted by willF at 6:10 PM on December 12, 2010

I'm fascinated with how adaptations deal with the ending of Orwell's novel -- the last sentence, which is "He loved Big Brother."

My solution for things like not wanting to spell out the unknowable workings of a person's mind (too "on the nose," you know) is somewhat similar to fuq's.

I provide a moment somewhere earlier in the production where the same emotion is used, and hook it onto something physical. For instance, suppose Winston simply puts his fingers to his mouth, as if maybe to hide a smile, while looking intently at Julia, then says, "I love you" to her.

Then, for the finale, just have him do the same hand-to-mouth gesture with the same expression, while looking intently at Big Brother. You could stretch that moment and create a moment of anticipation as the audience knows what he's thinking and wonders if he's going to say it...and blackout...

(Not saying this is exactly how I would do it but it's on the road to it...)
posted by bovious at 10:04 AM on December 13, 2010

bovious, I think that's a good idea.

But the other question is whether you want ambiguity or not. Orwell's novel is (SPOILER:) not ambiguous at all: "He loved Big Brother." At least some people (me included) feel that the John Hurt version is ambiguous. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Either way, the ending is very, very sad. But Orwell was specifically writing a story about a man getting stripped of all his humanity -- even the possibility of loving another real human being. The Hurt film allows for the POSSIBILITY that he still loves Julia (even if she is now forever unattainable). In the Hurt film, it's POSSIBLE that the government has not pounded this love out of him. I don't think it lets the viewer comfortably sink into that belief (at least not THIS viewer), but it does open it as a question. (It doesn't let me sink into the belief, because as soon as I start to, I get the sinking feeling that it's Big Brother he loves, not Julia. And then I get hopeful that it IS Julia. I bounce back and forth between those possibilities, never settling on one or the other...)

Like I said, I used to hate the movie version's ending, because it seemed to tarnish the whole point of Orwell's novel, which has a sort of horrible purity to it. The novel is like a very beautifully written, very sophisticated political cartoon. And political cartoons are never ambiguous.

The novel ties up all its loose ends. Winston is (as a human) dead. There's nothing left. The end. Now go out there and make sure this doesn't happen in the real world! This, to me, helps the novel function as a cautionary tale but, in a sense, hinders it as "poetry."

(It just occurred to me that Orwell wrestled with this himself, in an essay called "Inside the Whale*.")

Any work with no loose ends fails to haunt me as much as works which end, at least to some extent, with questions. I love Orwell's book, and I read it over and over when I was younger. But I don't really think about it much any more. It's sort of pigeonholed in my mind. It has a stamp of approval on it ("Great novel, recommend to others"), but I know exactly how I feel about it. My feelings about it never change. I have nothing new to say about it. But the movie is an open wound. My brain is forever trying to resolve the ending but can't quite do it. For me, that's the X-factor a work needs to be poetic.

*"I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read at least 'Tropic of Cancer.' ... It is also an ‘important’ book, in a sense different from the sense in which that word is generally used. As a rule novels are spoken of as ‘important’ when they are either a ‘terrible indictment’ of something or other or when they introduce some technical innovation. Neither of these applies to 'Tropic of Cancer.' Its importance is merely symptomatic. Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses. Symptomatically, that is more significant than the mere fact that five thousand novels are published in England every year and four thousand nine hundred of them are tripe. It is a demonstration of the impossibility of any major literature until the world has shaken itself into its new shape."
posted by grumblebee at 12:28 PM on December 13, 2010

@grumblebee, I'm always the one who has to be told that things are ambiguous :) Maybe I read too much into things, but I think it's

A: Important not to have a narrator shoehorned into the proceedings in order to give voice to Orwell's famous parting shot and

B: Quite possible to do it wordlessly and with the absolute minimum of ambiguity, perhaps in a way such as what I proposed.

But my producers are always second guessing me and telling me that somebody in the audience won't "get it." To which I reply, yes, and some in the audience also aren't entirely sure what happened to Bambi's mother -- and they're not my problem.

So anyway, thanks for your response. I love talking about this kind of thing.
posted by bovious at 1:02 PM on December 13, 2010

Oh, God. It hate it when a narrator is used because they can't think of any other way to get some info from the novel across. I don't hate narrators, but I must at least feel that they're present for some other reason than that. So, I agree. That would be a terrible choice.

Assuming we want to go with an unambiguous ending, I think it's possible. Several people in this thread have explained ways you could do it. And I think they would work. I think they would get across the idea that Winston loves BB and not Julia.

But I also can't help thinking that they're sort of weak compared with the solution in the novel, which is that short, devastating sentence, "He loved Big Brother." But there's no way to film that literally, unless you employ a clumsy narrator. No thanks!

When an incident in a movie is (a) really important (this one clearly is: it's the final moment), and (b) weak, it's time to find another way to tell that part of the story. And I think the constraint here is overly-literal faithfulness. There's an urge to end the movie in a cafe, with Winston looking at a poster of BB and falling in love with it. Because that's how the novel ends, and we don't want to disappoint readers of the novel who are waiting for that final scene they love so much (and that we love so much).

Other people will disagree with this, but I think you need to be braver than that when you adapt a novel into a film. If they novel's ending isn't as powerful when it's literally transcribed into filmic language, then the right thing to do is something radically different.

You say, "What's Orwell trying to day?" (Or what interests me at the end of Orwell's story.) I think, in the novel, "He loves Big Brother" says that the Party has won, they've completely won, and there's nothing of Winston left. He's gone. He's obliterated. And his body is not a cog in the state's machine.

So now the question is this: if we throw away "He loved Big Brother," what really powerful -- and genuinely cinematic -- thing can we put in its place. We're completely free. It can be anything! It doesn't have to have anything to do with cafes or posters. But it has to tell that part of the story and it has to be really powerful.

... And that's as far as I can go right now. I can't come up with a solution in a few seconds or even in a few hours. But I believe there is one, and it would be really fun trying to find it!

But you have to be brave, because when you depart from a source this way, some people will say, "Are you kidding me? You changed THAT? That's my favorite part of the book!" My answer to that is, "And it's still in the book!" But that doesn't make everyone happy. I think you have to be willing to disappoint some people if you're going to adapt something with great EMOTIONAL fidelity to the source. That almost always means, at least in some parts, radically departing from literal events and descriptions in the source.
posted by grumblebee at 2:01 PM on December 13, 2010

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