1984-letter words: Ripple effects in music, videogames, books and films - Hindustan Times
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1984-letter words: Ripple effects in music, videogames, books and films

Apr 05, 2024 06:19 PM IST

Artists have found creative ways, over 75 years, to bring Oceania and its dystopia into their works. Reimaginings have included parodies and spoofs too.

In 2024, Big Brother is watching, listening, reading DMs, tracking link clicks. He is a pair of eyes that never turns away, but is usually hidden from view.

Muse performs songs from their 1984-inspired album The Resistance (2009), in Birmingham. PREMIUM
Muse performs songs from their 1984-inspired album The Resistance (2009), in Birmingham.

Our world may look different from the bureaucratic dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949), but the book’s key themes — totalitarianism, mass surveillance, the manipulation of truth —remain sadly universal.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time in the 1980s (ironically) and ’90s when the transparency and interconnectedness made possible by new technology sparked such exuberance that many retellings took the form of comedy and spoof, as even BBC poked fun at the idea of a technology-led dictatorship. (More on those works in a bit.)

In the 75 years since 1984 was first published, things have come full circle, but let’s start with the earliest reinterpretations: a Big Brother-esque film, unauthorised sequels, parodies and subversive retellings, novels, anime and videogames.

Things got off to a rocky start. Michael Anderson’s 1956 film adaptation, steered by the CIA-linked American Committee for Cultural Freedom, was widely derided as Cold War propaganda. As a result, Sonia Orwell, sole heir to her husband’s estate and legacy, shied away, allowing barely any adaptations through the rest of her life.

After she died, literary agency AM Heath took over, and have been a bit more liberal. But between the author’s death in 1950 and his wife’s in 1980, artists had to find more creative ways to bring Oceania into their work.

The cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs.
The cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs.

Musicians, unburdened by the need for fidelity to text and plot, led the way. In 1973, fresh off the success of his tour as Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie proposed a rock-and-roll musical adaptation. When Sonia Orwell refused to sign off on it, he imagined an apocalyptic world of his own. His 1974 album Diamond Dogs reimagines Orwell’s authoritarian state through the narcotic, postmodern lens of William S Burroughs’s Nova Express — as a global ghetto full of junkies overseen by thought-manipulating surgeon thugs. References to the novel abound, including songs titled 1984 and Big Brother, but this is Oceania as England, c. 1970, awash in drugs, disaffection and proto-punk nihilism.

Other musicians would take the baton from Bowie, borrowing tropes from the novel to address their experiences of authoritarianism. In 1983, English anarcho-punk band Subhumans released the album The Day the Country Died, a searing indictment of Thatcherite Britain (Margaret Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990) and the Cold War. Songs such as Big Brother and Subvert City (Ten years later they emerged \ Mutated minds so full of hate \ Tried again to change the system \ But this time round it was too late) conscript Orwell’s ideas into a doom-saying prophecy of mind-control and nuclear holocaust.

Other records in this vein include Queensryche’s 1988 rock opera Operation: Mindcrime and Muse’s 2009 album The Resistance.

The iconic Radiohead track 2 + 2 = 5, released in 2003, takes its title from a phrase in the book about the difference between objective truth and the “consensus” reality constructed by the Party. (It’s the devil’s way now / There is no way out / You can scream and you can shout / It is too late now / Because you have not been / Payin’ attention…)

Unreal realms

Anthony Burgess’s 1978 book 1985 was the first of many unofficial or “spiritual” sequels. It consists of a series of essays and interviews on the original work, followed by a dystopian novella set in 1985 Britain.

After Sonia Orwell’s death, with the novel’s titular year approaching, the floodgates opened. In 1983, Hungarian author György Dalos published 1985, a spiritual sequel that begins with Big Brother’s death and hints at a more optimistic future.

Books inspired by Orwell’s classic include Anthony Burgess’s 1985 (published in 1978); Hungarian author György Dalos’s 1985 (published in 1983), a spiritual sequel that begins with Big Brother’s death, and hints at a more optimistic future; and Sandra Newman’s Julia (2023), which retells the tale from the perspective of Winston Smith’s lover.
Books inspired by Orwell’s classic include Anthony Burgess’s 1985 (published in 1978); Hungarian author György Dalos’s 1985 (published in 1983), a spiritual sequel that begins with Big Brother’s death, and hints at a more optimistic future; and Sandra Newman’s Julia (2023), which retells the tale from the perspective of Winston Smith’s lover.

There was absurdist humour and satire, such as in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian black comedy Brazil (1985), a film about a low-level government employee who stumbles into rebellion after falling in love. Gilliam has said that he was trying to make “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”. In similar vein, the BBC radio series Nineteen Ninety-Four and Nineteen Ninety-Eight, aired in 1985 and ’87, were sitcoms that parodied Orwell’s nightmare vision of authoritarianism. The cast included Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Mike Myers.

In some exuberant reimaginings from this period, technology was hailed as the hero.

On January 1, 1984, South Korean artist Nam June Paik broadcast Good Morning, Mr Orwell live on public television from studios in New York and Paris. The broadcast, which he called “satellite art”, was a rebuttal to Orwell’s cynicism about television, and a celebration of the ways in which the technology was connecting the world.

In Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest (1994), Peter Huber used his personal computer to rewrite the novel from the perspective of the computer (or “telescreen”), alternating between fictional retelling and non-fictional polemic. In Huber’s imagined world, the telescreen, and the connectivity it allowed, pave the way for a proletarian revolution in Oceania.

That sense of techno-utopianism has not aged well.

In a time when the internet, social-media algorithms and artificial intelligence are viewed more as Frankenstein’s monsters than proof of humanity’s genius, the story has come full circle.

1984 has inspired sci-fi / cyberpunk anime series such as Code Geass (2006; a totalitarian Britannia conquers Japan and uses robotic weapons called Knightmares to keep the populace in check) and Psycho-Pass (2012; set in a dystopian 22nd-century Japan in which a computer network called the Sibyl System governs the country).

Orwell’s novel is referenced heavily in the post-apocalyptic videogames Half-Life 2 and Fallout 3. It inspired a successful indie video-game series called Orwell, developed by Osmotic Studios, in which the player monitors surveillance sources to look for national security threats.

A still from the indie videogame Orwell, developed by Osmotic Studios. Players must monitor surveillance sources and look for threats to national security.
A still from the indie videogame Orwell, developed by Osmotic Studios. Players must monitor surveillance sources and look for threats to national security.

In an interesting and somewhat hopeful contemporary take authorised by the Orwell estate, Sandra Newman’s Julia (2023) retells the classic from the perspective of Winston Smith’s lover. Part tribute, part feminist critique, it gives Julia (who is given no last name in the original) the agency denied to her, and explores how the experience of totalitarianism and surveillance is subjectively different for women. It remains faithful to the bleak world that Orwell created. But seen through Julia’s livelier, ironic and more resilient eyes, it is a tiny bit brighter, with a little light already leaking into the totalitarian darkness.

“We are the dead,” Smith says, echoing a line in the original. “We’re not dead yet,” she counters.

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