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The 1956 Film Version of George Orwell’s 1984

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Lately, 1984 has been a very popular novel – but the best movie version was made in 1956.

When George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) finished his novel 1984 in 1948, after thinking about it since 1944, he was trying to warn his audience that unchecked totalitarianism could easily destroy democracy. Since then, there have been several film and television versions; the 1954 BBC version starring Peter Cushing; the 1956 version starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling; and the 1984 version – yes, that’s right – starring the late John Hurt as the hapless Winston Smith, and Richard Burton as his nemesis O’Brien, in what would prove to be his final screen role.

All the various versions have their adherents, but for me, the 1956 version comes closest to the mark. The 1954 version survives only on a battered Kinescope, and as much as I am fond of Peter Cushing as an actor (as readers of this blog no doubt know), he makes a very indifferent Winston Smith, one of the “proles” singled out for punishment and “rehabilitation” by the minions of Big Brother. He would have been much more effective in the O’Brien role, just as he’s superlatively evil as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars (1977).

The 1984 version has strong performances by both Burton and Hurt, but is ruined – really ruined – by a terrible pop score by The Eurythmics. There was one 2003 US DVD release with the original symphonic score by Dominic Muldowney, but most versions have the Eurythmics track, which so offended Michael Radford, the director of the film, that he publicly disowned the film. So . . .

That leaves the 1956 version, which although it has its flaws, is easily the most effective version of the novel, at least for me. Yes, one of the central problems is the casting of Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling in the leading roles of Winston Smith and Julia. Both were put in the film to increase the chances at the box-office in the United States – which didn’t work, despite a sensationalistic advertising campaign – and while O’Brien is much better than Sterling, they’re not ideally cast for the film.

But as General O’Connor (O’Brien in the book; the name change was to avoid confusion with the Edmond O’Brien’s credit), Sir Michael Redgave is absolutely immaculate – savage, smooth, duplicitous and unforgiving. The film’s narrative, which the title credits admit was “freely adapted” from Orwell’s novel, nevertheless touches all the important bases – cultural repression, institutionalized misinformation, social inequity, and a ruling class that cares nothing about the “proles” below.

Unfortunately, the film has existed in limbo for quite some time, and never got a real DVD release, except in England, and of course, being shot in 1956, it’s in black and white, modestly budgeted at a mere £80,073, or roughly $200,000 US dollars at the time. It’s yet another one of the many films that could use a proper DVD release.

The sets are minimal and coolly stylized, the effects are resolutely pre-digital, and there is even an alternate “happy ending” – thankfully, I have never seen it – tacked on to some prints. But in most surviving versions, the film ends with Smith, brutally tortured and now brainwashed into blindly accepting authority, leading a mob of citizens in a chant of “long live Big Brother” – the anonymous, and perhaps non-existent dictator of the future totalitarian state.

The director of the film was Michael Anderson, who directed Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) the same year – a much more crowd pleasing film – and would later go on to direct the almost equally Dystopian Logan’s Run (1976). The 1956 version of 1984, then, is certainly worth a look, if you can find it – and see how a group of talented people almost got it right.

You can see the entire film online by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Hunger Games

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, and one of the most anticipated films of early 2012, will open on March 23rd.

Lionsgate just received a PG13 rating for the film from the MPAA, which is surprising, given the film’s bloodthirsty premise; a group of adolescents are forced to fight to death each year until only one survives, all for the spectatorial pleasure of a massive viewing audience. The plot owes an obvious debt to Battle Royale, both the 1998 novel by Kōshun Takami, as well as the extremely well-received 2000 film by Kinji Fukasaku, though Collins says she’d never heard of either the novel or the film before she handed in her manuscript; but it also has clear thematic links to William Golding’s novel Lord of The Flies (filmed superbly in 1963 by Peter Brook, and indifferently by Harry Hook in 1990), as well as Shirley Jackson’s groundbreaking 1948 short story The Lottery, first published in 1948 in The New Yorker, and subsequently filmed at least three times in 1969, 1996 and 2007.

There’s also obvious connections to the Roman gladiatorial games, and the whole “future Dystopian society” angle has been a staple of films and novels for decades, from Metropolis to Blade Runner to Death Race 2000, with numerous stops in-between. And of course there’s always the inescapable influence of George Orwell’s 1984 — the template for nearly all visions of future society in collapse — in the completely downbeat, hypersurveillant nature of both the novel, and one would presume, the film. The director is Gary Ross, whose previous films include Pleasantville.

As Lionsgate summarizes the film in their press release, “every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the evil Capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. A twisted punishment for a past uprising and an ongoing government intimidation tactic, The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event in which ‘Tributes’ must fight with one another until one survivor remains.” The cast is first rate: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland. Whether or not the film will live up to its grim potential remains, however, to be seen.

This is one of the oldest, and saddest, plot lines of all; kill or be killed, the survival of the fittest, trust no one, and look out for number one. It’s a cruel, brutal film for an era of dead dreams – sad, but all too true.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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