Movie: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

I was a weird kid. 

I don’t know why my elementary school had a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 in its library but, when I first saw it there, I knew I had to read this enigmatic paperback.  Not sure why such a book was expected to appeal to kids in the first through fifth grades, but it got my attention when I was in the fourth grade.  Can’t say I understood all of it at the time, but I read every word.

Not long after that, I fell in love with Terry Gilliam’s dystopian nightmare Brazil, not knowing the working title had been (appropriately) 1984 ½.

So I have a pretty long history with this work.  I even have a soft spot for 1984’s movie of 1984, though I am disappointed every time I see it.

It has only been in the past year that I have discovered the first adaptation of the book was done for BBC television back in 1954.  And it stars Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance and Andre Morell.  Oh, it is on.

Like most British TV of that era, everything was filmed live.  If you were lucky, there would be filmed inserts.  The benefit of those at the time is these gave the technical crew time to move cameras and change sets, and gave the actors time to prepare for the next scene.  There is a different benefit today, as those film sequences look great on blu-ray while the live portions were captured for posterity via a kinetoscope, which is a film camera pointed at a monitor.  Yep, it’s a good of a technology as it sounds like it would be.

The original broadcast caused a firestorm of controversy in its time and I can see why.  In fact, once one sets aside the artificiality of the often crude sets, it still packs a wallop today.  Actually, those crude sets make 1984 a work most likely to be successfully adapted on what was doubtlessly a very low budget.

Something about this TV version of 1984 feels truer to the source material than the later film.  The script was penned by Nigel Kneale, a highly regarded scribe of such other monumental BBC works as the Quatermass series.  As expected, his script fully channels the bleak despair of Orwell’s text. 

As for the cast, everybody is in top-form here, and that is even more considerable when one takes into account all of this was done live.  Cushing especially turns in one of the best performances of a career that has so many highlights.  His Wilson Smith is in nearly every scene, and his transformation in the torture scenes are somewhat difficult to watch.

If there is one thing I was I could say about 1984 in any form is I wish it would become less relevant over time.  Unfortunately, we live in a age where only recently a president forbade the Center for Disease Control from using certain words, that then made it nearly impossible to discuss a pandemic.  And, at one time, we would have laughed at the idea of a machine that automatically writes pornographic books, and yet we have artificial intelligence programs producing images from movies that never existed.

All I feel I can do is encourage people to remain critical, and keep reading works like 1984 and think about how it might reflect the world of today.  Failing that, at least you could watch this stellar BBC adaptation, which hasn’t lost its punch nearly 70 years later.

Dir: Rudolph Cartier

Starring Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, Yvonne Mitchell, Donald Pleasance

Watched on BFI blu-ray (Region B)