If you want a picture of the future, imagine Kristen Stewart stomping on your favorite book — forever.
The literary world glimpsed such a vision Wednesday when Stewart, best known for her role as a semi-sentient mannequin in Twilight, announced she will be starring in a romantic remake of George Orwell’s 1984.
The film, to be mercifully called “Equals,” is based on the 1956 movie adaptation of 1984. “I’m terrified of it,” the actress said in an interview. “Though it’s a movie with a really basic concept, it’s overtly ambitious.”
“In ‘Equals,’ things go wrong because you can’t deny the humanity in everyone,” Stewart continued. “It’s the most devastating story.”
“It’s a love story of epic, epic, epic proportion,” Stewart added. “I’m scared.”
This might be the funniest misreading of Orwell since parents in Jackson County, Florida campaigned to ban the book from schools on the grounds that it was pro-communist.
Normally I wouldn’t give much weight to Stewart’s critical opinions, but a friend of mine suggested that, when you think about it, 1984 really is a sort of love story. Well … no.
The plot of 1984 is not epic in any sense—being concerned with the inconsequential and brief rebellion of two people—and the end of the book argues quite convincingly that the state can deny the humanity of everyone. Winston and Julia are no longer capable of love by the last chapter, having volunteered each other under duress for unspeakable torture. Here’s the moment where Winston would normally chase Julia down in an airport terminal or perhaps have a flash mob perform a dance to her favorite song:
“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to So-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself, and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same towards the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”
A love story of thrice-epic proportions! I suppose the book’s famous closing line is a declaration of love, albeit to the mustachioed visage of Big Brother.
No, the defining emotions of 1984—written by Orwell in a death-bed fury—are fear, sadomasochism, and utter despair. Love cannot survive the unchecked power of the state. Nor can history, language, or literature. For Winston, his story is not even a tragedy because tragedy “belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship.”
And it’s not love that seals Winston and Julia’s fate. Winston is doomed from the first chapter, when he commits thoughtcrime by keeping a diary. By merely writing the date—April 4, 1984—at the top of a blank page, he runs afoul of the remorseless logic of totalitarianism, which cannot tolerate any unofficial record.
Diluting this message is a gross affront to the book, but at this point we can’t expect any better from Hollywood, especially considering that 1984 is one of the books most people only pretend to read. So we have to look on the bright side.
“I’m quite entertained by the thought of a million Twilight fans rushing out to buy 1984 after it,” author Sarah Pinborough tweeted.
Those aghast at the news might also not have considered how well Kirsten Stewart can play an expressionless automaton.
Jokes aside, there is perhaps a legitimate silver lining to Hollywood interpreting the greatest anti-totalitarian novel of the 20th century as a romance.
The struggle against fascism and totalitarianism consumed most the 20th century. It was the defining conflict of Orwell’s life, and he dedicated most of his short time here to fighting it, both on the page and in the trenches as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War.
By contrast, the youngest generation in the West, and even in former Eastern Bloc countries, has grown up in a post-Soviet world that has never faced a truly existential threat. They weren’t even born when the fearsome year of 1984 rolled around. (This probably explains the title change, because what tween Twilight fan wants to go see another ‘80s movie?)
To be sure, there are many around the world who are not so fortunate. Authoritarian regimes hold sway across swaths of South America, Africa, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Asia. The 2013 Freedom in the World survey listed 47 countries as “not free” and 58 more as only “partly free.”*
But on the whole, the momentum seems to be on the side of liberal democracy. If audiences see Orwell’s Airstrip One as a speculative setting to an epic love story, rather than a terrifyingly possible picture of the future, that can only be viewed as a positive development.
In any case, Orwell has survived worse character assassination attempts and misreadings than the likes of Kristen Stewart can hurl,** and if the pendulum of history begins to swing back toward totalitarianism, 1984 will still serve its original purpose: to scare the bejeezus out of people.
* It’s worth noting that that Animal Farm is still banned in North Korea and Cuba, and censored in China.
** This reimagining of Apple’s classic “1984” commercial as a Barack Obama ad is particularly egregious, but it’s only one in a long list of examples of people appropriating, distorting or arguing in bad faith against Orwell’s work. Animal Farm and 1984 were widely misread in the West when they were first released. The folks who really understood them were Soviet dissidents in Ukraine and Poland. They secretly passed samizdat translations of Orwell to each other and wondered how an Englishman who’d never visited the USSR had so accurately captured its atmosphere.