Cultural perspectives

Popular culture

Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered a science fiction classic and it is extremely well known all over the world. References to the book are therefore very common in popular culture, and countless other cultural phenomena have been inspired by it to some extent.

A particularly famous example is the reality television show “Big Brother”, which was directly inspired by Orwell’s novel and has itself spawned a large number of other reality shows with similar concepts (typically centred around the idea of contestants living under constant surveillance while facing various challenges).

The novel has also inspired a lot of music throughout the years since its publication. For example, the rock band Radiohead have referenced it several times (they even have a song called “2+2=5”). Muse was also heavily inspired by the novel when producing their 2009 album The Resistance.

The phrase “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (p. 4) has become widespread in both popular culture and everyday life as a figure of speech which refers to government surveillance - and even people who have never read or heard about Nineteen Eighty-Four are often aware of this particular phrase and its meaning.

Finally, note that Orwell’s work - particularly Nineteen Eighty-Four - has become such a central part of popular culture that his name has inspired the adjective Orwellian, which is now a recognised part of the English language. Here is the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Orwellian
ADJECTIVE
Characteristic of the writings of George Orwell, especially with reference to his dystopian account of a future totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
‘a frightening view of an Orwellian future’ (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/orwellian)

The word is frequently used to describe real-world political situations that in some ways resemble the fictional worlds that Orwell created.

Textual perspective

Here you can find suggestions for other texts that deal with similar themes and may be useful to compare to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The most obvious choice may be comparison to other fictional texts, but depending on how you are working with the novel, it may also be relevant to bring up non-fiction works such as speeches, articles or interviews.

Fiction

Animal Farm

Animal Farm (1945) may be the most obvious point of comparison, as it was also written by George Orwell and deals with similar themes, even though they are presented in a very different way. Animal Farm is a fable about a group of animals who rebel against their human masters to form their own, free society. At first, the animals enjoy their newfound freedom, but slowly their society is turned into a dictatorship by corrupt leaders. Much like Nineteen Eighty-FourAnimal Farm shows how the power of state propaganda combined with physical threats can keep the people oppressed, especially if they do not have the education to question the lies of their leaders.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury may also be interesting to discuss in relation to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Bradbury’s novel is a classic work of dystopian science-fiction, depicting a future society in which humanity is kept in a state of limited education, particularly through the complete ban on books - which are systematically burned when they are discovered. Much like Nineteen Eighty-Four, the plot is centred around a person who is to some extent involved in keeping the political system in place, but who eventually starts to rebel against their rule.

Despite both novels being dark stories about the future of mankind, the open ending of Bradbury’s novel is much more optimistic than that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as the world of Fahrenheit 451 features a resistance movement, which means that rebellion may be possible.

Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley is also frequently brought up in connection with Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley’s dystopia describes a population which is mainly kept under control through drugs and sex, which distract them from questioning the true nature of the society they live in.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood is a more recent dystopian novel, which has a strong focus on warning against the consequences of gender inequality and religious fundamentalism. In the future society described in this novel, women have been reduced to a subservient position. Many of them only exist to give birth to the children of powerful men, while their own freedom is heavily restricted. The novel recently saw a rise in popularity following the successful and well-reviewed television adaptation by HBO. 

The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins is a modern example of dystopian science-fiction. Similar to Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Hunger Games describes a future of great economic inequality in which the population is kept under control by a mixture of threats and propaganda. All of this is centred around a terrible reality show called the Hunger Games, which features child contestants from the lower class sections of society who are forced to participate in a televised fight to the death.

It is interesting to note that the premise of a reality show taken to the extreme was probably inspired by real-life reality shows, many of which were in turn inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four and the concept of Big Brother.

Non-fiction

John Kampfner’s article “Big Brother is watching you more closely than ever” is a critical discussion of the use of surveillance cameras (CCTV) in public areas. While Kampfner admits that such surveillance occasionally proves effective in catching criminals, he argues that it does not solve enough cases to justify the costs. He also notes that it could be the starting point of a dangerous development towards more extensive state surveillance - which his references to Orwell’s novel about total surveillance also emphasise.

Movie adaptations

Nineteen Eighty-Four has been adapted into a cinematic movie twice - in 1956 and in 1984. In addition to these, there have also been a number of television, theatre and radio adaptations of the popular novel.

The 1956 version was directed by Michael Anderson. It is a black-and-white movie. Interestingly, the movie was secretly funded by the CIA, who were very interested in spreading the novel’s anti-Communist messages during the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

The main elements of the novel’s plot have been kept in this version, but a lot of details have been left out or changed to present the story in a more focused way. This means that some of the events that are presented through flashbacks in the novel are simply direct parts of the plot in the movie - for example, the situation with the three ‘traitors’ and the photograph with evidence of their innocence. Many names of individuals and organisations have also been altered - for example, O’Brien is called O’Connor and the Brotherhood is called the Underground.

The 1984 version is the best-known of the two movies today. It was directed by Michael Radford and generally follows the novel’s plot more closely than the 1956-version, though some details have been added, removed or altered. For example, during the final scene Winston witnesses a recording of his own confessions on the telescreen, which does not happen in the book.

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