Hollywood’s proposed 1984 movie: what will be left of Orwell’s novel?

Could an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 survive a trip to Hollywood? Ryan looks at the best and worst case scenarios…

Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984, as we’ll refer to it here for search-based reasons). What more can we say about one of the most influential and widely read sci-fi novels yet written? A common set text in English lessons, and full of ideas and terms that have since seeped into our everyday language, it’s easy to forget just how brutal and urgent George Orwell’s novel is.

Already adapted several times since its publication 63 years ago, 1984, we learned last week, is going to Hollywood. Two production companies (LBI Entertainment and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment) are teaming up to bring a new version of Orwell’s dystopia to the big screen. A screenwriter is still being sought – and there’s no word yet as to who will direct it – but it’s said that Shepard Fairey, the artist behind those blue-and-red Barack Obama ‘Hope’ campaign posters that were almost inescapable four years ago, will be involved with the look of the film, and may be a producer.

The question is, what will be left of Orwell’s novel by the time Hollywood’s finished with it?

The worst case scenario

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1984 is many things – it’s a cautionary anti-totalitarian tract, and also a description of a personality utterly crushed by a political system that despises relationships or individual thought. Written in the aftermath off World War II, the future world of 1984 is a grey, oppressive place full of rubble, constant surveillance and the stench of boiled cabbage.

Director Michael Radford successfully translated Orwell’s vision of the future in his adaptation of 1984, released, funnily enough, in 1984. Making clever use of derelict buildings (including Beckton Gasworks), it made no attempt to update the descriptions in the book, and the result was a movie that managed to retain the bleak, post-war atmosphere of its source – something that previous adaptations, such as the 1954 TV version, or the 1956 movie, had failed to capture.

Although Radford’s adaptation wasn’t made under a Hollywood studio, its distributors were nervous about its downbeat ending. “When we’d finished,” Radford told us in a 2008 interview, “I remember Goldwyns – one of the potential distributors – came to us and asked us if we could change the ending and make it more happy.”

The 1956 version, starring Michael Redgrave, Edmond O’Brien and Donald Pleasence, was significantly different from Orwell’s novel, and concluded not with its protagonist tortured into apathy, but inciting the beginnings of a revolution.

Would a 1984 movie made within Hollywood even stand a chance of remaining faithful to the book? Tinseltown rarely has much of an appetite for movies with bleak conclusions – just look at the abysmal remake of the 1988 Dutch thriller, The Vanishing. The original’s ending was stark, horrifying and utterly perfect. The producers of Fox’s 1993 remake entirely missed the point of the film it had purchased, and shoved a nonsensically cheerful epilogue onto the end.

It’s difficult to believe that Orwell’s novel would be treated with the same lack of respect, but it’s similarly hard to imagine a Hollywood movie containing all the horrors that befell poor Winston in Room 101.

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Then there’s the title. Any 21st century version of 1984 will surely update its name – some internet dwellers have already suggested that it might end up being pushed forward in time to 2084, which is a year I associate more with classic arcade game Robotron than George Orwell. Presumably, the boiled cabbage and post-war rubble will be gone too, replaced by a vision of the future that is closer to our present.

The absolute worst case scenario, for this writer at least, is that 1984 will be pressed into the same kind of tentpole mould as I, Robot, the 2004 sci-fi action movie that served as an effects-laden vehicle for Will Smith’s bankable charisma, and bore little resemblance to Isaac Asimov’s 50s short story collection of the same title.

Now called 2084, its protagonist Winston Smith will be played by Tom Cruise, or some other flavour-of-the-month actor. Inspired by his love for party member Julia (Katie Holmes), he’ll fight his way out of Room 101, rescue Julia from the evil O’Brien (Kevin Bacon) and lead a rebellion against the oppression of Big Brother. Rob Cohen will direct, and Aerosmith will provide the music for the romantic finale, over which Winston sighs to Julia, “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I saved you and you saved me…”

The best case scenario

Let’s not be too hasty, though. Just because Orwell’s novel’s been picked up by a Hollywood production, that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily be bowdlerised. After all, what’s the point in taking the most familiar dystopia in literary history, and altering it to fit the blockbuster format? All you’d be left with is yet another sci-fi movie with echoes of Orwell’s novel – and there are dozens of those already, including In Time, Equilibrium, Blade Runner, Brazil, Gattaca, or most recently, The Hunger Games.

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If pitched as a medium-budget adaptation rather than an expensive, major one (with a budget of, say, $20-30 million), it’s just possible that a faithful adaptation of 1984 could make it through the studio system intact. After all, Richard Linklater managed to smuggle through an extremely close version of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, complete with bleak ending, and John Hillcoat remained true to the spirit of Cormac McCarthy’s devastating The Road.

There’s no shortage of great directors who would be perfect for a 1984 adaptation, either. Over on SFX’s website, someone mentioned Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director Tomas Alfredson, which is a stunning choice. A look at David Cronenberg’s underrated film Spider, which has a singularly oppressive, dystopian atmosphere, would suggest that he’d be a good fit, too.

As Michael Radford proved with his adaptation, a 1984 movie needn’t be full of expensive special effects, and the widespread admiration for the novel should ensure that, if the script’s well-written enough, some first-rate actors would form an orderly queue to play Winston, Julia and O’Brien – something the production will desperately need to get the requisite financing.

Certain aspects of the novel may not make the transition from page to screen – the year it’s set may have to change, unless it’s set in an alternate-universe 1984 – but its core remains as relevant as ever.

1984 is about a society dominated by an all-powerful state, in which privacy no longer exists, and television is used as a means of control. War is perpetual, citizens can be convicted and brutally punished for thoughtcrimes, and torture is used as a matter of course.

If a new movie of 1984 can retain those elements, and retain the anger and urgency of Orwell’s writing, it could stand as a timely reminder of how truly brilliant the source novel was, and maybe stand as a great work of art on its own.

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