Timeliness or Obviousness, Or Do We Need Another ‘1984’ Movie Now?

By  · Published on November 20th, 2014

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Unless you’re a superhero movie with a release date set way in advance, it’s not easy these days to know when your movie will wind up produced let alone released. A good example is Selma, which despite being about one of history’s greatest real-life superheroes, Martin Luther King Jr., had initially been slated to shoot back in the Spring of 2010. Four years later it finally went in front of cameras, by this time with a new director and distributor attached, as well as an additional producer by the name of Oprah Winfrey. It opens this Christmas, a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the landmark events it depicts, the protest marches in support of voting rights in Alabama, and of course it now seems as perfectly timed as can be.

Not just because of the anniversary, either. There are plenty factors that make a movie like Selma relevant today. Many mentioned this summer’s Ferguson protests when the first trailer arrived, and then the cast also acknowledged the connection on the red carpet of its AFI Fest debut this month. Film critic James Rocchi also tweeted this week that “if you don’t think Selma is about 2014 as much as 1965” you should read the comments on a Breitbart.com article about the movie’s premiere. And with this a significant election year, the issue of voter disenfranchisement has continued to be a big deal. Then again, the latter two things could have provided timeliness in any of the past six years that Selma had been in development.

There’s a thin line between what Selma gets right about timing and what a new adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” could get wrong. The latter, which has actually similarly been in development for years on a low burner, suddenly gained heat this week with news that Paul Greengrass will direct the movie for Sony from a script by James Graham (X + Y). And it’s hard to find a report on this updated status without comment about the movie’s significance in these times when government surveillance is so topical. That makes me wonder if a new 1984 is even necessary. If something is so obvious that it has everyone making the connection to why it’s being done, should it be done? Isn’t the comment about the significance before it exists already trumping its eventual significance?

Where the line is between these two projects is hard to determine. The importance of a movie like Selma now, to get people discussing where racism and discrimination stands half a century later, should be as obvious as the thematic link between George Orwell’s novel and the recent NSA leaks by Edward Snowden (whose story is in the pop culture air lately thanks to the documentary Citizenfour and Oliver Stone’s announced biopic). Yet a couple years ago, when plans for a 1984 remake were first announced, there wasn’t a ton of talk of how it made sense in the age of the Patriot Act and Wikileaks revelations and other NSA whistleblowers, etc., probably because the idea was diluting into a level of acceptance not unlike that of modern racism. On a pop culture level, it was more fitting then to consider it an effect of The Hunger Games’s success.

Dystopian YA fiction like The Hunger Games and Divergent appears to be in vogue because of the atmosphere of the world right now, so it does all seem to be connected anyway. When it’s a new work that reflects on the times, that’s possibly intentional but not necessarily obvious even if the pertinence is plain as day. When it’s a historical event that’s being turned into a new work and there’s some modern relevance, that too feels less obvious, whether the relevance is the blatant impetus or not (and definitely if the relevance is accidental, a la Ferguson/Selma). But when an older work is redone and there’s really clear compatibility to present concerns, doesn’t that look obvious in a way that’s almost like it’s cashing in on the current events and climate? That isn’t to say all remakes are so opportunistically suspect. It’s fine for a new RoboCop to come out and seem tied to the topic of drones or Invasion of the Body Snatchers redone for post-Watergate paranoia. A bad example, on the other hand, is the 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still and its obvious and cheesy global warming relevance.

What’s interesting about Greengrass being the one hired for 1984 is that he’s often a very recent-events kind of filmmaker. After his period-set breakout (Bloody Sunday), his directorial efforts include 2006’s United 93, about events of 2001, 2010’s Green Zone, about events of 2003, and 2013’s Captain Phillips, about events of 2009. Early films Resurrected, Open Fire, The One That Got Away and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence also deal with what were at the time fairly recent true stories. Then there are his two (soon to be three) Bourne sequels, which are fiction spy thrillers that are viewed as being reflective of the questioning of intelligence organizations post-9/11. He mostly makes movies set in the present or close to the present and tied to topical or recently topical matters.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a sci-fi novel set in “the future,” except for the fact that the year of the title and setting are the past. What I imagine – or what I hope – Greengrass would do rather than make a dystopian future movie about government surveillance and compromised freedoms and then everyone just again points out the parallels between the fiction and reality, is make a movie set in the present or close to the present that applies Orwell’s text (and Graham’s adapted text if he hasn’t done this already), to a world that doesn’t look like that of a dystopian future movie. Should it be set in some alternate-dimension version of 1984? No, that would be silly; the title is still just going to be a kind of branding. It should be set in this dimension 21st century, maybe very near future at the very least but so close that the tech and backdrop are familiar to us today.

Now that too would be especially obvious in what it’s doing, but the cleverness of the concept makes it easier to digest. I guess it’s that that just doesn’t sound like something a studio executive ordered because it seemed like an obviously good idea to capitalize on the zeitgeist of real world concerns that already evoke the iconic concept of “Big Brother” while exploiting a familiar brand in Orwell’s novel. Instead it sounds like a creative person looking to update a classic work in a way that makes it feel fresh and interesting and relevant to a modern audience. Again, it’s a thin line there and probably confusing as to why most possibilities for a new 1984 would feel totally unnecessary yet this would be acceptable.

Greengrass – who is attached to another Bourne movie and, as it happens, his own MLK movie, Memphis, before this, making its eventual true timeliness unknown – is one of the very few filmmakers who could make this a project to be curious about, at the very least, if not also to trust blindly. We can be sure that his motivations won’t be fueled by the simplistic obviousness behind a new 1984 movie. This still isn’t a necessary remake – the 1984 adaptation is perfectly fine and can be enjoyed for its relevance to our world 30 years later (plus few movies are actually outright necessary) – but it’s one that won’t be gratuitously unwanted.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.