Still from 1984
Stories & Ideas

Sat 03 Oct 2020

Ben Abbott - headshot

Ben Abbott

Collections technician

Big Brother is watching … and so should you.

George Orwell’s prophetic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published in 1949, earning critical acclaim as a literary classic, and a major film adaptation was released in the year of its setting, 1984. But now, in the age of Fake News and election tampering, its vital message is as relevant as ever.

1984 depicts a totalitarian regime where surveillance is constant, propaganda is inescapable, and authorities punish people for having unregulated thoughts. Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a common worker at the Ministry of Truth, adept at manipulating news and history, and destroying evidence of previous truths. Society operates like a prison with an ever-present warden, Big Brother, who watches everyone through mandated telescreens in every home. Winston rebels against his oppressors by falling in love with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton).

Director Michael Radford captured a beautiful grimness in this film, echoing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Cinematographer Roger Deakins showed masterful talent – this being his first major film credit – by using a special film technique to capture a darker, less saturated image to better illustrate the subjugated atmosphere of an Orwellian society.

Ambiguity can help sustain the relevance of sci-fi films, “the not too distant future” being the ultimate cliché. But 1984 definitively positions us to consider what society would be like in the specifically not too distant future if corrupt powers succeed in depriving us of freedom. Keeping in mind, the book was written not long after Hitler’s death. Now, while certain political leaders label the media as fake; while democratic elections can apparently be rigged – Nineteen Eighty-Four is as relevant as it was when it was written.

If you do decide to watch this film, I highly recommend V for Vendetta (2005) as a chaser. It explores the same themes, but with a vigilante saviour flavour – and John Hurt gets to play his own Big Brother-inspired role!

– Ben Abbott, Digital Preservation Technician

P.S. In this famous 1984 commercial for the first Apple Macintosh, directed by Ridley Scott, Apple used Big Brother to represent a growing monopoly over the computer industry (many say it was IBM), while a young athlete (representing the Mac) charges in to destroy the towering screen.

Now take a look at this video released in August 2020 by Epic Games, creators of Fortnite, following Apple’s contentious decision to remove their hugely popular game from the App Store. The famous campaign was remade with a distinctly Apple-like character as Big Brother.

1984 is currently available to watch on Stan.

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