Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
When a US Presidential spokesperson recently used the term alternative facts to explain away inconsistencies between the White House version of truth and objectively verified truth it triggered a global revival of interest in the George Orwell classic Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Single-handedly, the term alternative facts caused a run on the 68-year old novel and led to cinemas across America re-screening the 1984 film adaptation. Acknowledged as one of the most important literary works of the modern era, 1984 has been adapted to film, television, radio, stage, music, and other popular culture platforms and it continues to resonate as a contemporary dystopian warning about how power can be used as a weapon to crush truth.
The film’s plotline, setting and acting are starkly minimalist. Oceania is an imaginary futuristic totalitarian society that is in ruins from perpetual war. The people are under constant surveillance and there are screens everywhere broadcasting propaganda that keeps the masses devoted to leader Big Brother. The Party controls everything, including human thought and the facts of history. The masses must publicly demonstrate their loyalty to Big Brother, personal relationships are banned, and any ideas contrary to Party Policy are thought-crimes punishable by death.
The film’s protagonist, Winston Smith (John Hurt), is a nondescript Party apparatchik whose job it is to review historical documents and insert alternative facts to suit ever-changing Party policy. He scans newspapers and books for items officially deemed ‘fake news’ and expunges the record. Anyone who has contradicted Party policy has their entire identification “vaporized” as if they never existed. Amidst this dystopian oppression, Winston knows that what he is doing is wrong but is powerless to act until he meets a likeminded worker called Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) with whom he can discuss his innermost thoughts. Their illegal affair is uncovered by the Thought Police and senior Party figure O’Brien (Richard Burton) tortures Winston, ultimately re-programming his brain so he can believe contradictory facts and opinions.
This is a film rich in metaphor and ironic distortions. The key institutions of Oceania exist solely to manufacture ‘fake news’ and to psychologically manipulate the will of the people. The Ministry of Truth produces endless falsehoods and historical revisions while the Ministry of Love specialises in torture, brainwashing and executions. The Ministry of Peace ensures that war is constantly waged against vaguely defined enemies to keep the masses from complaining about the food shortages that are disguised as surpluses by the Ministry of Plenty. The Party succeeds by controlling the only accepted language called Newspeak, the sole purpose of which is to minimise vocabulary so people cannot articulate their own memories because the words no longer exist. With memories gone and facts invented, Party control is complete.
In terms of contemporary cinematic standards, 1984 stands up exceptionally well for a film made 33 years ago. The principal actors are brilliant in depicting an expressionless and alienated existence. The late John Hurt had the rare ability to express his thoughts entirely through terrified eyes that stared blankly from an impassive face and he used this to full effect in some truly frightening scenes. Excellent cinematography conveys the claustrophobia of a world diminished by totalitarianism. The use of a desaturated and depressive colour palette creates vivid contrasts with scenes where Winston imagines what the real world must have looked like.
Some may wonder how the depicted extreme nihilism of Orwell’s 1984 can have any relevance to politics today. While the dystopian world that Orwell predicted has not materialised in a physical sense, his warnings about the manipulation of truth and political corruption are entirely prescient. The fabricated worlds of alternative facts, fake news, and policy spin are corruptions of modern political life and their threat to civilised discourse can only be contained by the power of language to speak the truth.
Director: Michael Radford
Stars: John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton