January 21, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
I have written about George Orwell’s novel 1984 in the past on this blog (see the links at the end of this post), but never the film. Today’s post focuses on the film adaptation, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The film stars John Hurt playing Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien. (This film is the first of three discussions in our Winter Film Series which is dedicated to the great idea of Truth. We welcome you to join the film series discussions at any time. Visit the HMU events page for more information.)
Orwell’s book is one of the most difficult for me to read. Its relentless nature exhausts me. I feel as if my sanity directly ties to Winston’s, and so when he undergoes torture at the hands of O’Brien, I too feel stretched, emaciated, and weak. And if I thought the novel was difficult, well, the film is even moreso. Hurt’s and Burton’s performances leave the body frozen, terrified, and depleted. The film selects vital scenes from the book which really help to understand Winston. For example, Winston desperately wants to save his humanity. He does not want to be erased, a fear which arises from work where he sees firsthand the erasure of people, language, and fact. He wants to think freely which is considered thought-crime. For this reason, he starts a diary which contains nothing but his own thoughts.
Even when undergoing torture, he works hard to remember himself. Winston believes that as long as he maintains his own thoughts, then some shred of humanity still exists in him. Like the book, the movie highlights his focus on the equation 2 + 2 = 4. Winston’s belief in this equation proves that he still retains his own thought, though Big Brother tries to convince him otherwise. Big Brother feeds information that is to be accepted, remembered only peripherally, and then quickly replaced by whatever they want you to believe next. In controlling thought, they regulate the population. Add to that the dismal environment which contains a mixture of grayscale and dirt, screaming loudspeakers and pep rallies, and the perpetual fear of thought police, it is no surprise that people do not rebel.
Though Winston fights against thought control, he struggles to identify reality. He places most of his trust in the proles, the poverty-stricken class who has next to nothing. Big Brother does not view them as a threat. Though the proles remain outside of Big Brother’s concerns, Big Brother seeks to create all reality. More than obedience, they desire full control, full power, which comes through subverting individual power. And they stop at nothing in order to gain this power and thus define human nature. O’Brien reminds Winston that the individual mind is flawed. He claims that it contains errors and misinformation. But Big Brother is capable of creating a future devoid of error, a future of purity and cleanness (an idea reminiscent of That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis).
What troubles me most about O’Brien is that his approach appears friendly. He pats Winston on the shoulder in a very human and kind gesture. He gives Winston a copy of the opposition’s manifesto. He pulls Winston closer in order to befriend him only to turn around and destroy Winston’s identity. The betrayal of a friend or trusted individual, while effective, is entirely hateful. His tactics remind me of this quote by John Ruskin (one of the quotes that we focused on for this discussion):
“The essence of lying is in deception, not in words; a lie may be told by silence, by equivocation, by the accent on a syllable, by a glance of the eye attaching a peculiar significance to a sentence; and all these kinds of lies are worse and baser by many degrees than a lie plainly worded; so that no form of blinded conscience is so far sunk as that which comforts itself for having deceived, because the deception was by gesture or silence, instead of utterance; and, finally, according to Tennyson’s deep and trenchant line, ‘A lie which is half a truth is ever the worst of lies.’” – Ruskin, Modern Painters, Pt. IX, 7
Obviously O’Brien is not honestly trying to befriend Winston. Though his actions appear to be in solidarity with Winston, they are not. In fact, O’Brien viciously reinforces Winston’s radical thoughts against Big Brother. He does not care about Winston as a person, but only wants to break him. O’Brien actually seeks power. Pretending to be Winston’s friend feels, to me, like an ultimate deceit, and is an integral part of what eventually breaks Winston. John Hurt and Richard Burton play their parts exceedingly well.
The film’s success comes not only from the words and text, but from the performances, gestures and expressions, as well as camera angles and cutaways. Exquisitely painful, the film gives an honest representation of an individual’s fear at losing their own identity. And as the group discussed, this loss is intimately tied to the truth.
For more of my ideas about Orwell’s novel, visit the following links:
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