Other Oceanias: a short history of Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptations

Big Brother is watching you, and we are watching Big Brother. As the classic Peter Cushing TV version emerges on Blu-ray, we look back over the many dramatised versions of George Orwell’s dystopian novel.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Which is the definitive adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? Ask any film buff and the odds are they’ll quote the tagline from Michael Radford’s award-winning movie version (1984), which was shot in the same months the novel is set: “The year of the film. The film of the year.”

John Hurt and Richard Burton certainly give terrifying performances as doomed radical Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien. The ‘80s sci-fi boom meant it would have been easy to shoot the film as a Blade Runner (1982) imitation, but Sonia Orwell, the author’s widow, sold the rights on the proviso that no futuristic special effects would be used to tell the story.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

The production, which was filmed around the disused Beckton Gas Works and Battersea Power Station, retains a totalitarian griminess, and recalls the decrepit ‘Khrushchyovka’ panel buildings of the Soviet Union. But does its loyalty to the source text mean that both previous and more recent adaptions have been overshadowed – or “vaporised”, as the Ministry of Truth might term them?

Revisiting the BBC’s 1954 television version in its newly remastered form, it’s easy to see why some regard it as the stronger depiction of Orwell’s dystopia. The production was scripted by Nigel Kneale, who’d scored a hit the previous year with The Quatermass Experiment about a British rocket group bringing something nasty back from space. 

When broadcast on 12 December, the BBC version’s scenes of degradation and torture were shocking to postwar eyes. Anchored by Peter Cushing’s anguished performance, the screening would lead to condemnation by MPs for “pandering to sexual and sadistic tastes” as well as viewing figures of 7 million (one of them a reported tragic death due to shock).

In the 73 years since Orwell’s novel was published, Oceania has been dramatised over a dozen times. But which interpretations can hold a candle to Radford’s movie or Kneale’s TV scripts? Many remained hard to track down for decades – at least until the advent of streaming sites.

Arriving months after the release of the book, NBC University Theater’s “disturbing broadcast” for radio featured future James Bond actor David Niven. The play mixed Orwell’s narration (retold in second person) with intermission commentary by Goodbye, Mr Chips writer James Hilton. Niven initially makes Smith as gallant as the rest of his leading man roles, but is authentically broken for the finale in the Chestnut Tree Café.

Visual adaptions quickly followed. It was inevitable that the novel that introduced the telescreen would reach TV, and Westinghouse Studio One interpretation cast Eddie Albert as an American Smith, who played our hero as a crushed dreamer: think Burgess Meredith’s underdog guest roles on The Twilight Zone.

The impact of the BBC’s 1954 television adaption soon became of interest to broadcasters in Australia. As TV didn’t exist in the country until September 1956, producers went all-out for the 1955 “radio event of the year”, and recruited horror icon Vincent Price to play Smith. What marked his performance is the second voice that narrated Smith’s thoughts. “I’m the other you, Winston, who looks out of your eyes!” he whispers after being grilled by his telescreen.

Michael Anderson’s 1956 film version

American character actor Edmond O’Brien would be cast as Smith when the book was filmed by Dam Busters (1955) director Michael Anderson in 1956. He wasn’t the only US influence on production: made at the height of the second Red Scare, the film was steered by the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a CIA offshoot that sought to “resist the Kremlin’s sustained assault on liberal democratic values”. Kudos to them for not going with the alternative ending which saw Smith valiantly overcome his brainwashing.

If you thought the telescreen announcer from that film sounded familiar, it’s because he’s played by none other than Patrick Troughton, who would star in a 1965 five-hour radio serialisation by the BBC. Given the network was losing listeners to medium wave broadcasters such as Radio London and Radio Caroline, it’s fitting that Troughton’s Smith is activated not by Goldstein’s book, but by ‘Radio Free Oceania’. Of course, it still leads to him betraying Sylvia Sims’ Julia, but in reality, unlicensed broadcasters would cause the restructuring of BBC Radio in 1967.

Adaptions of Nineteen Eighty-Four haven’t always cycled between film, TV and radio (and, in the case of Ridley Scott, an Orwell-themed Apple commercial screened at the 1984 Super Bowl): the dystopia also reached the stage, most notably in 2005 when Lorin Maazel helmed an Oceanic opera. It was savaged by critics, but Simon Keenlyside is authentically physical during the torture scenes, and Diana Damrau gives a brilliant double-performance as a drunken prole and the dreaded telescreen fitness instructor.

In recent years, the BBC’s 2013 Orwell season gave us Christopher Ecclestone as a reassuringly gritty Smith, while Peter Capaldi last year narrated the audio edition of the book. A movie version attached to Bourne Identity (2002) director Paul Greengrass was announced a decade ago, but is yet to materialise.

But you can’t keep a good dystopia down. This year sees the publication of ‘Julia’ by Sandra Newman: a fresh look at the novel’s underused heroine that’s approved by the Orwell estate. It paves the way for other less linear riffs on life on Airstrip One.

And as for who’ll play the next Winston? Given that five previous Doctor Whos have portrayed the wayward Outer Party worker, perhaps Jo Martin or Jodie Whittaker should do what Richard Burton did: ask Saville Row to prepare them a bespoke boiler suit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) is released by the BFI on Blu-ray/DVD, iTunes and Amazon Prime release from 11 April 2022.

A Nigel Kneale season at BFI Southbank in April.

BFI Player logo

Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free