Hear the Very First Adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Starring David Niven (1949)


Since George Orwell pub­lished his land­mark polit­i­cal fable 1984, each gen­er­a­tion has found ample rea­son to make ref­er­ence to the grim near-future envi­sioned by the nov­el. Whether Orwell had some prophet­ic vision or was sim­ply a very astute read­er of the insti­tu­tions of his day—all still with us in mutat­ed form—hardly mat­ters. His book set the tone for the next 60 plus years of dystopi­an fic­tion and film.

Orwell’s own polit­i­cal activities—his stint as a colo­nial police­man or his denun­ci­a­tion of sev­er­al col­leagues and friends to British intel­li­gence—may ren­der him sus­pect in some quar­ters. But his night­mar­ish fic­tion­al pro­jec­tions of total­i­tar­i­an rule strike a nerve with near­ly every­one on the polit­i­cal spec­trum because, like the spec­u­la­tive future Aldous Hux­ley cre­at­ed, no one wants to live in such a world. Or at least no one will admit it if they do.

Even the insti­tu­tions most like­ly to thrive in Orwell’s vision have co-opt­ed his work for their own pur­pos­es. The C.I.A. rewrote the ani­mat­ed film ver­sion of Ani­mal Farm. And if you’re of a cer­tain vin­tage, you’ll recall Apple’s appro­pri­a­tion of 1984 in Rid­ley Scott’s Super Bowl ad that very year for the Mac­in­tosh com­put­er. But of course not every Orwell adap­ta­tion has been made in the ser­vice of polit­i­cal or com­mer­cial oppor­tunism. Long before the Apple ad, and Michael Radford’s 1984 film ver­sion of Nine­teen Eighty-Four, there was the 1949 radio dra­ma above. Star­ring British great David Niv­en, with inter­mis­sion com­men­tary by author James Hilton, the show aired on the edu­ca­tion­al radio series NBC Uni­ver­si­ty The­ater.

This radio dra­ma, the “first audio pro­duc­tion of the most chal­leng­ing nov­el of 1949,” opens with a trig­ger warn­ing, of sorts, that pre­pares us for a “dis­turb­ing broad­cast.” To audi­ences just on the oth­er side of the Nazi atroc­i­ties and the nuclear bomb­ings of Japan, then deal­ing with the threat of Sovi­et Com­mu­nism, Orwell’s dystopi­an fic­tion must have seemed dire and dis­turb­ing indeed. In addi­tion to the Inter­net Archive stream at the top, you can down­load the pro­gram in var­i­ous for­mats at their site, or lis­ten to it above on Spo­ti­fy (down­load Spo­ti­fy here). Or find it on Youtube.

Every adap­ta­tion of a lit­er­ary work is unavoid­ably also an inter­pre­ta­tion, bound by the ideas and ide­olo­gies of its time. The Niv­en broad­cast shares the same his­tor­i­cal con­cerns as Orwell’s nov­el. More recent­ly, this near­ly 70-year old audio has itself been co-opt­ed by a pod­cast called “Great Speech­es and Inter­views,” which edit­ed the broad­cast togeth­er with a per­plex­ing selec­tion of pop­u­lar songs and an inter­view between jour­nal­ists Glenn Green­wald and Dylan Rati­gan.

A com­ing new film adap­ta­tion first took shape with a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Ron Howard’s Imag­ine Enter­tain­ment and Barack Oba­ma “Hope” poster design­er Shep­ard Fairey. It has since become a “roman­tic update” of the nov­el called Equals, star­ring Nicholas Hoult and Kris­ten Stewart—and the project was at one point attached to Paul Green­grass, direc­tor of the Bourne films, Cap­tain Phillips, and Unit­ed 93. What­ev­er we make of these recent Hol­ly­wood devel­op­ments, one thing seems cer­tain. We won’t be done with Orwell’s 1984 for some time, and it won’t be done with us.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Rid­ley Scott Talks About Mak­ing Apple’s Land­mark “1984” Com­mer­cial, Aired 30 Years Ago on Super Bowl Sun­day

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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