Tim Cogshell’s DIY Film Fest: Revisiting Orwell’s 1984

by Tim Cogshell | Off-Ramp

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A scene from BBC’s 1954 film adaptation of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.BBC

Tim Cogshell, film critic for KPCC’s FilmWeek and Alt Film Guide, and who blogs at CinemaInMind, has another film festival you can put on in the comfort of your own home.

If you haven’t read or watched George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece “1984” in a while, here are the Cliffs Notes: A man named Winston Smith lives in a totalitarian state that used to be England. His job is to rewrite old newspaper articles to make them comply with party doctrine. There are concepts like – newspeak, thoughtcrime and the ministry of truth – minitrue for short. Winston – named for Churchill – is befriended, and then tortured, by a member of the party elite, called O’Brien.

Spoiler Alert: The book does not have a happy ending, unless you’re a fascist dictator – even then it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

There are two film and a handful of TV adaptations of  “1984.” In an era of Fake News, “alternative facts,” and “enemies of the people,” they’re all worth watching.

1. Studio One, 1953

Orwell wrote “1984” in 1948, it was published 1949 – and the first TV production was in 1953 by Westinghouse Studio One – the TV drama series that originated the courtroom drama – “12 Angry Men.”

 Photo of Norma Crane and Eddie Albert on the set of the CBS anthology television series Studio One. This was a presentation of George Orwell's 1984. The show's set designer is at left and the show's director is at right of the photo. (CBS Television)
Photo of Norma Crane and Eddie Albert on the set of the CBS anthology television series Studio One. This was a presentation of George Orwell’s 1984. The show’s set designer is at left and the show’s director is at right of the photo. (CBS Television)

 American actor Eddie Albert played Winston Smith; Canadian Lorne Greene, of “Bonanza” and Alpo fame, played O’Brien, Smith’s tormenter. Appearing just at the end of the Korean War – the production went little noticed.

2. BBC, 1954

The next year, the BBC produced a live televised play, with Hammer horror star and eventual Star Wars alum Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, in one of his earliest TV performances.

Not even a decade after the war, this broadcast was considered subversive – and it was, because it hewed closely to Orwell’s text. Nevertheless it was highly thought of at the time and today is considered among the top 100 BBC programs every broadcast.

3. First film adaptation, 1956

Edmund O'Brien and Jan Sterling in 1984. (Columbia Pictures 1956)
Edmund O’Brien and Jan Sterling in 1984. (Columbia Pictures 1956)COLUMBIA PICTURES

The third version of “1984” is the first feature film adaptation of Orwell’s novel. Produced in 1956, it stars Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith, and features Donald Pleasence, who was also in the live BBC version.

This adaptation was not well received then – Orwell’s widow didn’t like it – and it’s not highly thought of today because it took liberties with the text, including changing O’Brien to O’Connor. It was directed by Michael Anderson, who also directed “Logan’s Run,” another movie about a dystopian future – though one with sexier outfits.

Edmond O’Brien, who won an Oscar in “The Barefoot Contessa” and was the crazy old guy in “The Wild Bunch,” is all wrong as Winston Smith. Donald Pleasence, Dr. Sam Loomis in the Halloween movies, is still creepy.

4. BBC, 1965

Fourth in our DIY “1984” film festival is another BBC production, this one from 1965. It garnered little attention, and was long believed lost. Though it has been reconstructed, it’s still not very good. So let’s jump to the last and best filmed version of George Orwell’s novel – the second feature film version of “1984” released – quite deliberately – in 1984. Directed by Michael Radford, who was nominated as best director for Il Postino, in 1994 – this version of “1984” was scored – with some controversy – by the Eurythmics – and it was Richard Burton’s last film.

The score has not held up. Sir Richard’s performance has.

Radford’s version of “1984” is extremely faithful to the novel, and it’s the film that looks and sounds the most like the book did in my imagination. The late John Hurt is perfect as Winston Smith. Frail under the constant gaze of Big Brother. His defiance is our defiance. His torture is our torture. His capitulation is our capitulation.

It’s pointless to draw too many analogies between the themes of “1984” and the zeitgeist of any given day – including today but George Orwell’s novel – in all its incarnations – has always seemed relevant to me.