The BBC Presents a New Dramatization of Orwell’s 1984, with Christopher Eccleston as Winston Smith

Like the idea of total­i­tar­i­an­ism, per­haps best artic­u­lat­ed by Han­nah Arendt in her post-war Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism, George Orwell’s post-war scruti­ny of repres­sive gov­ern­ments has become a sta­ple, catch-all ref­er­ence for pun­dits on either side of the polit­i­cal spec­trum, par­tic­u­lar­ly the con­cepts of dou­ble­s­peak, dou­ble­think, his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism, and the hyper-intru­sive Big Broth­er, all from the 1949 nov­el 1984. In fact, few adjec­tives seem to get deployed with more fre­quen­cy in urgent polit­i­cal dis­course of all kinds than “Orwellian.” But the name George Orwell, pen name of jour­nal­ist Eric Blair, hides an enig­ma: Orwell iden­ti­fied him­self explic­it­ly as a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ist of a par­tic­u­lar­ly Eng­lish bent (most notably in his essay “The Lion and the Uni­corn”), but his scathing cri­tiques of near­ly every exist­ing insti­tu­tion some­times make it hard to pin him down as a par­ti­san of any­thing but the kind of free­dom and open­ness that every­one vague­ly wants to advo­cate. That ambi­gu­i­ty is a strength; despite his stead­fast left­ist roots, Orwell would not be a par­ti­san hack—where he saw stu­pid­i­ty, avarice, and bru­tal inhu­man­i­ty, he called it out, no mat­ter the source.

The seem­ing con­tra­dic­tions and ironies that per­me­ate Orwell’s thought and fic­tion are also what keep his work peren­ni­al­ly inter­est­ing and worth reread­ing and revis­it­ing. He was a prob­ing and unsen­ti­men­tal crit­ic of the motives of pro­pa­gan­dists of all stripes, both left and right. Begin­ning in late Jan­u­ary, BBC Radio 4 launched a month-long series on Orwell, with the avowed­ly iron­ic name, “The Real George Orwell.” Part of the irony comes from the fact that Orwell (or Blair) once worked as a pro­pa­gan­dist for the BBC dur­ing WWII, and lat­er based the tor­ture area in 1984, Room 101, on a meet­ing room he recalled from his time there. His expe­ri­ences with the state broad­cast­ing net­work were not pleas­ant in his mem­o­ry. Nonethe­less, his for­mer employ­er hon­ors him this month with an exten­sive ret­ro­spec­tive, includ­ing read­ings and drama­ti­za­tions of his essays and jour­nal­ism, his semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal accounts Down and Out in Paris and Lon­don and Homage to Cat­alo­nia, and his nov­els Ani­mal Farm and 1984.

In this lat­est drama­ti­za­tion of Orwell’s most famous nov­el, pro­tag­o­nist Win­ston Smith is voiced by actor Christo­pher Eccle­ston, who has inhab­it­ed anoth­er key post-war char­ac­ter in Eng­lish fic­tion, Dr. Who (Pip­pa Nixon voic­es Julia). In a brief dis­cus­sion of what he takes away from the nov­el, Eccle­ston (above) draws out some of the rea­sons that 1984 appeals to so many peo­ple who might agree on almost noth­ing else. At the heart of the nov­el is the kind of human­ist indi­vid­u­al­ism that Orwell nev­er aban­doned and that he cham­pi­oned against Sovi­et-style state com­mu­nism and hard-right impe­ri­al­ist author­i­tar­i­an­ism both. Win­ston Smith is an embod­i­ment of human dig­ni­ty, cel­e­brat­ed for his strug­gle to “love, remem­ber, and enjoy life,” as Eccle­ston says. “It’s the human sto­ry that means that we keep com­ing back to it and that keeps it rel­e­vant.” Lis­ten to a brief clip of the 1984 drama­ti­za­tion at the top of this post, and vis­it BBC Radio 4’s site to hear parts one and two of the full broad­cast, which is avail­able online for the next year. When Europe and Amer­i­ca both seem rent in two by com­pet­ing and incom­pat­i­ble social and polit­i­cal visions, it’s at least some com­fort to know that no one wants to live in the world Orwell fore­saw. Despite his novel’s deeply pes­simistic end­ing, Orwell’s own career of fierce resis­tance to oppres­sive regimes offers a mod­el for action against the dystopi­an future he imag­ined.

For oth­er free, online read­ings of Orwell’s work, you can vis­it our archives of Free Audio Books, where you’ll find

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aldous Hux­ley Reads Dra­ma­tized Ver­sion of Brave New World

Free: Isaac Asimov’s Epic Foun­da­tion Tril­o­gy Dra­ma­tized in Clas­sic Audio

Also find major works by Orwell in our col­lec­tion of Free eBooks

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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