Column | This new audio adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 is a great starting point for beginners

The Audible adaptation is intensely cinematic and takes considerable liberties with Orwell’s original text

Updated - June 06, 2024 04:23 pm IST

Published - June 06, 2024 03:46 pm IST

(L to R) Andrew Scott, Cynthia Erivo, Andrew Garfield and Tom Hardy are the main voices behind the adaptation.

(L to R) Andrew Scott, Cynthia Erivo, Andrew Garfield and Tom Hardy are the main voices behind the adaptation.

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles (who would go on to write, direct and star in Citizen Kane, one of the greatest movies of all time) narrated a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic Martian-invasion novel, The War of the Worlds. The only problem was, Welles was a little too effective, a little too scary with his narration. The CBS Radio Network, a mainstay of American entertainment back then, received panic-stricken phone calls nonstop, from viewers who actually believed Martians had invaded our planet. A Midwestern sheriff wanted to pursue legal action against CBS because half his town had started running amok in the streets. It goes to show just how impactful a good radio dramatisation can be.

I was reminded of this little slice of radio history while listening to Audible’s superlative new adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel1984. Written by Joe Wright, the adaptation features an original score co-written by Muse singer and lead guitarist Matthew Bellamy and composer Ilan Eshkeri, and performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra. The all-star cast is led by Andrew Garfield and Cynthia Erivo as Winston and Julia, respectively, the young lovers whose relationship is also an act of rebellion against the all-seeing Big Brother and ‘the Party’. Andrew Scott (seen most recently in Netflix’s miniseries Ripley) is smooth and terrifying as Mr. O’Brien, Winston’s Party colleague who he suspects is secretly a part of the rebellious ‘Brotherhood’. And the inimitable Tom Hardy pitches in with a flawless cameo as the voice of Big Brother himself. The whole thing, at 200-odd minutes, is split up into seven parts.

21st century sensibility

Two things you’ll notice immediately about this adaptation — it is intensely cinematic and it takes considerable liberties with Orwell’s text. For example, Big Brother watching all of his citizens courtesy omnipresent TV screens is described as “surveillance” (a decidedly contemporary word) throughout by Garfield’s Winston. Generally speaking, the text is condensed in a way that minimises ‘third-party’ lines such as portions of police files, newspaper clippings, extracts from fictional texts and so on. The reason this works so well for this adaptation is because of the first point I mentioned: its intensely cinematic nature, thanks to Bellamy and Eshkeri’s superb original score. In almost every chapter, the score begins on an ambient, orchestral note and it keeps the sense of urgency rising with every minute, until the last one-third of every chapter signals paranoia and despair with every note of the music.

Erivo and Garfield shine

But really, this 1984 depends largely on the star power and stellar work put in by its A-list cast. Erivo, especially, is a revelation as Julia. Although I was familiar with her recent record on TV (HBO’s The Outsider is one of her home runs), this was the first time I heard her doing voice work, and she is incredible. The romance and lovemaking scenes between her and Garfield maintain a sense of fragility that is paramount to Orwell’s text.

Garfield’s big moments typically happen at the end of every chapter, when Winston is usually second-guessing the motives of Julia or his friends and colleagues, wondering whether one of them is secretly a part of the dreaded ‘Thought Police’. When he watches O’Brien during a public gathering, for instance, Winston swings wildly between pegging O’Brien as a member of the Brotherhood — and the polar opposite, his ‘day job’ as a member of the Party’s inner circles. See how the dialogue reflects this boomerang motion — Garfield’s work is cut out for him here and he expertly steers the audience between hope and hopelessness.

Orwell reimagined

“I caught O’Brien’s eye. Just for a fraction of a second, but it was long enough to know. Yes, I know now O’Brien was thinking the same thing as me. I’m on your side, Winston. And just like that, it was gone. O’Brien’s face was as inscrutable as ever. Such a fleeting moment that I questioned whether it happened at all. But I know it did. And it keeps alive in me the hope that it isn’t just me…”

As the passage above shows, this is Orwell reimagined through contemporary, Netflix-era snappy dialogue. Purists might take exception to the wholesale cull of the original Orwell lines but for the purposes of a radio adaptation, I found the abridged version to be just right.

Audible’s 1984 provides a great starting point to this 20th century classic for beginners. I am quite sure that a significant portion of these listeners will go back and visit (or revisit, as the case may be) the original novel to expand their horizons.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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