‘1984’ and Our Dystopian Present

George Orwell inadvertently predicted the world c.2017 in his acclaimed novel.
By  · Published on January 30th, 2017

The iconic George Orwell novel 1984 is having a bit of resurgence as of late. Just take a look around the internet. Almost everyone is talking about how it compares to our current political landscape. There are plenty of parallels between Big Brother in 1984 and President Donald Trump in 2017. In the theatrical version of 1984, the late John Hurt was our guide through the dystopian world of alternative facts, I mean, doublespeak. The world was viewed through the eyes of Hurt in one of his most memorable roles and imagined a future much like our own.

When George Orwell wrote 1984 in the year 1948, he wasn’t really imagining the future, but instead envisioned an alternate take of world affairs. It was right after World War II and Europe, suffering from a prolonged conflict, had plenty of poverty and hunger. The world around Orwell certainly seemed bleak, so developing a story based on totalitarianism was probably a natural idea. Orwell’s greatest fear was that the ideas radicalized from such diabolical leaders such as Stalin and Hitler could possibly take hold. If the world adapted this hive-mind thinking and tyranny ruled, it could certainly lead to countless fatalities and the loss of free thought.

Director Michael Radford had to condense 1984 into a concise two-hour movie, which is no small feat. The novel has numerous terms and ideas that are pivotal to its adaptation and Radford manages to use many of them. What makes this one of the best adaptions of 1984 is the cast and in particular, John Hurt. Hurt plays Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, who lives day-by-day under the surveillance of Big Brother. He makes his living by working for the government newspaper; scratching out old headlines, burning photos of newly made “unpersons”, and helping the government contort the news as they see fit. He also attends massive rallies that are used to praise Big Brother, as well as, showcase the continued need for Big Brother’s overwhelming power. Constant reassurances that an endless war is going well, wins over the crowd based upon fear and uncertainty.

Winston quickly finds himself in dangerous territory. After receiving a letter with only the words, “I Love You”, he begins a joyous affair with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) that defies the wishes of Big Brother. Love affairs inspire collective thought and “thoughtcrime” against the government. Winston finally feels as though he has someone in Julia, that he can count upon in this desolate world. Even a government worker (Richard Burton) in the “inner circle”, provides him a book that challenges the words spoken by Big Brother. Unfortunately, when everything seems to good to be true, life has a way of bringing balance.

Radford took the material Orwell gave him and created his own world. It isn’t really “the future”, as depicted by other science-fiction stories such as Blade Runner or Gattaca, as it actually contains many common objects found during the mid-80s. The most obvious future devices are the countless screens featuring the image of Big Brother, something that feels incredible feasible today. Just walk into a local cafe or bar with the news on and our “fearless leader” will likely be on it. Whether it is pundits scorching his ideals or others praising his vile deeds, our leader is constantly on screens; Twitter, Facebook, and television. Just like the citizens of 1984, there is little escape from Big Brother except in the confines of a book. It is very easy to imagine a reality similar to the one Radford created.

Orwell created his own lexicon for 1984. Words such as “doublespeak”, “thoughtcrime”, “newspeak”, and “malreported” are some of the terms the government uses to hold sway over their people. Even a simple math problem such as 2+2=5 is used as a construct that the people of the nation are told to believe even if it may not be true. Old, unimportant words are often discarded from the common dictionary in favor of these party approved words and terms. One of the big reasons 1984 is enjoying a resurgence is the way Trump and his cabinet have come up with their own “correct” words. Kellyanne Conway notoriously coined the term “alternative facts” when discussing the size of the president’s inauguration. Much has been reported on Trump’s usage of words and how his short phrases and speeches that are targeted at just about 6th grade reading level to manipulate audiences. In fact, Vanity Fair published a lengthy editorial at his mastery of phrases for our attention deficit society.

Many of the techniques Trump uses in his speeches are timeworn propaganda maneuvers, used by demagogues across the centuries: appealing to voters’ emotions, rather than their intellects; constantly repeating a handful of simplistic ideas in easy-to-remember phrases (“Make America Great Again,” “America First”); using us-versus-them formulations and coded (or not-so-coded) language about minorities and immigrants that play to audiences’ resentments and fears; relentlessly assailing “enemies” with memorable epithets (“Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted”).

Next time you use phrases or words coined by Trump and company, remember these are the words of his reign, controlling the way we think and converse with one another.

Even though 1984 may not prove there is light at the end of suffering, its greatest gift is knowledge. Knowledge that even with insurmountable odds, there are still individuals that will not conform to the wishes of the party. Books and media in general do contain the power to inform and learn from our mistakes. Even if the government chooses to ignore certain facts about our history, knowledge remains the greatest tools for surviving a government that breeds on fear and hate. It’s not that much of a coincidence that 1984 is a best seller once again after all. John Hurt, Michael Radford, and George Orwell have provided what is needed – a guide for our dystopian present.

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