Arts

Fewer Pesky Words, More Movie Stars Steer a New ‘1984’

1984, by George Orwell, read by Andrew Garfield, Cynthia Erivo, Andrew Scott, Tom Hardy, Chukwudi Iwuji and others.


“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood,” Winston Smith, the pain-addled protagonist of George Orwell’s dystopian 1949 classic “1984,” ponders while learning to love Big Brother at the end of a needle — his rogue thought offering a kernel of humanity amid the novel’s grim landscape.

You won’t find that line in “George Orwell’s 1984,” Audible’s star-studded “original adaptation” helmed by playwright Joe White, though this new version’s approach to Orwell attests to the endurance of people’s desire for connection and communion, even in the worst circumstances.

At nearly three and a half hours, it also runs about a third of the length of other “1984” audiobook versions. This is because, save some key passages, it radically alters the text. Gone are Orwell’s sardonic third-person descriptions. Here instead is Andrew Garfield’s breathy Winston, muttering to himself and “you” (us, the listeners of “the future”) with all the trappings of 21st-century speech and sensibility. What is happening in Oceania is “surveillance,” he explains redundantly. If his thoughtcrimes are discovered, he’ll be consigned to a “terrible job in the suburbs” — or worse, in which case he’s not sure what to do. “I’m a coward,” he remarks, with palpable self-loathing.

Instead of Orwell’s words, this version relies heavily on audio effects, from gadgety voices of telescreens whirring “Microphones enhance” to a cinematic score performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra (featuring pop disco and video game synths galore) to the extravagant heavy breathing of Winston and Julia (Cynthia Erivo) as they declare the liberatory power of their love. The resulting experience feels less like a book than a high-budget play behind a curtain, or a movie watched with your eyes closed. (Tom Hardy also appears briefly as a steely but avuncular Big Brother, and Andrew Scott is harrowing as Winston’s torturer and foil O’Brien.)

In one sense, this approach emphasizes the paranoid qualities of the story, engulfing the listener and closing in. But stripping “1984” of so much of its language mostly serves to undermine the novel’s central themes about language — its role as a tool of state repression, its ability to structure not only communication but thought.

When Winston and Julia betrayed each other, I didn’t quite believe them; for psychologically tortured dissidents turned foot soldiers, they sounded just a little too relatable. Maybe Audible has made 2024 America’s “1984,” with our freshly reconsidered antiheroes and love amid climate collapse. But not George Orwell’s.

1984 | By George Orwell | Read by Andrew Garfield, Cynthia Erivo, Andrew Scott, Tom Hardy, Chukwudi Iwuji and others | Audible Originals | 3 hours, 27 minutes

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