‘1984’ is revisited but with a 2001 TV twist

Art is often thought to imitate or at least reflect life; and life, as Woody Allen and others have ceaselessly pointed out, can often imitate art. But what happens when art tries to imitate art? If Big Brother, a television show coming soon to a small screen near you (TV in the evenings; via Internet round-the-clock for those who can’t sleep but can happily watch others do so, along with an accompanying talk show for real junkies) is any indication, then the result leaves much to be desired; for in this case, the purveyors of this art, if indeed that is what this is, have not done their homework properly. Not that this would unduly trouble them, of course. This latest in a long line of televised imports, and surely a progenitor of other reality-based television shows of the type long popular elsewhere in the Western world, will follow the lives and antics of a group of 12 young Greeks, previously unknown to each other, thrown together to live under the same roof for months at a time. But the living conditions are hardly typical; instead of having them reside in a normal dwelling and followed around with cameras, they will live in a custom-built sound-stage which has just enough of the trappings of a house (contemporary kitchen, open-plan dining area, bedrooms, loo and shower, even a courtyard with a microscopic swimming pool and, bizarrely, some roosters in a cage) to be able to simulate normal living conditions. The house inside is aggressively modern, and outside it is aggressively ugly, but it is what goes on inside that will predominate (with 23 cameras inside the house, and only three outside). These were only a few of the revelations provided by a little soiree and tour earlier this week out at the place in question, somewhere just off the Markopoulo road, where at least the lovely setting sun behind Hymettus provided a natural touch amid the advanced artificiality of the studio set. Some people will do practically anything to get out of work, even at the risk of feeling exceptionally ridiculous. The novel was different During the interminable wait to get inside for a look around, held back by a nervous guard wielding an electronic door-opening card that didn’t seem to work very well, I had plenty of time to ponder two questions: (a) do people actually act like the happy clowns being shown on the big screen in the courtyard, the stars of the highlight clips from other Big Brother shows elsewhere (Spain, Italy, Britain, the USA, etc.)? and (b) had anyone involved with the show, any of the hundred or more milling about that evening, actually read George Orwell’s 1984, from which the title, if not necessarily the general concept, originally sprang? Orwell’s (alias Eric Blair’s) powerful and troubling novel has had a powerful and enduring influence. Perhaps inevitably, it has often been misinterpreted, particularly as a straightforward prediction of the future, when his intention was to conjure up a nightmarish possible scenario as to what the world might be like under conditions of totalitarian dictatorship, continual warfare, advanced societal decay, and the virtual absence of all privacy. And the famous date was merely a convenient little device, a distant-future reversal of the year in which he completed his work (1948), written in the troubled postwar years when Europe’s fate was still in question, the memories of the horrors of the Third Reich were still very fresh, and Stalin’s USSR, a terrible place to live in as it was, seemed clearly bent on expanding its influence into Eastern Europe. He wasn’t predicting that life elsewhere (eg. in his native Britain) would be like that; Orwell, as ever politically aware but by that time more politically astute, was warning the West to be vigilant in order to ensure that it would not be. Whenever a book is turned into a movie, many of the original concepts and details are lost or deliberately dropped. What is more common among aficionados than to say the book was a lot better than the movie? That is natural, even inevitable, and unfair to the film industry in many ways, because a film director cannot, in two hours plus, possibly reproduce the rich texture of a slowly unfolding novel. The demands of the viewing audience are simply different, and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the screen. The reason Enemy at the Gates works as a movie – and it does – is precisely because it makes no pretense at reproducing Anthony Storr’s masterful history Stalingrad, on which it is very loosely based. And in this case, art has already imitated art, because Orwell’s work did produce the movie version in the appointed year – a box office flop that became more or less a cult movie. The images conjured up by the book are so vivid that somebody else’s version of them inevitably grate on the nerves, though they are still interesting and memorable on screen. It is perhaps best known as Richard Burton’s final film appearance, though try as he might, he looked a bit too kindly to be truly convincing as a sadistic torturer (which, come to think of it, was probably part of the director’s point). And the ever-present Big Brother himself, to whom the masses were compelled – to the point of being self-compelled – to pay public homage by shouting slogans in blind support in austere public halls, bore too close a resemblance to Hitler himself to be a very original idea. That’s entertainment But with television’s Big Brother, the resemblance is not only superficial but almost nonexistent, apart from borrowing the name itself. There are, it is true, a few similarities, like the ever-present cameras and microphones and the total lack of privacy for those being monitored. But the TV show showcases a group of young adults thrown together more as a curiosity than for a cultural study; youthful exuberance will be on full display, though it is to be hoped that the Greek youngsters portrayed will act (and act up) in a slightly less asinine way than their counterparts in other countries. They are not being forced into it but will be there voluntarily. And not only can they leave, they will be selected for departure by viewers until only one is left standing, for a cash prize (50 million drachmas). Introverts need not apply. And as for Big Brother himself (who is merely a human image in both the book and the film, a personage not a person, a creation of The Party to whom the masses can identify with and pay obeisance to), he simply doesn’t exist in the TV version. The nearest equivalent is likely to be a bored Antenna television technical supervisor in the control room, manipulating the monitors and keyboards to show the most eventful goings-on during that particular time slot to a breathless viewing public. Not, in other words, someone to be either feared or worshipped by the exuberant youths going through their various antics. It is a triumph mainly of technology, not of the all-knowing Party; there are no Thought Police around telling you that 1 + 1 = 3; and it is all for a laugh (and a huge windfall for Endemol Entertainment International, the Dutch-based company behind this particular televised travesty, which is of course a huge hit everywhere). Is it harmless, given all that? Yes, in the sense that an awful concept (which gave rise to the equally chilling designation Orwellian) has become mere entertainment, that Orwell’s horrific scenario did not, strictly speaking, come to pass, and that the result is a group of youths hamming it up before the camera and not a cowed citizenry. But it is less than benign in other senses, if you consider that it signifies the increasing intrusion of technology into our daily lives, or the collection of personal information for advertising or other purposes, sold to who knows who, the little impositions that add up to something more unsettling even if crooks, not normal citizens, are the ones being mainly looked at. The unintended consequences of this technological intrusion for everyday people is the worrisome part, and the resulting fears may explain some of the vehemence of the recent anti-globalization protests. And just because these potentialities are being turned into (bad) entertainment is not necessarily going to render it benign, unless we’re all fooling ourselves. At any rate, it will be something truly different; and it will be hard to avoid, try as you might.

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