I am not someone who thinks that any film adaptation of a book is superior to its source material, but I am also not someone who vilifies the practice. I do think there are some truly extraordinary cinematic adaptation of great books (such as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, which border on being one of the greatest cinematic achievements) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, one of the wackiest and most delightful books by perhaps the greatest living writer, directed by the best director of his generation. However, one film I was absolutely dying to see is the adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book I consider to be one of the greatest pieces of literature ever produced.
As I am sure everyone is aware of, Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a dystopian “future” (I use that word carefully, because the year 1984 was quite a while ago, but it is still certainly a futuristic film), and centers on Winston Smith, a simple individual who works for the Ministry of Truth, under the watch of the deity-like Big Brother. Winston is a man who refuses to blindly follow the rules of the malicious and dominating ruling party, and he rebels, mainly through his torrid love affair with Julia, an equally rebellious woman. The story is one of incredible paranoia and political satire, and I am weary to actually discuss the plot of this film deeply, because I am currently working on a critical essay on the book, and feel like there is too much to discuss about the story, I would lose track on the fact that I am reviewing a film. Nevertheless, it is one of the most brilliant and terrifying books I have ever read, and one that I felt needed a great adaptation.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a difficult book to adapt – it is so complex in nature, it is impossible to display the extreme paranoia and dystopian nature of the story. However, it is important to note that it is a complicated book, and while I will admit that I didn’t envision the story as being similar to how director Michael Radford did, it did show a different interpretation of the book, and that isn’t a negative aspect of this film – in fact, I thought it was incredibly interesting, because through Radford’s interpretation, I spotted some things I didn’t when reading the book, and while I think Orwell was a brilliant writer, I do think he did explain a few things in a less-than-ideal manner, and Radford’s film simplified and clarified a few issues, particularly those visual in nature. As I mentioned before, it is important to not absolutely despise any adaptation of a book, particularly those of more complex and important works – the interpretations of those adapting it may not match your own, but it certainly does serve to be another interesting view of the source material, which I have found actually makes me look at the original work in a slightly different way.
Visually, I wasn’t as impressed with Nineteen Eighty-Four as I was expecting, but it let me down in a way. However, I was very impressed with the performances, and the cast played the characters in almost the exact same way I envisioned them. However, not only did they give faithful performances, they also were really good in their own right. John Hurt is such an underrated actor, and I have never understood why he hasn’t reached the same level of absolute adoration of some of his contemporaries. However, he does have many fans, which were all gained by his remarkable performances across some fantastic films. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Hurt plays Winston Smith, an unconventional hero, in the fact that he isn’t a hero at all, rather someone who simply rebels against the system. His performance is subtle, restrained and quietly powerful, and I think Hurt did a fantastic job. Suzanna Hamilton, who I had never seen prior to Nineteen Eighty-Four, plays Julia, and while she doesn’t do a great deal, she plays the role exactly how it should be played – interesting and sincere, and filled with passionate anger.
However, the best part of this film is Richard Burton, an acting legend who took on the role of O’Brien, the villainous and sadistic antagonist. Despite constantly making brief, wordless appearances throughout the first half, Burton only really gets anything to do in the final act (as it is in the book), and he gives one of the more sincerely terrifying performances of his career. His interactions with Winston, while he tortures him, are absolutely chilling, and elevate this film to another level. It is also sad to consider this was the last performance Burton ever gave, which is utterly heartbreaking. Burton was an acting icon, and his performance as O’Brien was a suitably interesting final performance for his illustrious career. The entire cast has splendid chemistry, with special note going to Cyril Cusack, who makes the best out of a tiny role as Mr. Charrington, one of the most fascinating and sadly underdeveloped characters in the story.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fantastic adaptation of a classic book. The score is wonderful (with contributions from Eurythmics) and the visuals are interesting, and contribute to the general feeling of uneasiness. Michael Radford is a filmmaker who doesn’t really remain known for his name, but he’s made some lovely, but underrated, films. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great film, and while I do think it didn’t live up to the brilliance of the novel (nothing can, honestly) it was brilliant in its own way, and I loved it, and thought it was a worthy adaptation.