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The Children of ‘1984’: Dystopia Down the Decades

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.


A poster for the 1956 British film adaptation of Orwell’s novel.

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.”


David Bowie in “The 1980 Floor Show,” which appeared in 1973 on “The Midnight Special” on ABC

NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images

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 Reagan.”

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.


John Hurt as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s movie “1984.”

Park Circus

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.


A contestant in 2000 on the CBS reality show “Big Brother.”


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 smoking.”

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.”

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