Unfortunately for Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, it sits at the intersection of two political arguments. The first, leveled at the book largely by leftists, is that Orwell betrayed his socialist beliefs by criticizing Stalinist politics and repression. (Click here for a reflective overview of this issue.) The second is the argument by some film critics that “faithful” adaptations like Radford’s, by obsequiously bowing before literary values, are “uncinematic.”
I will not wade into the waters of the first argument because I would be out of my depth. As to the second, however, I have argued against the idea of “faithful” adaptation so often that people could be forgiven for expecting me to cheer Radford’s critics. They would be wrong, however. My argument against applauding a “faithful” adaptation is that fidelity is simply impossible. I share the ideals behind literary fidelity, however, since they imply using the medium for adult, sophisticated themes.
The origins of the prejudice against the literary lie in auteurism, which early on emphasized visual style, not the easiest thing to describe verbally. Moreover, most critics have been trained in literary theory “adapted” to film. Incapable or unwilling to develop production skills that would enable them to express themselves in cinematic language, critics resort to the tools they know, inevitably shaping their commentary with the literary values they supposedly want to overturn. As a result, many take an exaggeratedly anti-literary position to differentiate themselves from their origins. In this Oedipal revolt, film critics seek to prove their independence by emphasizing values counter to standards accepted in other arts. Nonetheless, the echo chamber of “advanced” film criticism has with age slowly, inexorably returned to discussions of content, producing literary interpretation in all but name.
The fact that 1984 vividly visualizes Orwell’s themes is lost in the effort to establish the independence of the critic’s words. In fact, the film creates a textured, convincing atmosphere possible only with cinematic tools. Radford and his collaborators try to bring the loaded political themes to life, to make us feel the oppression and dank hopelessness through a palpably convincing physical environment. It is, in short, a demonstration of cinema’s unsurpassed capacity to move through images and sounds. The film also happens to preserve much of the action and most of the characters of the novel, but should that be held against it?
Unfortunately, for the anti-literary critic, the answer has to be yes, because film criticism is now dominated by leftist intellectuals who decry any thematic seriousness as “elitist,” even as they enjoy elite privileges like tenure. They cling to their politics like a catechism, equating the study of the popular with egalitarian commitment, while using abstruse language to exclude the uninitiated. (Or, worse, they patronize everything as Camp.) In so doing, they show Orwell was frighteningly accurate in his description of the bureaucrat’s religious subservience to orthodoxy. Meanwhile, ambitious work pays the price for critical hypocrisy, and the medium is debased even further.