George Orwell’s 1984 has been one of the top-recommended books in any of the booklists that I’ve seen online. This past weekend we had our final discussion of 1984 in our literature book club called Lit Lovers that I’ve talked about in other blog posts you can find here and here. The day after we finished our discussion, we decided to watch the film 1984. The one we watched at Lit Lovers was the 1956 version directed by Gene Fowler, but I have since learned that there was also another version made in 1984 directed by Michael Radford.
In this latter installment, many of the scenes taken with dates described in the book were actually recorded on those dates. For example, the diary scene Winston writes on April 4th, 1984 was actually filmed on that day. The following post will be dedicated to dissecting some of the larger differences between the book and its movie counterparts.
1984 – The Book
First, I think it’s beneficial to summarize the book 1984 by George Orwell. Instead of giving you a long and boring explanation of 1984, my amazing friend, Sparky Sweets, is going to summarize 1984 and put it into “Thug” terms for you in the video below. Spoiler alert.
This guy’s channel is so amazing for teaching literature. It is something that connects with kids and helps give you a perspective of the novel. He does a very good job at summarizing the novel and there isn’t much that I can add besides to tell you the point of a totalitarian regime is to make everyone equal. No one thinks differently, acts differently, dresses differently. The Party (or Big Brother) watches and monitors you constantly through the use of a fictional device called a telescreen. The only people that aren’t watched are the proles who happen to be low-level members of society, not party members. Winston believes it are these proles where the hope of overthrowing Big Brother lies.
To best contrast these movies, I am going to take a look at the three major differences I noticed while watching them.
Hate Week. Telescreens. Brainwashing.
First and foremost, it is important to understand Big Brother. In the 1956 version Big Brother is never shown. Well, he is shown, but it seems more like a caricature than an actual person. In the 1984 version, this is clearly different with a strong-faced man with a mustache playing the role. In fact, it’s much better because we get the feeling of Orwell’s oppressive regime throughout the movie.
The later version takes us right into the heart of this oppression through “Hate Week” which is much better done in the later version because we can truly feel their hatred and anger and the dark setting and unilateral clothing show us their inability to be different. Also, the crowd in this video clip is hundreds upon hundreds of people who are all dressed exactly the same, and chanting hate exactly the same, and when it comes time to love Big Brother, chanting the same “Big. Big. Big.”
You can watch the video below.
You’ll notice in the pictures above that Big Brother is the telescreen. This man’s face shows up multiple times throughout the movie and really adds to the idea that “Big Brother is Watching You” always. The size of the telescreen is also considerably larger in the later version compared to the 1956 version (my apologies that I cannot find an image of the telescreen in the earlier version).
Oppression through brainwash is made so utterly clear in the book. In the book, Orwell makes it clear that everyone is brainwashed by the Party and even mentions the “Spy Kids” who are trained to turn people in for the government. This is done better in the earlier version of the movie with the addition of Selena who constantly follows Winston and keeps snooping about, not trusting him (although this never actually goes anywhere). She even carries a gun with her. In the 1984 version, the director simply shows a scene where young boys are chanting a song while on a train. This song goes: “We are the children, builders of the future….” The idea that they are singing together on a train, dressed in the same “spy” clothing. In reality, it looks just like they’re on a field trip.
The Chestnut Tree (which plays a minor role in the book) plays absolutely no role in the 1956 version and isn’t even mentioned. However, in the 1984 version it serves as a symbol of foreshadowing. Early in the movie, Winston sees three men who all appear lifeless and hollow inside. Behind them, on the telescreen, are their confessions about the things they’ve done against Big Brother. At the end of the novel, Winston finds himself in the Chestnut Tree in the later version (and in the book). The final scene we see is him playing chess by himself, lonely, while his confession video is playing on the telescreen behind him. On the table in front of him he has written 2 + 2 = … but he never finishes the equation (those who have read the novel will understand the significance of this simple math equation). In the movie, the Chestnut Tree functions and feels like a psychiatric ward where the “waiter” dressed in a white labcoat (like a doctor) constantly brings Victory Gin to Winston to keep him drunk and satiated.
Julia and Winston
Actress. Relationship. Ending.
Actress: Jan Sterling vs. Suzanna Hamilton
Another large difference I want to mention is the relationship between Winston and Julia. I thought Sterling portrays Julia better than Hamilton for a few reasons. First, the actress is much more attractive and in the movie, Winston sees her as undeniably beautiful. In the latter movie, she is portrayed as more of a rugged hippie with dark hair, not blonde hair.
Second, the actual relationship blossoms much more in the earlier movie versus the later movie. Julia mentions wanting to have a child with Winston and even goes with him to O’Brien’s house to join Big Brother alongside Winston. This DOESN’T happen in the later version and a rather big point that is contrary to the book. (Although, to be fair, there isn’t really a reason why Orwell brings Julia along to the meeting between Winston and O’Brien anyway.)
Finally, the ending makes it seem that Julia is still herself in the earlier version and that she outsmarted Big Brother even to the end. I have made this analysis based upon the fact that while Winston is screaming “I love Big Brother” at the end of the earlier movie, she disappears and he cannot find her. Instead, it doesn’t really occupy him and he goes back to shouting. This disappearance, however, shows us that perhaps she was only faking when she got taken by the Thought Police, for she is shown throughout the novel to be quite cunning with her actions and even her words. For example, on page 210 “They can make you say anything—ANYTHING—but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.” In the earlier version, we can see this as her staying true to her word, but there isn’t a sense of this individualistic survival in the later movie.
Actor. Interrogation scene.
Actor: Michael Redgrave vs. Richard Burton
The last large difference I want to talk about in this blog post is O’Brien. Played by Michael Redgrave in the 1956 version, O’Brien doesn’t even exist, instead his name has been changed to O’Connor for some reason. This is rather odd as O’Brien is not a minor, inconsequential character; instead, he represents the major plot twist in the novel. In the 1984 version, O’Brien who is actually O’Brien is played by Richard Burton. The performance Burton gives in his last movie ever (for sadly he died before this was released) was amazing. Throughout the time I watched the movie, I was reminded very much of a Hannibal Lecture, Anthony Hopkins, kind of character who is calculating and sinister.
The interrogation scene that Burton has with Winston is so much better done in the 1984 version. This, of course, is due to advancement of special effects but even the dialogue is just better crafted as Burton gives an excellent performance and says a lot of the big lines from the actual novel. The earlier version is just summarized and we never really get the feeling that Winston is being tortured. Instead, in the later version, we can see, physically, that Winston has been beaten and is being drained of his energy. You can see the fantastic video clip of Winston’s torture in the video below.
In truth, this may be the result of not only better acting, but better directing as well and better screen-writing.
If I had to pick a clear winner, it would be the later version as the oppression really comes through more and that is the largest part in the novel. The whole novel is about the oppression of society and all the fundamental aspects of keeping society under complete totalitarian control. The 1984 version does that the best with the only downside being the role of Julia who I think could have been better cast. Winston, too, could have been better cast in the later version as he is described as being fatter in the novel, but the way it was directed, the symbolism throughout the movie, and the important scenes were all there. If you’ve seen either of these movies and have read the book as well, I would love to know what you thought, so please go ahead and put your comments below.
Like in 95% of cases, however, the movie pales in comparison to the book which I would definitely give 4.5 stars. George Orwell’s writing is fantastic and just so prolific for his time it’s quite hard to actually fathom how he thought of all of this. To see my review for that novel, click here. There is a reason why it is one of the most read novels in the world.
Remember, Big Brother is Watching You. :p