1984 is a beautiful and thought-provoking film that asks necessary questions about the role that government plays in people’s personal lives. Based on the 1949 book by George Orwell, the film was directed by Michael Radford and stars John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton, and Cyril Cusack.
The screening that took place Tuesday night was free to all University of Michigan students, but there were also tickets available for non-students, and the crowd was made up of a surprisingly wide array of people. There were college students and adults of all ages, couples and family groups, and altogether the theater was filled almost completely, which made the experience particularly exciting.
The event was put on by U of M’s Film & Video Student Association. Before the screening, they explained that they were going to have an introductory clip of Radford speaking a little about the film, and that after the film they would show a segment of an interview done with Radford. Due to a mislabeling of the tapes, they ended up showing a clip of the interview first instead, which was actually really interesting to see.
Radford talked a lot about how quickly the film had been put together – apparently he decided to make it at the end of 1983, since he realized it was almost 1984 and it would be great for a film adaptation of the book to be released then, and it was released in September of 1984. He also talked about the film’s terrific leading cast: Burton, who had a reputation for alcoholism at the time but who didn’t touch a drink during the making of the film; Hamilton, who stood out among hundreds of women who auditioned for the role of Julia; and Hurt, whom Radford actually approached first and told him that if he wouldn’t take the role of Winston Smith, then Radford wouldn’t make the movie. According to Radford, Hurt responded by saying, “Well, I’m not going to stop you from making this movie.”
It’s a good thing Hurt was on board, because the movie was terrific. I had never seen it before this screening, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to remember enough from the book for it to make sense, but the reality of the film was perfectly clear to anyone who had or hadn’t read the book beforehand. 1984 tells the story of Winston Smith, who lives in a dystopian country called Oceania, which is forever at war with one of two other countries (Eurasia and Eastasia). Under the political regime of the powerful Inner Party, citizens are controlled in every aspect by the government, and are expected to obey the government wholeheartedly and without question. The extent of censorship is so great that even “thoughtcrime” is severely punishable, which comes into play for Winston when he falls in love with a girl named Julia, even though the only love he is supposed to truly feel is his love for the party.
1984 is not a happy story by any means, and the story in the film was told in a way that was beautiful, terrifying, and devastating. Hurt in particular was amazing to watch because he so fully captured the last vestige of humanity that Winston clings to in spite of the government – the love in his heart, the “spirit of man” – which made it shattering to see the twisted ways in which the government worked to undermine his identity, to the point where even he himself came to question it. These are themes that resonated with audiences years before 1984, and they continue to resonate with us now. Although the film was made many years ago, this is a story that we should never stop telling.