At one point or another, it seems that everyone ends up reading George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984.” Whether it’s because of it still being a staple of literature in schools, or whether one is simply curious because of its immense reputation, it’s a novel that continues to draw attention and admiration. As far as adapting the novel for the screen, it seemed like a most difficult prospect, mainly because Orwell’s novel is one of ideas, more so than one with a substantial plotline. It’s a novel about a time and place, about society, and the way the government could potentially establish an overreaching grip on everyone and everything. Despite the inherent issues in bringing the book to the screen, this hasn’t stopped filmmakers from attempting it, including the outstanding 1954 live BBC version with Peter Cushing, and another made 30 years later by director/screenwriter Michael Radford. With Criterion bringing the latter to Blu-ray this month, it’s time to take a look at the classic novel’s first big-budget adaptation.
Taking place in the titular year, the story follows Winston Smith (Sir John Hurt), who lives in an oppressive world where every aspect of society is controlled by the government, and where every action is watched by “Big Brother.” His daily job is literally to rewrite history by “correcting” past publications. While there is very little in the way of freedom in this society, he does manage to rebel in his own way by keeping a diary of his personal thoughts, but this is just the beginning. One day, he meets Julia (Susanna Hamilton), a like-minded woman, with whom he begins an affair, and soon he finds himself connected to a resistance movement through a party leader named O’Brien (Richard Burton). With Winston’s activities putting him and Julia at grave risk, and Big Brother having eyes all over the place, it seems only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs.
When it comes to Radford’s adaptation of Orwell’s book, there are some things that he gets really right, while other aspects could have used a little improvement. Starting with the positives, it must be said that he was brilliantly able to capture the oppressive setting of the dystopia that Smith is forced to live in, thanks in no small part to Allan Cameron’s BAFTA-nominated production design and the great Roger Deakins’ remarkable cinematography. As mentioned, this is a novel more so about the setting and the atmosphere created by it, and among the masses of drab extras, the decayed sets, the never-ending government announcements, and the ever-watching eyes of Big Brother all about, Radford and co. certainly nailed the aesthetics.
Where this version isn’t quite up to snuff is in the presentation of the narrative, which, as was also mentioned before, is not particularly substantive, so it was always going to be one of the more difficult elements to capture from the novel. Understandably, Radford wants to spend a while immersing you in this dystopia so that you get the feeling of what it’s like to live in this world, which consequently does lead to the problem of the narrative taking a while to get off the ground. However, even when the story proper does get underway, it still has the curious feeling of being stretched to a certain degree over the remaining runtime, which in turn leads to pacing issues. Strangely enough, the classic 1954 low-budget BBC version (which runs about the same length) didn’t really have any problems in this area, making it a little surprising that a film with more money to spend would have issues with presenting the story in a compelling manner.
Overall, Michael Radford’s adaptation is something of a mixed bag. He certainly gets the look and feel of this dystopian setting right, doing a fine job of immersing the viewer in this oppressive and bleak world, but when it came to telling the story of its central figure, Winston Smith, it just doesn’t quite get to where it needs to be in order to turn it into a gripping tale of this man’s personal rebellion. The cast, especially Sir John Hurt and Richard Burton, are definitely up to the task, but as far as Radford’s screenplay goes, it needed a few more tweaks so as not to drown out the narrative. It was a good attempt, but ultimately it’s best to just stick with the original 1954 version instead.
“1984” comes to Criterion Blu-ray in a stunning 1.85:1, 4K restoration of excellent quality. Supervised by cinematographer Roger Deakins himself, the film looks absolutely incredible, which is especially surprising given how drab the dystopian setting is. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is a little soft in spots, so you may need to turn up the volume a little higher than usual, but for the most part, the dialogue and score (of which you have a choice of one by Eurythmics or one by composer Dominic Muldowney) are suitably presented. Overall, Criterion has done a wonderful job with Radford’s film, making it look almost new again.
Michael Radford (22 Minutes): A fascinating 2019 interview with the director in which he discusses how the project came to be and its making.
Roger Deakins (20 Minutes): A wonderful 2019 interview with the master cinematographer in which he also reminisces about making the film.
Behind the Scenes (5 Minutes): A brief vintage behind the scenes featurette featuring interviews with Sir John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, and Michael Radford.
From Page to Screen: George Orwell’s 1984 (22 Minutes): An excellent 2019 interview with author David Ryan (“George Orwell on Screen”) in which he discusses the adaptation of the novel.
Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” is admirable in that it perfectly captures the look and feel of the novel’s oppressive dystopian setting, thanks mainly to its outstanding production design and cinematography, but unfortunately it’s less successful when it comes to presenting the narrative of its rebellious central figure. Anyone would certainly have their work cut out for them when trying to adapt such an atmospheric novel due to its somewhat limited plotline, but ultimately it would appear that Radford just wasn’t quite up to the task.
Available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.