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Nineteen Eighty-Four: Adaptations and Reformulations of Orwell’s Novel

Posted by keith1942 on December 25, 2017

The grim futurist vision in Orwell’s famous novel would seem not to have come to pass. Even though, thirty years further on from the titular date, we still have not suffered the dystopia he envisaged, the book remains a potent and influential text. Orwell’s novel reflected a host of influences: his early life and preparatory school: his experience of the depression in the 1930s: his experience of sectarianism, the suppression of anarcho-syndicalist organisations in Barcelona in 1937: his experience of the destruction and scarcity of the war years: his time at the BBC and his experience of its bureaucracy: his readings and knowledge of events both in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, including Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ (1940), and of the Fascist dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s: and writing the novel in the post-war world of rationing and the ‘cold war’.

There is also the influence of the earlier novel by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931), though this book relies on hedonistic addiction rather than brutal surveillance. A stronger influence would be the Soviet novel We (Мы)  a dystopian story by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. There are many plot cross-overs though Yevgeny’s novel is set farther in the future in an advanced technological society.

Orwell’s vision is bleak and pessimistic. He subscribes to the notion of a totalitarian state. And as is common with that concept he elides the political economy of his society. Whilst it offers some version of socialism it also appears to operate under a system of commodity production and exchange.

The book has been adapted into plays, radio plays [including ‘The Goons’], for television [including the trivial Room 101]; into an opera and even a ballet; the last impressed me more than I expected. Predictably there are also television and film feature length versions: some attempt a literal translation others involve influence or reformulation.

The BBC broadcast an adaption in 1954: CBS had already broadcast a US Network version in 1953. The BBC production was written by Nigel Kneale, a key figure in television science fiction. It was directed by Rudolph Cartier who was a seminal figure in early British television drama. The production was recorded in a studio with filmed inserts. The dominance of close-ups and fairly bare television sets works to generate a real sense of paranoia appropriate to the book. This version closely follows the book though some sections are elided, as for example with the exterior sequences in the ‘prole’ area. We do get the INGSOC slogans, examples of Newspeak and references to the critical work of Emmanuel Goldstein. However, the long analysis in Orwell’s book from this source is missing. The film does essay the brutal interrogations inflicted by O’Brien and the final defeatist sequence. Peter Cushing as Winston and André Morell as O’Brien stand out in a strong cast.

In 1956 Holiday Film Productions filmed the novel in the UK at the Elstree Studio, including using London locations. This is an inferior version to the BBC production. The translation to the screen cuts down on the novel, much of the plot is there but the discussions of the politics and values of Oceania are missing as is the analysis of Goldstein. One addition is Winston demonstrating to the Telescreen in his flat that he is not carrying any forbidden items. Names are changed, O’Brien becomes O’Connor and Goldstein becomes Kalador. The film was a tool in the Cold War. The United States Information Agency provided about a third of the budget. The emphasis of the film is the ‘Red Menace’. An introductory title tells us it is not science fiction but set ‘in the immediate future’. At the film’s end a voice over enjoins that this fate await our children if we ‘fail to preserve our heritage of freedom’. The film was shot in London and aims for a realistic narrative giving a contemporary feel. Some of this is very well done and evocative. There are two striking shots in particular. One, of feet ascending steps in Trafalgar Square, seems [wittingly or unwittingly] to invert the famous shots from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). And, near the end, there is a striking overhead shot of Winston as he stands before a large poster of Big Brother. In fact there were two endings. The one for the US market closely followed the book. However, for the UK,

“It seems that the BBC flap prompted Columbia Pictures, the distributors, to shoot two endings, one faithful to the novel and the other more hopeful.” (Tony Shaw, 2006).

1984 (1956)
Directed by Michael Anderson
Shown: Edmond O’Brien

Similar influences lay behind the 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s other dystopian fable, Animal Farm. The animation by Joy Batchelor and John Halas is excellent but the film strays from Orwell’s original in ways that parallel the Holiday Film 1984. There are also several television films of this novel. I did wonder if the CBS television version of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ had a similar provenance.

Then in the actual year of 1984 Virgin Cinema Films produced a version, set in London and filmed in the locations listed in the book and in the time-frame of the book (April to June) and adhering Orwell’s original title. It opens with an onscreen quotation from the book,

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The film was scripted by Michael Radford with added material by Jonathan Gems and directed by Michael Radford. The two key characters are John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien. Hurt is aptly cast, Burton never quite achieves O’Brien’s Machiavellian persona. But the major problem is the scripting. The film emphasizes the subjective viewpoint of Winston Smith. Some of this, like the diary with an internal voice, is very effective, as are flashbacks to Winston’s childhood. The book’s analysis is only briefly presented. At one point Winston reads to Julia from Goldstein’s book the passage about war, but little else. Oddly when Winston visits O’Brien [alone] the latter is not explicit about claiming to be part of the undergrounds. Even more oddly there are a series of ‘dream’ sequences which involve a door marked ‘101’ opening onto a green but artificial landscape bathed in sunlight. At various points the landscape includes Winston, Winston and Julia, Winston and O’Brien and all three: plus one shot where it is empty. Room 1001 is one of the memorable inventions in Orwell’s book, the site of the ultimate torture and mind-bending experience. But what exactly these ‘dream’ sequences’ were meant to suggest is not really resolved though they obviously provide an opposition to the actual Room 101 and stress Winston’s subjective stance. Perhaps they relate to the final ambiguous shot of Winston, face screwed up, mumbling ‘I love Big Brother’.

The sound and vision of the film is effective. The production design presents a sort of grunge war-time Britain. This is shot with great skill by Roger Deakins, director of photography and camera operator. And the Eastman film stock received special processing to achieve the desaturated look. But the story within this feels rather hollow and never achieves the grim dystopian feel of the book.

Released only a year later Brazil (UK 1985) is in many ways the most brilliant of  cinematic rendering of Orwell’s novel. It is directed by Terry Gilliam, combining his usual surrealist touches with sardonic often macabre humour and a wishful romanticism. The script, by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown is witty though the narrative does fly off at tangents at times. The design, cinematography and special effects are all excellent and contribute to making this bizarre dystopia believable. The basic modus operandi of the film is to invert just about every aspect of the Orwellian original. So whilst the literary Winston might seem to be driven by a search for father figures this protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is mother fixated. In fact his romantic ideal, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), seems at times interchangeable with his mother Mrs Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond): there is even a brief visual reference to Vertigo (1958). The dystopia is a world of bureaucratic ministries gone mad, driven by control freaks and obsessed with covering over errors. The war is replaced by faceless urban terrorists. The surveillance and policing is overbearing but also fails to achieve its objectives.  The buildings are grandiose but the technology is constantly breaking down and operating incorrectly. The slogans are less frequent, also inverted, but just as disturbing,

“Truth is Freedom.”

It is also a capitalist society based on commodity production.

This film has the familiar look of Gilliam’s style: I was especially taken with a automated surveillance machine that acted rather like an eager puppy. There is a brief visual reference to Potemkin, [playing with the 1956 version?] Like its immediate predecessor, and typical of Gilliam’s work, the film offers a series of fantasy/dreams. These offer alternative romantic and upbeat sequences to the dystopian world. And, unlike the preceding Ninety Eighty-Four, they come together at the conclusion to offer resolution between the subjective and objective worlds in the film. That conclusion plays intriguingly with that in Orwell’s novel. The film repeatedly offers sequences that are as brutal and downbeat as the novel. And, like Orwell, Gilliam and his team come up with original and distinctive images and motifs. Hapless victims are trussed in metal tagged sacks for torture. The site of this is Room 5001. But the ‘brainwashed’ or ‘unthinking populace’ are not central except in the brutally realistic terrorist acts.

A slightly earlier science fiction film is an example of influence rather than transposition, Blade Runner (1982). We have replicants instead of proles or perpetrators of ‘thought crime’. But we do have the intrusive surveillance in what is clearly another dystopia. And the impressive design of this film also harks back to Orwell.

“The Ministry of Truth … was startlingly different from other objects in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” (‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell).

Intriguingly the original release version also contained the much criticised flight by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) from the city to a green landscape. This parallels the setting presented [dreamlike] at the end of Brazil and it is similar to the dreams of Hurt’s character, Winston, in his subjective version of Room 101. In the book green countryside is the site of Winston’s and Julia’s first tryst and initial sexual acts. Otherwise Orwell’s book is resolutely urban, conjuring up the traditional opposition between the urban and the rural that is a central trope in traditional melodrama.

That is also a trope in another dystopian film, Logan’s Run (1976): though that film seems to be more influenced by Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. That would also be true of the far better science fiction film Gattaca (1997). Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is probably influenced by both but the idea of firemen who burn books and an underground dedicated to memorising forbidden texts appears to be a riposte by the original author Ray Bradbury to Orwell.

There are indeed many other films that offer examples of the influence of Orwell’s classic. Dark City (1998) has another dystopia, somewhat removed from the world described by Orwell, but whose hero suffers the problem of rediscovering the actual past whilst an underworld power controls to a degree how people perceive. This is one among a number of suggestions on the Web by fans of the novel and its numerous re-interpretations. Robert Harris, the novelist, regards ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ as the most influential novel in modern writing. His books reflect this, as do film versions such as Fatherland (1994) and his screenplay for The Ghost Writer (2010).

And the cycle will probably continue, a

‘Romantic’ new version of 1984 planned with Kristen Stewart’ (Yahoo Movies in 2016).

seems to have fallen by the wayside. It is a sign of how Orwell’s nightmare vision has gripped the popular imagination that artists continually return to his classic novel. It seems that ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ will be with us for many years to come.

There are many articles and books and Web postings on Orwell and ‘1984’. Especially useful for Film Studies is Tony Shaw, 2006 – British Cinema and the Cold War The State, Propaganda and Consensus, I. B. Tauris, London and New York. This article was originally  written for the Media Education Journal, Issue 60, which celebrated the magazine which first appeared in 1984. It seemed a nice touch to write about Orwell’s now famous year.

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Posted in British films, Literature on Film, Movies with messages, Science Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Arrival – Philosophy on Film

Posted by keith1942 on January 14, 2017

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It seems to me that there has been an increase in writing on film that addresses philosophical issues. However, the content does not always match up to the traditional sense of this concept:

“the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”

It is even less common for films to address such issues. But this science fiction film (USA 2016) seems to do this to a greater degree than is common, certainly with mainstream films. It is a complex film and I watched it twice before I was satisfied that I have completely grasped the plot. But a second viewing also made me consider some of the existential and moral issues that it raises.

The film is adapted from a short story by a US-based writer Ted Chiang. I have not read the original: our local library has not got a copy. But I have checked out some reviews which has given me a sense of how the film differs from the story. The story, and to a degree the film, address theories regarding language, perception, what we call time, and even cause and effect. Some of these theories are matters of debate among scholars. Some are certainly complex and I did not understand some of the more intricate aspects of some theories. What seemed clear to me was that certain concepts or phrases are treated ambiguously in the film. So I have noted this by using ‘…’ as for ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’, all aspects in the story whose meaning needs to be tested.

The film centres on the character of Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistic scholar. When Alien spaceships arrive on earth Louise is recruited to assist in establishing communications with the Aliens. She works alongside a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Both are under the control of a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stulbarg). Most of the action takes place at a temporary military base at the site occupied by the Alien space craft. We learn that there are eleven other such space crafts at various sites round the world. Whilst the Doctors Banks and Donnelly pursue their research there is an interchange via video links with teams in other countries also attempting to communicate with the aliens.

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The concept and visualisation of the Aliens is brilliant. They are seven-limbed and christened ‘Heptapods’. Their spoken and written [graphic] language appear incomprehensible. At the same time they appear more interested in observing than [say] threatening earth. Donnelly christens the two that he and Louise [and we] meet ‘Abbott and Costello’.

Some of the most fascinating sequences are as Louise takes a lead in working out how to communicate with the Aliens. We are told that their spoken language bears no relationship with their written language. The latter appears more like graphic/symbolic displays than writing. And the symbols shoot out from one of the limbs of the Alien and are displayed on the glass screen between the Aliens and the scientists. As Louise develops her understanding of their communication she explains that each symbol is known completely before being presented: she uses the example of writing a sentence with both hands starting on opposite sides of  page. The writer would need to know the whole communication exactly in advance, even the space between letters.

Donnelly contributes to the understanding by identifying and explaining that the Aliens do not relate to what we call time in the same way as humans. Essentially he claims that they are aware of all parts of a series in a timeline at once. This seems not to be the same aspect as involved in time travel but is a mode of perception, even existence.

Since this is a mainstream release it also has an amount of action and suspense. Both are created by tensions and suspicions between the different countries working with/against the Aliens. It falls to Louise to prevent armed conflict at the moment of crisis and climax. She does this by conducting the Commander (General Shang / Tzi Ma)in charge of the Chinese effort and using knowledge she has gained from the Heptapods, defuses the situation. It is worth noting that the representation of the Chinese does not go beyond the Shang character and this presents an autocratic and militaristic regime.

arrival-camp

Interwoven with the somewhat conventional sci-fi plot are a series of sequences with Louise and her daughter Hannah (four actresses of different ages). These both open and close the film and appear frequently in between. At first they seem to be flashbacks: then they seem to possibly be flash-forwards. It is apparent that they are connected in some way with Louise’s contact with the Heptapods.

Another point that develops with the film is the assumption that the use of language affects the way of thinking. In Louise’s case this means as she develops her grasp of the Alien language she also acquires their perception of time. This only falls into place for the viewer towards the end of the film. At this point it becomes apparent that in terms of human perception of time the Alien arrival occurs at the beginning of the narrative that we witness: and that the birth, upbringing and early death of Hannah occur later. The sequences in which we see/hear what seem to be Louise’s perception of Hannah’s life are examples of seeing events across a whole timeline and not as human being usually experience this: in a linear fashion.

The interaction of the two plot lines presents a different manner of regarding time. This is a familiar trope in science fiction but treated in an atypical manner. It raises issues about philosophical questions and also about the film’s plot line itself. Apparently the conflict that develops between the different states engaging with the Aliens and the resolution of this have been added to the original story. I found this not completely convincing. Even at my first viewing the manner in which Louise ‘converts’ General Shang seemed rather pat. Moreover the film implies that the way the conflict and resolution is plotted follows a design by the Aliens. Their visit to earth is motivated by the fact that in several thousand years in the future they will need assistance from earth. So this plotting supposedly produces a unified earth community that will still be round when needed. This was not only pat but given human history [with which the Aliens are presumably conversant] seriously unconvincing.

A second plot problem relates to the personal. In the alternative time sequence we learn that Louise and Ian, now married and parents of Hannah, have separated. The reason is that Louise told Ian something and he could not accept this. What she told him is that she knew when they conceived Hannah that she would die young: he thinks she made the wrong decision. However, if Louise can see across the timeline she would know what Ian’s response would be in advance.

Some reviews suggest that Louise chooses to conceive Louise despite knowing the outcome. This could be applied to Louise telling Ian. I do not find that totally convincing. In both cases one could interpret the events and choices as fated, rather like a Greek tragedy. Another aspect would be other comments in reviews to the purpose that one can know the ‘future’ but not change it. This is intriguing because it separates the treatment of time in this work from that of time travel. It appears that not even the Aliens in ‘Arrival’ time travel. But they see across time, a skill that Louise develops. This aspect raises questions about the relationship between cause and effect.

Arrival appears to have been influenced by Chris Marker’s science fiction classic La Jetée (1962). That film appears to be about time travel as the protagonists goes forward in time and then backwards in time. However, the plot is really about his life story and centrally about memory. At the conclusion the viewer realises that his experience in what seems to be the ‘past’ has characterised all his other experiences. So something similar can be seen in the presentation of Louise and Hannah’s stories. The film and story seems to be playing with philosophical concepts of time. There is Immanuel Kant’s position that this is a ‘systematic mental framework’ and also Eisenstein’s argument in relativity that different observers see events in time differently.

It is worth noting how Louise appears to view across the timeline: the film does not give any idea of how the Heptapods do this. When she has been in close proximity to the Heptapods we see insert shots, as if she has been stimulated by the Aliens. Elsewhere she works at it rather in the way that people work at recovering memories: there is no sense that she has an overview of all elements or events at once. So in one scene she ‘remembers’ a concept taught her by Ian to solve a question by Hannah. The key example is her call to General Shang on a mobile, as she talks on the phone she ‘remembers’ the conversation she will have with the General after the crisis is over. In this case what is in the ‘future’ informs her actions at an earlier point in time. This is the paradox associated with time travel and which also appears in La Jetée  and numerous other science fiction works.

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Louise’s development of the ability to see across the timeline follows from an assumption that language affects the way that humans think. The alternative position is that the way humans think affects language. The film does not follow this through. In the film Louise publishes a book on the Alien language: it is visible at the reception where she meets General Shang and the logo on the book is seen several times in the ‘future sequences’. Are other humans learning the language? Is that the object of the Alien visit so that when the need arises humans will see across the timeline in relation to the Alien situation? Why does Ian not learn the language? He does not seem to display much interest in this. Perhaps he has picked up a smattering and that is the reason that Louise feels impelled to tell him about Hannah.

The aspect of the story that the film does emphasise is gender. Science fiction remains a predominately masculine genre, even after the appearance of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979): and the same problem bedevils Passengers (USA 2016) despite the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In Arrival Louise is more or less the lone woman in a man’s world. The leading  characters in the ‘present’ are all men. The only other important character is Hannah. Even when we see other research teams round the world on the video-call I do not remember any women members. The most notable females are the presenters on the Television News Broadcasts.

Moreover the male characters in the film display the stereotypical attitudes of men: prone to expect conflict and aggression. So Louis provides an alternative in terms of rationality but also emotional stability. However, it is not clear whether the Heptapods have different genders. Ian christens them as men, but that appears to be his unthinking gesture rather than based on any evidence. The film uses tropes relating to feminine characters repeatedly. The most interesting is Louise’s hair. There is a long tradition in film regarding a woman’s hair. Tied back in some fashion is represents restraint even repression. Hanging loose it represents openness and sexuality. Markedly women frequently cut their hair after moments of trauma, so the Jodie Foster character cuts her hair after the rape in The Accused (1988).

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In Arrival’s present Louise has her hair tied back for most of the time, we see her tying it back after the ‘shower’ on returning from the Alien craft. In the ‘other time;’ sequences with Hannah it is usually hanging loose, and we also see it loose in sequences with Ian from ‘the future’ but not in the ‘present’. The most notable differentiation from this in the film is a solitary visit that Louise makes to the Alien craft. This is approaching the film’s climax, conflict seems imminent. The Alien craft is hovering above the ground and when Louise runs towards it a pod descends and takes her up into the craft. Once in her hair flies free and is at its most unrestricted in the whole film. She is enveloped in mist and floating in the air. The sequence reminded me forcibly of a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) where the David Bowie character (Thomas Jerome Newton) has coitus with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). Whilst this film is not noticeable sexual this is a moment of real sensuousness. It is also the point that Louise realises she can understand the Alien language.

However, the aspect of Louise’s femininity that the film emphasises is as a mother. The sequences with Hannah all give expression to a strong maternal instinct. And her life after the Alien visit, whilst it involves marriage with Ian, is most concerned with her as mother. Ian really is a plot necessity, he has to impregnate Louise, but at some point in Hannah’s childhood he leaves, so we have a single mother and child.

Ted Chiang’s original story was titled ‘Story of Your Life’. It presumably refers to the life of Hannah. In the film Hannah’s story is seen through the perspective of Louise, hence ‘your life’. So this is emphatically a mother’s point of view. The film clearly makes play with supposed gender differences between men and women. It would be interesting if the written story explores this in terms of the Heptapods. The handling of concepts of language, time, perception and related scientific concepts clearly makes this ‘hard’ science fiction’. The mother/daughter story falls into the realm of melodrama. Part of the effectiveness and success of the film results from the interaction of these two generic strands. As I write I see that Arrival has done well in the BAFTA nominations, better than in the USA Award Festivals. Is that a reflection of different attitudes to science fiction among audiences?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve: Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levinem Aaron Ryder, David Linde: Screenplay by Eric Heisserer,  Based on “Story of Your Life”  by Ted Chiang: Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson:  Cinematography Bradford Young: Edited by Joe Young. The film was produced in Montréal and Québec in Canada.

It was filmed in colour and in anamorphic widescreen. The version I saw was masked to 2.35:1.

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