Saturday, December 25, 2010

Skip the movie. Read the book: 1984

Nineteen Eighty-Four
by George Orwell

Chilling. Terrifying. All too real and all too possible.

This is the book to read if you want to see masterful world-building in action. The entire first third of the story is world-building. There's almost no dialogue, no action, no plot. It takes Orwell one-third of the page count just to set up his vision.

It's a world where everyone is monitored day and night. Actions are not a crime in this society; *thoughts* are criminal.

Winston is a member of the Outer Party (the government), and he is one of the people responsible for altering the past. One of the first examples we receive is the chocolate ration. A news report states the ration for chocolate is reduced from 30 grams to 20. Winston's job is to go back over newspaper articles and newsreels that featured government promises of the chocolate ration not being reduced, and change them to warnings that a reduction may come. One day later, newsreels start reporting that the ration is being *increased* to 20 grams a week.

And everyone accepts it. People celebrate Big Brother, the symbolic head of the government, for his decision to bestow this generous gift on the people. Everyone simply forgets that there was a time when the ration was higher. They accept this alteration of the past, and the government's propaganda that times are good and always getting better, when in fact they are continually deteriorating.

This is just one example of the terrifying society Winston inhabits. Orwell never comes out and states what the government is doing. He instead presents all the different methods the Party uses: convincing the people that the orgasm is a crime, erasing people from the record, and Newspeak.

What hit me hardest is Winston's conversation with Syme, one of the developers of a new language called Newspeak. Syme's explanation that "shades of meaning" are being eliminated from English, and Shakespeare will have to be rewritten to reflect it, slapped me across the face. Not only is the government manipulating people's memories, but they're making it impossible for people to have rebellious thoughts.

If people can't remember happier times, but instead are convinced that they are living in perpetually good times (even as those conditions deteriorate), the people will always stay in their place. If they lose the ability to have thoughts, feelings and emotions in the first place, they will never want to overthrow the government.

The proles, the working people, are living in perpetual poverty, but are happy to live in it and never complain because as far as they remember, there have never been better times to live. Chocolate rations have always been high, standard of living has always been wonderful, and times are good. But they are uneducated animals scraping a pointless existence out of the refuse of an unending world war. They mindlessly accept what they're told, do not strive to achieve anything, and don't even know they're oppressed. The government has seen to that; everything they do is to keep the people docile and in their place so the ruling class (the Inner Party) can live in luxury. That is scary.

This is masterful world-building. The story is almost irrelevant. The real focus is the world Orwell creates. A truly terrifying and completely believable vision of a future that may have already happened, and we'd never know it. It had my head spinning for hours after I finished it. I strive to blow my readers’ minds away like this, too. It is the best novel I’ve ever read.

Compare that to...

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1984)
starring John Hurt

I've wanted to see this movie for years. I've heard so much about it, but at the same time nobody seems to remember it.

Sadly I saw the DVD edition, so no bleach bypass cinematography for me, but I don't think it would've helped the experience.

Movies have it rough in that they can't build a world the same way a novel does. They can't take 45 minutes to narrate a whole world into existence. Movies have to express everything in visual cues. Because of this, the movie shows the desolated, war-torn world, but not the reason. It shows the two-minute hate, but not the reason. It shows the alteration of the past, but not the reason. it doesn't make it clear who the proles are, and what their place in society is. It doesn't even establish who Big Brother is. I don't remember the name Big Brother even being mentioned until the end. There's just no context for what's going on.

The movie can't show the idea that conscious thought is being erased from society. It can't show that the past is altered to match the present. It does show that the war's enemy is altered, but doesn't give weight to the significance.

The book makes a big deal about Oceania being at war with Eurasia, and then suddenly Oceania changes sides. Now they're at war with Eastasia, and the government asserts that they've always been at war with Eastasia! And everyone accepts it. More than that, they *believe* it! It's terrifying to see how easily swayed the people are, how nobody questions what they're told.

The movie shows this happen, but because it's never established who the country is at war with, it has no weight. It doesn't show who the proles are, so their reaction to the news doesn't come across as anything meaningful. These are concepts that are tough to get across in visual terms, and that's where movies fall short of books.

The book presents the systematic methods the government uses to control the people. It shows how everything works in ways the movie can't. The idea makes this world real, not the visuals. 1984 must be read to be understood.

So, skip the movie. Read the book.

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