The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

Adapting Nineteen Eighty-Four

Asami Nakamura

In A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon claims that “Adaptation is repetition, but repetition without replication” (7). If so, what does it mean to adapt George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)? According to Tom Moylan, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is a narrative of “anti-utopian pessimism” that “forecloses the possibility of any social transformation” (161-2). This is surely epitomised by the core image which the novel provides, that is, “a picture of the future” as “a boot stamping on a human face—forever” (NEF 280).1 Does adapting an anti-utopia further strengthen its myth of sheer closure, or does it create a kind of an anti-utopia with a difference? This article first aims to establish the theoretical position in adaptation studies while discussing Orwell’s novel itself as an appropriation of several precursory novels. The second part of the article then focuses on adaptations which illustrate this theoretical perspective, that is, two film adaptations (released in 1956 and in 1984 respectively) and the recent theatre adaptation (released in 2013), while also discussing Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985) as an appropriation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Through this analysis, this article explores the concept of adaptation as a critical device, which casts light on the nature of Nineteen Eighty-Four as an intertextual phenomenon.


Fidelity Criticism


There was a proposal to adapt Nineteen Eighty-Four quite soon after its publication; an American writer Sidney Sheldon asked for a permission to adapt the novel to a Broadway stage play, towards which Orwell’s attitude was quite positive (although the plan itself was unfulfilled). Yet Orwell admitted his concern about “deformation” of his novel: ““What I was afraid of was that the meaning of the book might be seriously deformed, more than is unavoidable in any stage adaptation of a novel” (“Letter to Leonard Moore, 22 August 1949”, 158). Here “the meaning of the book” implies that there exists a single point of reference which transcends all of signifiers in the novel. Orwell seemingly clarifies this point in his famous statement, claiming that the novel is a satiric warning against the possible threat of totalitarianism, and “not intended as an attack on socialism or on the British Labour Party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralised economy is liable, and which have already been partly realised in Communism and fascism” [emphasis in original] (“Orwell’s Statement”, 135). By declaring that his fiction is first and foremost a cautionary tale, Orwell attempts to limit the ever-shifting signifiers of the text to a certain direction, hoping to avoid any misunderstandings or more deliberate “deformation” of it by readers.


This anxiety on the side of the author consists of fidelity criticism; In Orwell’s remarks mentioned above, it is presupposed that the author is the ultimate holder of the meaning of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is the duty of an adapter not to challenge that authority, the position which inherently undermines the potential of adaptation to produce meanings other than the one intended. Besides the author, critics can also claim the “truth” of the text, in terms of textual properties such as themes or genre, and literary theory which one applies. Regarding two film adaptations by Michael Anderson in 1956 and by Michael Radford in 1984, previous criticisms have concentrated on fidelity discourse, criticising that they do not live up to the fundamental potential of Orwell’s work. Anderson’s 1956 film can be easily dismissed as a mere Cold War propaganda film which is devoid of the intricacy of the novel (Shaw 159; Sinyard 63). Meanwhile, Palmer and Gottlieb criticise Radford’s later film as a “museum piece” or merely commercial movie designed to exploit the year (Palmer 185; Gottlieb 91). Gottlieb goes so far as to argue that Nineteen Eighty-Four as a political satire is not suitable for film adaptation in the first place, since “the cinema—direct, essentially sensory rather than cerebral, offering us a sense of quick identification with the character and hence minimal chance for intellectual distance” is merely incompatible with “the genre of satire—a mode of literature that is indirect, more cerebral than sensory” (93). Here, it is surely ironic that here both the author and critics seem to be in the position of the “Thought Police” of the original text by insisting on the adapter’s responsibility to make his/her work as faithful as possible to the novel. As Christine Geraghty states, on the other hand, fidelity criticism has now become almost outmoded in adaptation studies:

The fidelity model, which relies heavily on notions of media specificity and which almost inevitably results in a comparison on terms dictated by the source text, has been under attack for many years in adaptation studies though it still persists as a default mode (94)

Re-evaluating adaptations beyond the confinement of the “fidelity model” and their derivative status it implies, is indispensable for adaptation studies to establish itself as a distinct field of research.

Adaptation and intertextuality: are all texts adaptations?


However, simply celebrating the value of adaptations against the source texts entails its own problem; namely it assumes that the adapted text and its adaptation are two separate entities. While Linda Hutcheon points out that “to deal with adaptations as adaptations is to think of them as […] inherently ‘palimpsestuous’ works, haunted at all times by their adapted texts”, it should be noted that adapted texts are likewise not independent of other texts in general [emphasis in original] (6). In fact, all texts are intertexts in the sense that their meaning is overdetermined by various kinds of cultural and social discourses. Julia Kristeva claims that “[a]ny text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double” (Desire in Language 66), so that intertextuality should not be “understood in the banal sense of ‘study of sources” (The Kristeva Reader 111); Leon S. Roudiez explains this by noting that intertextuality “has nothing to do with matters of influence by one writer upon another, or with the sources of a literary work” (Desire in Language 15). A text is “a mosaic of quotations”, in which each quotation obtains a meaning not in itself, but in relation to another (thus it is “read as at least double”). In this sense, an adaptation is an exemplary instance which foregrounds this relative, double nature of textuality and its generation of meanings by making an explicit reference to the adapted text. Yet the adapted text is also nonetheless intertextual, only that its connections to other texts are not credited. Although the notion of intertextuality does not necessarily nullify the categorical distinction between the adapted text and its adaptation (because an adaptation more or less preserves its connection to the anterior text explicit, the element which requires a distinction from other texts), an adapted text can also be regarded as an adaptation/appropriation of prior texts.


This fluid and reflective relationship between these two categories is recognised by the fact that Orwell’s novel can itself be considered as an appropriation (if not adaptation) of several pre-existing texts.2 In his article entitled “Orwell’s 1984: Rewriting the Future”, Michael Wilding draws a parallel between Winston’s job and Orwell’s writing:

Winston’s occupation is rewriting news items to accord with changes in the society’s political requirements. […] Orwell’s procedure in 1984 is a calculated, conscious rewriting of the political futures predicted in earlier utopian and anti-utopian novels (38)

He then goes on to trace the novel’s thematic relationship with “major” works such as Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), H. G. Wells’s When The Sleeper Wakes (1899), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon (1940) (39).3 James Burnham’s theoretical work, The Managerial Revolution (1941), is also regarded as a critical text in terms of the similarity in political discourse. Besides, while the works mentioned above are within the category of the novel, adaptation/appropriation can occur between two different media; for instance, Charles Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator (1940) should also be included in the list, considering its thematic and stylistic commonalities and the fact that Orwell himself praised it in a film column.4 An author can also appropriate him/herself; with the help of OCR scanning of all of Orwell’s texts, Peter Huber proves that Orwell frequently self-plagiarised his own previous writings for the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.5 As an updated news article (which Winston painstakingly rewrites) would replace the previous one without giving any credits, Nineteen Eighty-Four presents itself as a definitive account of the coming future, with its intertextual relationship with precursory texts submerged under the novel’s disguise as one author’s work of fiction, a separate, single product. Yet the notion of intertextuality disrupts the apparent dichotomy of the “source” text and its adaptation, rendering the derivative status of the latter inadequate. The distinction between adaptation and appropriation should also be assessed in this context; if adaptation is a readerly experience in that it declares itself as an adaptation (the adapter is presenting him/herself as a reader in the first place), it could be said that appropriation is more writerly, in that the author rewrites pre-existing materials: materials without providing credits.


Given this relative nature of these concepts, it seems almost impossible to specifically locate the field of adaptation studies and determine its core property.6 Therefore, rather than attempting to limit the potential of the concept by defining it too strictly, we should focus on the various problematics it entails. For instance, adaptation studies can not only challenge the supposed authority of the source text, but can also subvert the distinction between a work of fiction and other modes of texts such as a critical commentary, interrogates disciplinary boundaries (such as literature and film studies), and accommodates rigorous discussion on growing new forms of media. Every author is always/already a reader, and an adaptation foregrounds this double position in regards to the production of the text. Adaptation studies is in this sense highly self-reflective. With this in mind, we are now able to consider specific questions of interpretation that adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four present.


Adaptations/appropriations of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four was first screened on TV in the US by National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1953, and in December 1954, the BBC in turn broadcast its own adaptation (Rodden 274; Shaw 153-6). The first film adaptation was made by Michael Anderson (screenplay by Ralph Bettinson and William P. Templeton) in 1956, and the second by Michael Radford (director/screenwriter) in 1984. Stage adaptations have recently been made, the first by Matthew Dunster (2010) and the second by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan (2013).7 Other adaptations such as radio dramas (in 1950 and 2013 by BBC) and the soundtrack to Radford’s adaptation by Eurythmics testify to the strong inter-media potential of adapting Nineteen Eighty-Four (Rodden 273, 286). While there are numerous films and novels which more or less appropriate Nineteen Eighty-Four, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (Screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Charles Alverson, Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard, released in 1985) is arguably the most notable example of appropriation. Here, it is also worthwhile to mention Anthony Burgess’s 1985 (1978) and Peter Huber’s Orwell’s Revenge: The “1984” Palimpsest (1995), which reworked Orwell’s dystopia from their perspectives.


Theoretically speaking, the fact that Orwell’s novel has been adapted to various kinds of media implies the possibility that an adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four is not that of the novel, but could be of a pre-existing adaptation of it (for instance, Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation can be an adaptation of Michael Anderson’s 1956 adaptation as well). Although the adaptor’s explicit credit to the novel appears to be a proof that the adaptation is only that of the novel, its status will inevitably stay unstable since the audience’s response is also an essential part of it as an adaptation; it is theoretically possible to keep arguing over which text this or that adaptation adapted, or whether both texts were adapted. This is one of the reasons why defining the concept of adaptation remains a contentious issue.


Two Film Adaptations


After the opening credit declaring that it is “Freely adapted from the Novel 1984 by George Orwell”, Michael Anderson’s 1956 film adaptation starts with another opening credit: “THIS IS A STORY OF THE FUTURE—NOT THE FUTURE OF SPACE SHIPS AND MEN FROM OTHER PLANETS—BUT THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE”. By framing the story with this didactic message, the film reminds the audience that it should be regarded as a representation of a possible future, which people must prevent from happening at all costs. The story begins with footage of a series of mushroom clouds, and the narrator explains that a nuclear war in 1965 let three super-states—Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia— arise. Here, unlike the novel, the film specifies the time setting (around “1965”) so that its immediacy to the contemporary will be foregrounded, as if “Orwell’s world seems to be just around the corner” (Shaw 160).


Although there are other notable scenes such as that of an air raid and how the telescreen checks and warns each citizen’s behaviour, the most unique visualisation in Anderson’s film is that of the office of the Records Department. In addition to the telescreen which looks like an eye, this office represents the panoptic structure in a more elaborated way than in the novel. Here, Jacques-Alain Miller’s short definition of Bentham’s panopticon seems to explain the exact appearance of Anderson’s visualisation of the Records Department: the structure (panopticon) “is a building. It is circular. There are cells around the circumference, on each floor. In the centre, a tower. Between the centre and the circumference is a neutral, intermediate zone” (3). Anderson’s Ministry of Truth instantiates this surveillance model, where a big screen is set in the centre and under it, high-rank officers are roaming to check their subordinates working in the surrounding cubicles; no windows are on the wall; there are no doors either between office workers, exposing every inch of their behaviour. The only moment when they assemble is during the ceremony called Two Minutes Hate, which takes place in the central space. By projecting the contrast of the revolutionist’s ugly and old face and Big Brother’s resolute and reassuring mask, the telescreen controls group psychology in a mediated, quite virtual way. 8 After a collective frenzy of shouting “Long live Big Brother”, every Party member gets back to each place as if nothing had happened. Anderson thus seeks to evoke their inability to take any action to criticize the principles of the Party, and consequent succumbing to the state of abject resignation. On the other hand, Radford’s adaptation more literally reproduces the design of the office which is only briefly depicted in the novel: “In the long, windowless hall, with its double row of cubicles and its endless rustle of papers and hum of voices murmuring into speakwrites, there were quite a dozen people whom Winston did not even know by name” (see NEF 44). It is here notable that Anderson’s adaptation is still “faithful” to the novel, even if it puts original detail onto the novel’s description.


Modern Panoptic Office in Anderson's 1984

Figure 1. Modern Panoptic Office in Anderson’s 1984

Meanwhile, Anderson’s adaptation tends to ignore any of the complexity of Winston’s psychological dimension (Gottlieb 87). For instance, Winston toasts their initiation of Brotherhood by declaring “Down with Big Brother”, not “to the past” as in the novel (NEF 184). In this context, it is also striking that in Anderson’s film, when Winston is leaving Charrington’s store, he forgets to take his glass paperweight, which is “an image of an authentically English past” (Wegner 212). Winston’s desperate nostalgia is simply omitted in Anderson’s film.


What is foregrounded instead is the notion that private love is the epitome of freedom. When he obtained the book of revolution, Winston is persuaded by Julia that only love is a true form of rebellion. Yet when a sinister voice from the mirror is heard, Winston shatters it with the pot, only to discover the surveillance camera. A remarkable effect here is that he, in fact, throws it at the audience.9 This is the moment when we realize that the audience have been placed in the position of the Thought Police; it is the gaze from outside that crushes their romantic fantasy, breaking into their love nest. (See “The film poster depicting the Thought Police surveillancing Winston and Julia.”)


In the epilogue, the narrator says: “This then is a story of the future. It could be the story of our children, if we failed to preserve the heritage of freedom”. Anderson’s film, “American-financed [and] British-made”, is made of this either/or logic—totalitarianism or freedom—forcing the audience to choose the latter.10 Regarding this, Tony Shaw points out that in the film “Oceania’s currency […] is changed from dollars, denoting American imperialism, to sterling” (161). In the novel, Winston buys a glass paperweight for four “dollars” in London, which allegedly cost eight “pounds” not long before Big Brother’s regime (NEF 99). This detail implies, as Phillip E. Wegner likewise indicates, that Oceania is not “an extrapolation of a purely ‘English’ authoritarian state”, but rather, “the Oceanic superstate is a figure for the United States, in relation to which England, or ‘Airstrip One’, has been demoted to the status of a minor regional outpost” [emphasis in original] (212). By omitting this controversial feature of the novel, the film hides its aspect as a criticism of America. Freedom is only defined in terms of a private love-life, leaving any other stones unturned.


It should also be noted that, not only does Anderson’s film dismiss its protagonist’s sensibilities, but also the physical appearances of Winston, Julia, and O’Brien quite different from the description in the novel; in the 1956 adaptation, Winston (Edmond O’Brien) is a stout and determined revolutionist, Julia (Jan Sterling) is a fair blond, and O’Brien is now called O’Conner (Michael Redgrave; this is possibly because the main actor’s name is O’Brien), who is a thin and rather youthful officer. By contrast, Radford’s casting is successful in delineating those characters as “accurately” as possible; Winston (John Hurt) is exactly a “smallish, frail figure”, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) a “bold-looking girl, […] with thick dark hair”, and O’Brien (Richard Burton) “a large, burly man with a thick neck and a coarse, humorous, brutal face” (NEF 4, 11, 12). In addition, John Hurt looks exactly like George Orwell in the guise of Winston Smith (Gottlieb 87). And Julia’s unshaved armpit hair, which is not mentioned in the novel, is effective to intensify the lack of products in Oceania. (If razor blades are rationed even for men, it would be much harder for women to obtain them). Lastly, the fact that Richard Burton died shortly after the film finished shooting provides an ominous impression, if the audience is aware of this fact; his vacant-looking eyes and monotone voice while torturing Winston might indicate O’Brien’s resignation from his own body itself or his deadly will to perpetuate himself as an apostle of Big Brother.


Radford’s film adaptation was produced and released in 1984, boasting that “This film was photographed in and around London during the period April-June 1984, the exact time and setting imagined by the author”. Yet somewhat in contradiction to this, Simon Perry, the producer of the film, explains its basic concept as follows: “we wanted to do Orwell’s 1984: that is, not a futuristic fantasy but a satire on his own world, an extreme vision of Britain in 1948 at the height of the Cold War” (Billington).11 It might not be, however, a contradiction if the year 1984 is not regarded as the future, but as the future imagined in the past. Radford uses one of the most well-known dictums of Newspeak for the opening credit; “WHO CONTROLS THE PAST/ CONTROLS THE FUTURE/ WHO CONTROLS THE PRESENT/ CONTROLS THE PAST”. There is a notable antiquarian tendency when Radford even makes the telescreen look outmoded; the colour of the screen is sepia, while colour television had been introduced to the UK in the 1960s. In addition, Rodden notes that the scene of “[t]he Two-Minute Hate even included footage from a frightening anti-Nazi propaganda film scripted by Dylan Thomas” (286). But at the same time, although Radford himself insisted on using Dominic Muldowney’s orchestra sound track, it was decided by Virgin Films to employ Eurythmics’s “modern” music for the most part of the film to increase commercial demand (Rodden 286). All in all it could be said that, whereas Anderson’s film focuses on the future itself, Radford’s one is more concerned about the dialectic between the past and the future.


As an overall observation, it is evident that Radford focuses on Winston’s psychological landscapes. For Winston, writing a diary is a form of a political testimony as well as a release for his feelings. He does not choose to write a critical document or political book like Goldstein’s book of revolution. Yet the diary is not sufficient to be an outlet for his emotion, for he cannot find the right addressees. His repressed feelings are waiting to be found and liberated by someone else who can understand him and more importantly, love him. Radford’s adaptation is quite effective in portraying this urgent need of Winston. The most distinctive point is that Radford deliberately conflates two figures, that is, O’Brien the torturer and Julia the lover by superimposing their images. It suggests that both of them can be regarded as the products of Winston’s deranged mind. He has been waiting for a woman who gives him pleasure, and a man who gives him pain (both as a proof of Winston’s existence). At some point, the film even depicts Julia almost as a double of O’Brien, the interpretation of which is also detected in the stage play adaptation discussed below.


In order to present the overall story as more or less produced by Winston’s complex psychology, Radford uses the technique of cross-cutting, flashback and superimposition. Specifically, the scene of the Golden Country has dual role in itself; on the one hand, it is illustrated as a real, secluded place in Oceania when Winston commits the first “sexcrime” with Julia (NEF 319). On the other hand, the Golden Country becomes imaginative when being shown as Winston’s psychological landscape. In his fantasy, “the door” to the pastoral utopian landscape is presented simultaneously as the entrance to the infamous Room 101. The image of a derelict city which appears as the landscape of his childhood memories is also connected to that of the Golden Country. In this way, Radford deliberately blurs the distinction between memory and imagination, and dystopia and utopia. (See “O’Brien and Winston in the Golden Country.”)


Another conflation also occurs between reality and Winston’s dream. In one dream, he sees the Golden Country “before” meeting with Julia, and anticipates the later torture, which is signified by Radford’s cunning addition of the images of Room 101 to it (see also NEF 32-3 for Winston’s precognitive dream). Also in his childhood memory, before actually meeting him directly, there is already O’Brien in the landscape, serving to give reassurance to the little Winston in front of his dead mother; this gives a strong impression that O’Brien is as indispensable to Winston’s fantasy as Julia. One man’s personal dream and the reality he experiences are closely intertwined as in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It seems to be even possible to argue that what happens in Radford’s 1984 is all contained within Winston’s dream, which could be a locus of “release or oppression, wish-fulfilment or ultimate nightmare, a beautiful English landscape that might at any moment dissolve into Room 101” (Synyard 66). (See “Julia and Winston in the Golden Country.”)


Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s theatre adaptation of 1984


To summarise, Anderson’s 1956 adaptation is future-oriented and didactic, whereas Radford’s 1984 adaptation is past-oriented and psychological. While these film adaptations provide their critical interpretations at the level of the content, the 2013 theatre adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan rather concentrates on the form, providing a fresh look to adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The most noticeable omission in those film adaptations is the Appendix entitled “The Principles of Newspeak”. Although the Appendix itself is not specifically mentioned, Orwell strongly objected to “alteration” to and “abbreviation” of the novel, for “[a] book is built up as a balanced structure and one cannot simply remove large chunks here and there unless one is ready to recast the whole thing” (“Letter to Leonard Moore, 17 March 1949”, 66). What is distinctive about the Appendix is the effect brought by its form; that is, the existence of the Appendix itself suspends the ending of the main story. It is written in the past tense, which could also suggest the demise of the Big Brother regime. Meanwhile, there is a footnote at the beginning of the main story which directs the reader to the Appendix. This implies that Winston’s story is a historical record, which is further validated by the third-person narrative in the main story and the academic, detached tone of the Appendix. The theatre adaptation represents this structure of the Appendix by staging this narrative frame, that is, by setting up the reading group of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the future, in 2050. (See “Members of the future reading group of Nineteen Eighty-Four.”)


The attendees of the reading group discuss the work at the beginning and end of the play, and what is uncanny is that Winston is also present in this reading group; he is bewildered by the fact that the story about him is read aloud right in front of him. He does not know where he is and what time it is. This anxiety culminates in the scenes where he breaks the so-called fourth-wall. During the torture session, O’Brien forces Winston literally to give his humanistic message to the audience, considering them as the representative of the future. The scene triggers a tension between Winston and the audience, questioning whether a political fiction can ever send its message to the addressee, and if so, how.12 The play also ends with Winston facing the audience saying “thank you”, not “I love Big Brother”. While the audience and Big Brother can be considered as the addressee, it is uncertain what exactly Winston is grateful for. His empty tone of voice and blank face only makes the remark ironical, implying his deep sense of resignation. Here, it should be noted that time-space compression is evident in this play. Oceania (the present/past) and the future after Oceania are superimposed by placing Winston (and O’Brien) in the future reading group, which makes the play rather ahistorical. The fourth wall effect which is mentioned above is one of the examples of space compression, and others can also be clearly seen in the way the place where the reading group is held is also shown as places in Oceania, such as Winston’s own room and Charrington’s shop. Another example is the large screen hung above the stage, which is effectively utilised for layering multiple places, creating a dreamlike space on the stage.  (See “Members of the future reading group and Winston (rehearsal picture).”)


The central theme of this play is Winston’s sense of alienation; this is accentuated by the question—“Where are you, Winston”—which is repeatedly asked by O’Brien, Julia and members of the reading group.13 Winston continuously seeks for “hope” outside the dystopia he lives in; the idealised past, the underground rebel group, romantic love as liberation, and the people in the future. Yet the very problem lies in Winston’s position inside the present dystopia; rather than attempting to confront actual situations, he only clings to an abstract notion of freedom. Even Orwell as the author of the novel is alienated; having finished “reading” Nineteen Eighty-Four, the host of the reading group maintains that Winston had never existed, and the author of the book is now uncertain. As opposed to the other members who finally dismiss the importance of the novel to their current society, another member speculates that the Party “structure[s] the world in such a way that we believed that they were no longer”, although she discards this idea shortly (Icke and Macmillan 95). Seemingly, Nineteen Eighty-Four ends twice, both when Winston is defeated by Big Brother and when Oceania ceases to exist. Yet this stage adaptation in fact problematizes the very telos of Nineteen Eighty-Four by visualising its formal aspect.


Terry Gilliam’s Brazil  

If Icke and Macmillan superimpose times and spaces to create a no-place, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil conflates dreams and nightmares, rather than reality and dreams, as Jonathan Price (who plays the main character Sam Lowry) succinctly puts it.14 This is why the story is set “somewhere in the 20th century”, another no-place. The film was released in 1985 and its allusion to Nineteen Eighty-Four seems obvious, alongside the fact that one of the film’s alternative titles was 1984 ½ (Mathews 40), and that the film starts with the caption “8:49 P.M.” (which plays with the digits of “1984”). Richard A. Rogers notes that audiences can read Brazil in the context of Nineteen Eighty-Four “because of the prevalence and strength of the 1984 vision in our culture” (41). This suggests that Brazil is an appropriation of a phenomenon or event called “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, rather than that of a single text. In Brazil, a timid lower official called Sam Lowry works in the department of Records, and like Winston he often fantasises about a lover in his dream. Sam later meets her in reality; she is now a truck driver called Jill (Kim Greist), who has the same look as the woman he dreams about. In one dream sequence, Sam manages to kill the evil Samurai in his dream to save Jill. Yet there is an eerie moment when Sam discovers that the face behind the mask of the Samurai is his; Sam’s fantasy is intruded into by a nightmare where he is the very monster which trapped a fragile fairly-like woman. Furthermore, if Sam is the monster, his object of love is his mother; at the end of the film, Sam’s mother turns into Jill, thanks to plastic surgery.15 The film starts from the TV commercial for ducts which are sold by Central Services; those bare ducts intrude into every place almost like nature, indicating the impossibility of obtaining a completely private space. In Brazil, reality is a nightmare in the sense that it keeps threatening to ruin the world of one’s pure imagination. (See “Ducts intruding a restaurant”).

The ending appears to be quite traumatic; it depicts an epic rescue by Tuttle (Robert De Niro) and his group of rebels and Sam’s happy reunion with Jill, only to make the audience realise that these are all in Sam’s dream. In comparing Brazil, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Radford’s adaptation, Rogers and John Erickson argue that, while Winston is completely defeated by the totalitarian system and thus the latteris completely pessimistic, Sam defies it by escaping to his fantasy world; the torturer Jack (Michael Palin) and a Big Brother figure Mr Helpmann (Peter Vaughan) in fact “lose” him in reality (“He’s got away from us, Jack”), and Sam starts to hum the song, “Brazil” (Rogers 41; Erickson 32). The theme song entitled “Brazil” makes a contrast to the dark tone of the film, symbolising an ultimate escape into one’s own fantasy (Matthews, ix). Gilliam himself also remarks that “To me that's an optimistic ending. Lowry's imagination is still free and alive; they haven’t got that. They may have his body, but they don't have his mind. The girl rescues him and takes him away and they live happily forever; it's only in his mind, but that's sufficient, I think. It's better than nothing, folks!'” (Bennetts).16 Yet as I mentioned above, the film rather emphasises the ambiguity of fantasy, or the complexity of desire which keeps deflating itself. It illustrates how one’s dream can easily deteriorate into a nightmare; the freedom of imagination is an illusion, and an absolute private space cannot even exist in one’s imagination. (See “Link: Sam flying away from the nightmarish reality of bureaucracy?”)



Despite its explicit authorial intention (Nineteen Eighty-Four as a cautionary tale), Nineteen Eighty-Four is a textual topos where vectors of meanings collide and conflict, refusing one-to-one reified interpretation between the novel and the author or genre. Adaptations/appropriations engages with the text closely by reinventing elements of it in their own manner, while exposing their suppositions or ideological positions. The transition in adapters’ focus from the content (films) to the form (2013 stage play) is particularly remarkable in the sense that it sheds light on the complexity in the production of meanings in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which invites multiple ways of interpretation. Along with this, it should be noted that the level of irony has been intensified through the adaptations, culminating in Icke and Macmillan’s theatrical adaptation, which deliberately subverts the aspect of the novel as a cautionary tale. Regarding this shift from the content to the form, the following quote on postmodernism by Fredric Jameson seems relevant here: “Time has become a perpetual present and thus spatial. Our relationship to the past is now a spatial one” (47). Whereas Anderson’s film still served as a futuristic tale with its focus on the “message” of the story, Radford’s adaptation concentrates on the image of the future as imagined in the past. Thus the aspect of the temporal is already faint in Radford, and both the 2013 theatre adaptation and Gilliam’s Brazil present a no-place whose temporal dimension is abstracted, with the use of intense irony. Now, if we return to the question at the beginning of this article, it can be concluded that adapting Nineteen Eighty-Four is not simply repeating the myth of “anti-utopian pessimism” in the novel; while reflecting on the social, cultural and historical context, it reconfigures the network of meanings in Nineteen Eighty-Four as a phenomenon, revealing various faces of anti-utopia.


1 Nineteen Eighty-Four will be abbreviated to NEF.

2 While there is a debate over the distinction between adaptation and appropriation (see Sanders 26; Leitch 88), in this article, I will simply use the term “adaptation” for a work with an explicit credit to another, and “appropriation” for a work without such, while still evoking strong connections with other works. Adaptation and appropriation, however, share the property of being reworkings.

3 Here, I avoid using the word “influence” because it presupposes a text as a completely separate entity or product, the meaning of which is contained in itself. The word “version” is also avoided to designate an adaptation since it posits the superiority of the source text.

4 Neil Sinyard speculates on The Great Dictator that “Orwell was deeply moved by the film and ransacked its style, tone and ideas more than any other work of art when he came to shape his two most profound works, Animal Farm and 1984” (61).

5 Peter Huber, Orwell’s Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest (New York: The Free Press, 1944).

6 Thomas Leitch highlights “the fact that the field has been marked over the past ten years by a notable lack of consensus about the extent, the methodology, and the boundaries appropriate to its objects of study – except, of course, for the near-unanimous rejection of fidelity discourse, the bad object of adaptation studies – and an equally notable efflorescence of provocative scholarship” (103).

7 There is a stage play entitled Orwell: A Celebration by Dominic Cavendish which was performed in 2008 in the UK. It adapts various kinds of Orwell’s writings including a torture section from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

8 Instead of Goldstein, this revolutionist is called “Karador”. I have been not able to find the origin of this name.

9 This reminds one of a famous 1984 Apple commercial (directed by Ridley Scott), which was based on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Butler comments that “Apple relied entirely on the theme of liberation from dystopia to sell its new machine” by satirising IBM’s supposed tyranny (301). Yet Anderson’s film represents the fear that there could be a “telescreen” hidden under a screen, producing the effect of the infinite regress of the oppressive gaze.

10 Notably, the film adaptation of Animal Farm by John Halas and Joy Batchelor, which was released in 1954, had been financed by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), while “hiding its American (not to mention CIA) origins” to produce “greater international propaganda potential” (Shaw 156).

11 Michael Billington indicates the aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four as “a metaphor for Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s austerity Britain of 1948 with its personal privations, rationed consumer goods and bomb-scarred landscape”. Likewise, in his essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four (which is accompanied by the novella based on Nineteen Eighty-Four in the book titled 1985 [1978]), Anthony Burgess argues that “Nineteen Eighty-Four is no more than a comic transcription of the London of the end of the Second World War” (21).

12 Also, Winston started to cry for help to the audience during a torture session, blaming them that they are only sitting and observing in front of him. This is not scripted; I witnessed this ad lib in November in 2013 in Liverpool.

13 As in Radford’s adaptation, the figures of O’Brien and Julia are conflated; in this stage adaptation, Julia speaks to Winston in O’Brien’s voice, telling him that he has always known what is in Room 101 (Icke and Macmillan 76).

14 In a documentary titled “What is Brazil?”, Jonathan Price comments that “normally we have reality and dreams; but in this [film] you have dreams and nightmares”.

15Also in the theatre adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, behind the mask of an officer in the Ministry of Love is Winston’s face, while a woman who is possibly Winston’s mother turns out to be Julia.

16 As is chronicled in details in Jack Matthew’s The Battle of Brazil (1987), Universal Pictures demanded a more straightforwardly happy ending where Jill and Sam live happily ever after. It should be noted here that Anderson’s 1956 adaptation also had the same issue; in a happy ending pressed by Columbia, Julia and Winston do not betray each other, and when both are going to be shot by the Thought Police, Winston shouts “Down with Big Brother!”, praising the invincible power of love (Rodden 284). Sonia Orwell “unfilmed” or halted the circulation of this happy-ending version of Anderson’s adaptation for the reason that it violates the author’s intention (Rodden 284, 446).

Works Cited

1984. Dir. Michael Anderson. Blackhorse Entertainment, 2006.

1984. Dir. Michael Radford. MGM Home Entertainment, 2004.

Bennetts, Leslie. “How Terry Gilliam Found a Happy Ending for ‘Brazil’.New York Times. 19 January 1986. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.

Billington, Michael. “A Director’s Vision of Orwell’s 1984 Draws Inspiration from 1948.” New York Times. 3 June 1984. Web. 29 Mar. 2015

Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2003.

Burgess, Anthony. 1985. London: Hutchinson, 1978.

Butler, Jeremy G. Television: Critical Methods and Applications. 2nd ed, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

Cartmell, Deborah., ed. A Companion to Literature, Film, and Adaptation. West Sussex: Wiley Brackwell, 2012.

“Ducts intruding a restaurant.” 16 Nov. 2003. Web. <>

Erickson, John. “The Ghost in the Machine: Gilliam’s Postmodern Response in Brazil to the Orwellian Dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four.Utopian Studies. 4.2 (1993): 26-34.

Geraghty, Christine. “Foregrounding the Media: Atonement (2007) as an Adaptation.” Adaptation-The Journal of Literature on Screen Studies. 2.2 (2009): 91-109.

“The film poster depicting the Thought Police surveillancing Winston and Julia.” 8 April 2015. Web. <>

Gottlieb, Erika. “The Satirical Masks of Utopia and Dystopia: A Discussion of the Two Film Versions of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.Texas Review. 16.1-4 (1995): 83-94.

Hunter, I. Q., ed. British Science Fiction Cinema. London: Routledge, 1999.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Icke, Robert and Duncan Macmillan. 1984. London: Oberon Books, 2013.

Jameson, Fredric. Interview with Anders Stephanson. Jameson on Jameson: Conversations on Cultural Marxism. Ed. Ian Buchanan. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. 63-92.

“Julia and Winston in the Golden Country.” 22 Dec. 2010 <>

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980.

----. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptation and Intertextuality, or, What isn’t an Adaptation, and What Does it Matter?”.Cartmell. 87-104.

Mathews, Jack. The Battle of Brazil. New York: Crown Publishers, 1987.

“Members of the future reading group and Winston (rehearsal picture).” Web. <>

“Members of the future reading group of Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Web. <>

Miller, Jacques-Alain. Tr. Richard Miller. “Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptic Device.” (1973). October. 41 (1987): 3-29.

Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.

“O’Brien and Winston in the Golden Country.” 22 Dec. 2010. Web. <>

Orwell, George. “Letter to Leonard Moore, 17 March 1949.” The Complete Works of George Orwell. Ed. Peter Hobley Davison. 20 Vol. London: Sacker & Warburg, 1998. 66-7.

---. Nineteen Eighty-Four. (1949). The Complete Works of George Orwell, Ed. Peter Davison, 9 Vol, London: Secker & Warburg, 1986-87.

---. “Orwell’s Statement on Nineteen Eighty-Four.The Complete Works of George Orwell. Ed. Peter Hobley Davison. 20 Vol. London: Sacker & Warburg, 1998. 134-6.

---. “Letter to Leonard Moore, 17 March 1949.” The Complete Works of George Orwell. Ed. Peter Hobley Davison. 20 Vol. London: Sacker & Warburg, 1998. 66-7.

---. “Letter to Leonard Moore, 22 August 1949.” The Complete Works of George Orwell. Ed. Peter Hobley Davison. 20 Vol. London: Sacker & Warburg, 1998. 158-9.

Palmer, R. Barton. “Imagining the Future, Contemplating the Past: the Screen Visions of 1984.” The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film. Ed. Steven M. Sanders. Kentucky: UP of Kentucky, 2008. 171-190.

Rodden, John. George Orwell: the Politics of Literary Reputation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Rogers, Richard A. “1984 to Brazil: From the Pessimism of Reality to the Hope of Dreams.” Text and Performance Quarterly. 10. (1990): 34-46.

“Sam flying away from the nightmarish reality of bureaucracy?” 9 Feb. 2011. Web. <>

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 2006.

Shaw, Tony. “‘Some Writers Are More Equal Than Others’: George Orwell, the State and Cold War Privilege.” Cold War History. 4.1. (2003): 143-170.

Sinyard, Neil. Filming Literature: the Art of Screen Adaptation. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

Wegner, Phillip E. Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002.

“What is Brazil.” (a special feature contained on DVD). Brazil. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2003. Film.

Wilding, Michael. “Orwell’s 1984: Rewriting the Future.” Sydney Studies in English. 2 (1976): 38-63.

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