Monday, 27 January 2014

Elitism Is Ignorance: That Kristen Stewart 1984 Adaptation

Hollywood announces a film starring Kristen Stewart based on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four and, quicker than you can say 'knee jerk nerd elitism' the online community ladles out a big gravy boat of scorn 'n' LOL.

io9 worked the handle with this article: Kristen Stewart joins a "romantic" remake of 1984 because life is pain.

First off, never trust a blog post that begins with 'Oh my god. OH MY GOD". Not even Desmond Tutu's. But that's by-the-by.

io9's post both lead and typified the general reaction in the online SF community, which could be summed up as shocked, mocking and possessed of an atrophied memory of the novel itself. An Orwell fanboy/girl can find something to frown at in each paragraph.

"Yes, Kristen Stewart just called a movie based on George Orwell's literary masterpiece about a dystopia where a privileged elite rule the masses of humanity by brutally taking control of society and eradicating their individualism, as well as controlling their language, history, and even their thoughts "a really basic concept."

For someone claiming to be more knowledgeable than Ms Stewart about '84, you'd think they'd have found 'privileged' an, at best, fuzzy term. It gives the impression of opulence, of grapes dangled in mouths and new years honors proffered like cigars. Of hypocrisy. But it's a term someone who hasn't read the book in decades would use.

Twitter last week

The Inner Party is hardly a privileged elite in any classic sense. Judging by O'Brien's pad their living standards are maybe just less than a single person with a job in the western world. A privilege of just-enough in a world of manufactured not-enough. A 'fanatical elite' would have rung truer. A nightmare elite. They are the ultimate result of a nightmare logic, beginning with chieftains and continued through kings, CEOs and dictators: the science of domination perfected. A major strength of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the slow reveal of that fact. O'Brien's explanation of his own kind's philosophy hasn't lost the power to chill:  

 "The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."

You could not enter the Inner Party via heredity. Instead, intelligent orphans were selected by the original instigators of the revolution who brutalized them into the uniquely dark brand of political zen described above. So, privileged... yes, technically, but it's only an adjective of use to someone who's long forgotten the political speculation of Orwell's novel.

Which brings me to io9's derision of Stewart's comment that the film has 'a really basic concept'. Well, yes, it does, actually. Individuality against oppression, thought against control, emotion against the machine. That sort of thing (though I'm sure, dear reader, you can probably do better). Orwell intended it to be direct, as 'clear as a window pane'. You can't help but feel anyone who believes it complex does so merely because they are aware it is an important book and therefore must be difficult. Someone who hasn't read it, essentially, or at least not for some time. Ms Stewart's take seems far more fresh than io9's.

 Anyhoo, that's one paragraph. Don't worry, I'll leave it at that. But I'll just leave this here link about '84 being the novel most often claimed to have been read.

But the biggest problem the critics have with this film (aside from Stewart being in it) is that it's a 'romantic interpretation of the novel' (Here's a load of people on Twitter complaining about it). The argument seems to go that Orwell wasn't silly enough for that kind of thing. He was busy fighting totalitarianism dammit!

But this misses the point that love is a political act. Perhaps we secular western heterosexuals have lost sight of that fact, though I imagine a gay rights campaigner in Uganda, say, would tell you as much. Orwell's great strength as a political writer is in never losing sight of the personal, the intimate. In his essay, Some Thoughts On The Common Toad, he defends a personal love of nature against the politicos of his time (and indeed ours) who see it as a waste of time that could be usefully spent on fighting the system:

Certainly we ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves?

That idea is woven into the very substance of Nineteen Eighty-Four (For my money it's what gives it the edge over both Brave New World and We). One senses The Party fear and detest 'Pleasure in the actual process of life' more than actual revolutionary thought. Their scientists, we learn, are working on eliminating the orgasm, their education system on making stars nothing but irrelevant lights. Love--romance--is enemy number one. Forget Goldstein.

For that reason I can't comprehend what people are talking about. I've always found '84 an intensely romantic book in its way and wouldn't take offense at anyone portraying it so in film.

The romance is far from ephemeral: Julia's note to Winston finally inspires him to truly subversive acts and the Party finally breaks him using Julia. Yes, it's probably true argued Julia is a two-dimensional figure who merely serves to bring the protagonist to action (the 'manic pixie girl' as modern parlance has it) but I'd say to that that no one in 1984 is fully rounded and that the author intended it that way. The Party won't permit fully rounded people. It demands the broken, the tamed, the neutered. But that's what makes Nineteen Eighty-Four's love story so very tender.

I look forward to the film and I look forward to the demographic who dig The Hunger Games discovering Nineteen Eighty-Four. After all, how can it possibly damage the novel? How?

Behind all the snark and mocking tweets I sense an elitist sort of ownership, the same kind that took exception to Plath's The Bell Jar being released in a 'chick-lit' cover (as if it's entry into a less rarefied but larger readership was a bad thing). Unfortunately it's a strident ownership of an idea of a book, not the book itself.

I'm sure if they asked Kristin Stewart nicely she'd lend them her copy.  


  1. I was amazed by that side bit about people pretending to read 1984. It's what, 200 pages long? I'm having a hard time trying to square up someone thinking reading is a worthy enough pursuit to lie about, but not worth reading something that only just makes it into novel territory size-wise.
    ...I wonder how many of those copies of Harry Potter that people queued up for the night before release actually got read?..

    1. And it's not as if it's even difficult to read either! It's not Ulysses by any stretch of the imagination. It's prose is more like Game of Thrones if anything, clear and modest.