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The prescience of George Orwell

A still from the film ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

A still from the film ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’   | Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight

What we can learn from the author’s work, and film adaptations of it

If you think about adaptations of the works of Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, the first titles that undoubtedly come to mind are Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. My memory was spurred by the spate of supporting actor nominations for British actor Richard E Grant for Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Grant had nominations at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Screen Actors Guild Awards but didn’t win anything there. Instead, critics’ circles across the US, including in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Phoenix and New York awarded him.

Grant’s place in cinema history will always be cemented for his manic performances in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987) and How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989), not to mention several other delicious turns, especially in Spice World (1997) where he played the Spice Girls’ manager Clifford, though he really should’ve been called Old Spice. Robinson’s career is curious. After the one-two punch of the Grant films, he directed only two more — Jennifer 8 (1992) and The Rum Diaries (2011).

But, I digress terribly. Back to Grant, and 1997, when he starred in an adaptation of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, released in some territories as A Merry War. He stars as George Comstock, an advertising copywriter who has a great life and a lovely girlfriend in Rosemary, played by Helena Bonham-Carter. Comstock fancies himself as a poet and takes the drastic step of quitting his cushy job in order to live in a garret (well, not exactly, but a far cry from his earlier, comfortable digs) and pursue his dreams of poesy. Matters don’t go quite as he planned. The theme obviously has echoes today, more than 80 years after the book was written, when young women and men who have an inclination, and sometimes even an aptitude, for the arts, quit it all to pursue their creative urges, with varying degrees of success. The film is less of a scathing critique of society than the book, and papers over several passages that would have been controversial even today, but it does make its sobering and practical point — railing against mammon is useless — couched in romantic comedy and cinematic language.

Grant consumes all the available scenery, putting even the titular aspidistra plant in the shade, but the film belongs to Bonham-Carter. There is not much to like about Comstock, but, as women inexplicably do, Rosemary loves him, despite his arrogance and myriad faults, a scenario many of us have experienced in real life.

Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are also examples of Orwell’s prescience. Orwell is a shrewd chronicler of society both in his works of fiction and nonfiction. His memoir Down And Out In Paris And London (1933) deals initially with the depressing life of menial kitchen workers in Paris, in subhuman conditions, and continues with a look at the lives of tramps in London, again eerily prescient given the times we live in today. It saw a stage adaptation recently, and I hope a film version is on its way.

Naman Ramachandran is a journalist and author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, and tweets @namanrs

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 7:41:22 AM |

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