Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Children of ‘1984’: Dystopia Down the Decades

JENNIFER SCHUESSLER, New York Times, JUNE 15, 2017 [original article contains additional links and illustrations]

Image from, with caption: A scene from "1984," at the Hudson Theater

The stage adaptation of “1984” opening on Thursday, June 22, may be George
Orwell’s Broadway debut. But his novel — and coinages like Big Brother, thought
police and double­-think — have never been far from the cultural stage. Here’s a
partial history of the prophetic year that somehow never passes into the past.

[Read about “1984” coming to Broadway.]

A Star Is Born

The novel, published in 1949, sold well, but it took the “telescreen,” as Orwell
might have put it, to inject its nightmare vision into the cultural bloodstream. A TV
adaptation aired in the United States in 1953, followed the next year by a BBC
version seen by seven million people, many of whom seemed to have the bejesus
scared out of them.

The show opened with the image of a mushroom cloud and a warning that it
was “unsuitable for children or those with weak nerves.” The next day, The Daily
Express reported a casualty under the front­-page headline “1984: Wife Dies as She
Watches.” The BBC was flooded with complaints, and the British Housewives’
League denounced it as “sadistic and horrible.”

It had the lasting effect of turning Orwell’s shadowy villain into a celebrity. “The
term Big Brother, which the day before yesterday meant nothing to 99 percent of the
population,” The Times of London reported, “has become a household phrase.”

A Propaganda Tool

While Orwell was a man of the left, the novel was seized on as a useful cultural
weapon against the Soviet Union. The Time-­Life publisher Henry Luce promoted it
in his magazines. And the Central Intelligence Agency, which had financed an
animated film version of Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” also took an interest in “1984.”

The agency helped fund the 1956 British film version, starring Edmond O’Brien,
Michael Redgrave and Jan Sterling, while the executive director of the American
Committee for Cultural Freedom — an affiliate of the C.I.A.­-backed Congress for
Cultural Freedom — worked behind the scenes to alter Orwell’s bleak ending. The
novel ends with Winston Smith’s total submission, but the British version of the film
shows him being gunned down after shouting “Down with Big Brother!” The Orwell
estate later withdrew the film from circulation.

Big Brother, Ourselves?

By the 1960s, Winston’s struggle was seen as against the dehumanization
inherent in modern society itself. In an influential afterword written in 1961 (and
still included in contemporary editions), the psychologist Erich Fromm called it a
warning that “unless the course of history changes, men all over the world will lose
their most human qualities, will become soulless automatons and will not even be
aware of it.”

Dystopian echoes of the novel appeared in Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork
Orange,” published in 1962, and the British television series “The Prisoner,” which
began airing in 1967, but the Orwell estate kept a lid on outré direct adaptations,
including a musical version by David Bowie.

Orwell’s widow and executor, Sonia, reportedly found the idea in poor taste and
blocked it, but Mr. Bowie did write several songs loosely inspired by the novel,
including “Big Brother” and “1984,” and in 1973 presented a television special with
the punning title “The 1980 Floor Show.”

Party Like It’s 1984

As 1984 itself approached, the news media ran numerous articles comparing
Orwell’s vision to reality. Shortly after the year arrived, the Soviet political journal
New Times issued its own propaganda strike, in an article charging that Orwell’s
vision had come true — “in the United States, under a ‘Big Brother’ named Ronald

During the Super Bowl, Apple aired its memorable (and much parodied) “1984”
commercial, directed by Ridley Scott. And a movie version of the novel, directed by
Michael Radford, was rushed into production.

In a recent video interview, Mr. Radford recalled filming the novel’s Two
Minutes Hate — a mass ritual denouncing the regime’s enemies — with hundreds of
extras. “Each time we did a take, three or four or sometimes 10 people would faint
and go hysterical,” he said.

Irony alert: The decommissioned Battersea Power Station in London, which
doubled as the facade of the grim Victory Mansions apartment complex in the
movie, is currently being transformed into a $17 billion development whose tenants
include the new British headquarters for Apple.

Surveillance Is Fun

Orwell’s vision of a world of total surveillance may have had its fullest, if most
ambiguous, realization in reality TV. “Big Brother” and its spinoffs survived a
copyright challenge in 2000 from the owner of the film rights to the novel, and has
survived to provide memorable moments, including in November 2016, when
contestants on “Big Brother Over the Top” emerged from sequestration to learn
Donald J. Trump had been elected president.

In the second-­time-­as-­farce department, the novel’s infamous torture chamber,
Room 101, where victims confront the thing they fear most, has lent its name to a
British comedy show in which celebrities discuss their pet peeves. Boris Johnson has
inveighed against, among other things, boiled eggs and “hysteria about passive

Enough Already?

With the “1984” boom has come something of a backlash. “The last few months
have been hard, no doubt, the news more distressing by the hour,” the novelist and
critic Siddhartha Deb wrote in The New York Times Book Review in February, “but
there is still something perversely groupthinkish in the fact that the impulse of
resistance has homed in on the same book.”

A version of this article appears in print on June 18, 2017, on Page AR7 of the New York edition with the headline: Dystopia Down

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