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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the source material for 1984 is the bleak 1949 novel of the same name by George Orwell. When it was written, it spoke of a future where individualism, love, familial loyalty, and a sense of history will have been systematically wiped out and replaced with fear, oppression, and authoritarianism. While the ideas here, including "thought crime" and the need for the eradication of orgasm, will be comprehensible to teens, the violence, torture, and full-frontal female nudity may make it questionable for younger teens. Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Language includes "bugger" and "bastard." A man is beaten and bloodied, tortured on a stretching rack, and given what seems to be a high voltage electrical shock. He is immobilized and fitted with a cage that will release hungry rats on his face. He screams in pain and fear throughout.
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What's the story?
At the mercy of a totalitarian government, day after day in 1984, a quiet man named Winston (John Hurt) grimly performs his state job and goes home to a dreary concrete room where he longingly writes about freedom in a secret diary. A charismatic leader called Big Brother watches everyone everywhere from surveillance screens. The constant threat of government violence has frightened people into accepting their blighted lives with gratitude. The madness is everywhere. The party declares: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." Citizens are discouraged from making social connections, yet law requires they call each other "brother" and "sister." The Ministry of Truth is designed to spread lies. Victory against an enemy is promised in continuous and intrusive public announcements, but there might not even be a war. One day Winston commits an act of treason against his country by making love with and pledging his devotion to a woman named Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). The couple is captured, and torture and mind control are administered by one of the ruling party's elites, the enigmatic O'Brien (Richard Burton in the last role before his death).
Orwell's novel was feared to be prophetic to some degree when it was published in 1949, as it echoed the brutish intolerance of the Nazi reign and also reflected the dehumanization under Stalin's Soviet communist regime of violence and torture. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" takes that oppression to a terrifying, almost absurd extreme but it makes the point that the government's abolition of individual freedoms, its production of "alternative facts" through propaganda, its implementation of blurry language called Newspeak and its efforts to root out "unwords" and "unpersons" eventually lead to complete repression. Viewers may wonder if citizens had rejected those techniques early on, would they managed to hold on to their "freedom to say two plus two equals four," as Winston writes in his diary, even when the state tells you it's five.
Is it any good?
Director Michael Radford's well-constructed film makes a dramatic and compelling case for people in free countries to stand up to all restrictions of personal freedoms before it's too late. Once sex and privacy are outlawed, 1984 suggests, there is nothing a militarized government can't do to control its citizens. While the movie is unrelenting, intelligent performances raise it to a level where the difficult story being told can be appreciated beyond its bleakness. John Hurt gives the beaten-down Winston a somber, even witless, face while still conveying his deep, suppressed longing for freedom and connection. Burton, using his smarmiest vocal intonations, makes even O'Brien's friendly gestures seem ominous and worrisome.
In that way the movie faithfully embodies the book's tone, one of warning and dread. It suggests that human flaws -- greed, egoism -- make totalitarian power attractive. Other human flaws -- the desire for comfort and protection -- allow the powerful to achieve oppression. Winston's work as a history revisionist suggests that oppressive governments exploit ignorance in the quest to keep people down. And where ignorance doesn't exist, oppressive governments must create it by spreading "alternative facts" to support state positions. O'Brien tells Winston that Winston does "not exist." Once freedom lovers are persuaded to question their own existence, all hope is lost.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the ideas in 1984 have made the book a high school and university staple. The story of a government that controls its people's family, sex, and work life, in part by questioning what is truth and what is reality, remains popular today. Why do you think sales of the book have spiked in the early 21st century?
The Big Brother government uses force and threats to keep people from falling in love and from experiencing pleasure in order to discourage them from forming loyalties that might get in the way of allegiance to the government. Can you think of any individual rights that Americans enjoy now that a Big Brother-type government would abolish if it took over?
The government in the movie rewrites newspapers and history, replacing facts with lies that show the government in a more positive light. How do you think that practice and the use of brainwashing techniques and torture would discourage people from rebelling against their grim realities?
What do you think the word "Orwellian" means? Why do you think some people have applied it to the term "alternative facts"?
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