January 20, 2021

The Descent Into Hell: 1984 (1953, 1954)

Eddie Albert comes face to face with Big Brother in 1984 (1953).

In  Christian theology, the "descent into Hell," as enumerated in the Apostle's Creed, refers to the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when Christ descends to the realm of the dead, bringing salvation to the righteous who had died since the begining of the world. The Church believes this to be a triumphant occasion, the victory over death and liberation of those souls destined to reside in Heaven.

There are many kinds of Hell, other than the theological kind. There's Hell on earth, a Hell often of our own making, and when you descend into this kind of Hell, it's not so easy to see it as triumphant. There's one thing that all these versions of Hell have in common, though, and that's the loss of freedom, the enslavement of the soul, the stench of death. We are, I think, engaged in such a descent now; I say "engaged," because I don't think we've hit bottom yet, not even close—if, in fact, there even is a bottom. It is the Hell of totalitarianism, a Hell that has, over the years, played itself out many times on television. The relationship between television and totalitarian dystopia is, I think, an interesting and ironic one; it could be said that television both sheds light on and perpetuates totalitarianism, at least in its modern incarnation. 

And so it seems particularly appropriate today that we begin an extended look at this particular descent into Hell by returning to Apocalypse Theater for one of literature's most famous stories, one that spawned two television adaptations within five years of its publication: 1984.

George Orwell wrote 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four, if you prefer) in 1948, and for those of you into numerology, it might be interesting to ponder that it was 36 years between 1948 and 1984, and 36 years between 1984 and 2020. Then again, it might not be; I suppose it depends on your outlook.

Orwell's world is one that's become familiar in both literary and political history, a world built on  censorship, government surveillance, mutual suspicion, and the suppression of any forms of dissent, populated by agencies with names like the Ministry of Truth, which controls the distribution of information and makes appropriate "adjustments" to the historical record so that they conform to the latest pronouncements of the government; and the Ministry of Love, home of the infamous Thought Police, charged with the arrest and "rehabilitation" of those who practice dissent against the government. Orwell's concepts entered the lexicon almost from the very beginning, concepts such as Big Brother, the Two Minute Hate, Thought-Crimes, Doublethink, and—perhaps the most famous and most sinister of them all—Newspeak. You know the highlights; War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, 2+2=5. To paraphrase that great philosopher Chico Marx, "Who ya gonna believe: Big Brother or your own eyes?" 

The first visual adaptation* of 1984 came just four years after its 1949 publication, and perhaps tellingly, it was made not for the movie theater, but for television. It aired on September 21, 1953 (the height of the McCarthy era), as part of CBS's Studio One, in a production written by WilliamTempleton, directed by series mainstay Paul Nickell and with a cast that included Eddie Albert (above) as the protagonist, civil servant Winston Smith; Norma Crane as Julia, his colleage and forbidden lover; and Lorne Greene as O'Brien, the underground member who turns out to be an agent of the Thought Police. The Studio One production dramatically condensed Orwell's story to about 50 minutes, typical of most hour-long shows of the day. Although today's reviewers are mostly critical of the show (especially in comparison to subsequent productions), contemporary reviews were more favorable. The New York Times praised Albert's performance and called the overall production "a masterly adaptation that depicted with power, poignancy and terrifying beauty the end result of thought control—the disintegration of the human mind and soul." 

*The very first adaptation was on radio in 1949 (they didn't waste any time, did they?), broadcast on NBC University Theater, starring David Niven as Smith.

It took only one year for another television version of 1984 to appear, this time on the BBC, and this adaptation won far more critical praise, both then and now. It was written by Nigel Kneale, who the year before had created the much-loved sci-fi classic, The Quatermass Experiment and was produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, one of the BBC's best. Winston Smith was played in this version by a very young Peter Cushing, with Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, André Morell as O'Brien, and Donald Pleasance as Syme, the creator of Newspeak, who eventually becomes an Unperson.

At nearly two hours, or twice the length of the American version, this 1984 was a much more detailed adaptation of Orwell's work. It also created no little stir, with many viewers calling to complain about the show's "subversive nature and horrific content," and a number of protests in Parliament. Other MPs, however, rushed to the show's defense, pointing out that "many of the inhuman practices depicted in the play" were "already in common use under totalitarian régimes." The Queen and Prince Philip weighed in, letting it be known that they had watched the broadcast, and had "enjoyed" it. Thus emboldened, the BBC staged a second live broadcast four days later, and it is this rebroadcast that has been preserved on video.

The fact is, any adaptation of 1984 should feel subversive and horrific, because it is. As brutal as the world of 1984 is, though, there's an even darker thought behind it, for as essayist Scott Bradfield has pointed out, "For Orwell, the horror of totalitarianism was not that someone would impose it on you, but rather that you might be all-too-prepared to submit." Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, those who would trade privacy for a bit of security deserve neither privacy nor security. We can quibble about what Franklin really meant (the quote actually comes from a debate over taxation), but one of the great attributes about being a genius is the ability to synthesize a thought, even if it isn't the thought you were thinking of at the time. 

I find it interesting that there hasn't been an adaptation of 1984 since 1965 ("The World of George Orwell: 1984", a second production of the 1954 BBC adaptation, which aired as part of a season of Orwell adaptations on the BBC program Theatre 625), when the Cold War was hot and the West was about to explode in an unrest that, in significant ways, continues to this day. Radio, yes; a big screen version (in 1984, of course), and movies that could be said to be in the spirit of Orwell. In fact, the last time television broached the subject was in the famous Super Bowl commercial by Apple, which might have been prescient in linking modern technology and a future 1984 society (though perhaps not in the way Apple intended). But then, as I said, the relationship between television and totalitarianism is a complex one. I don't know; maybe television has a reason for not revisiting it.

Orwell's attack on totalitarianism wasn't aimed solely at communism; 1984 takes many of its ideas from post-World War II Great Britain. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for the book's eternal popularity is that both left and right can point to its contents as representing an existential threat to freedom and liberty. But since we're on the subject of chilling statements, try this one on for size. It comes from Orwell, in correspondence with, of all people, Sidney Sheldon, who had purchased the stage rights to 1984 from Orwell. In one letter, Orwell wrote that the book "was based chiefly on communism, because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism, but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office."

That, my friends, is what we face today. It takes no great stretch to make the connections between Orwell's creation and our world today; if you glance at the headlines on any day of the week—Communist crackdown in China is "Beyond George Orwell’s Imaginings"—the parallels become clearer. And if you think that it can't happen here, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, you haven't been paying attention. 

So the next time someone—perhaps in the government or the media—tells you that Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength, remember the words of the prophet: "Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter." (Isaiah 5:20) And then ask yourself: when someone asks what two plus two equals, what will you answer? TV  


  1. I can only assume the timing of this piece was not accidental. Thank you for sharing such prescient observations about the path we're on, and where we appear to be headed.

    1. You might say that. I couldn't possibly comment. . .

  2. This whole clusterf*uk dovetails nicely with Becker's theory's from " Denial of Death".


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!