In Trump Era, '1984' Is the Hottest Literary Property in Hollywood
Big Brother is still watching.
Even though George Orwell's 1984, originally published in 1949, has been filmed twice before — once in 1956 and then again in 1984 — nearly 68 years after its publication it is suddenly the hottest literary property in town. There's a new film project on the fast track at Sony, a stage version heading to Broadway and the 1984 version of the film is being rereleased Tuesday for a one-day engagement. And that’s to say nothing of the book itself, which has received a significant Trump bump. Publisher Signet says 2017 sales of the book, which won’t be in the public domain in the U.S. until 2044, are outpacing last year’s sales over the same period by a whopping 340 percent.
Readers on either side of the so-called Resistance are glomming onto the message of the dystopian classic, as fake news proliferates, allegations of improper surveillance swirl and authoritarian governments crack down on citizens' rights around the globe.
But the story behind how Gina Rosenblum, a formerly unemployed housewife in Chicago, came to own film and TV rights to the book is worthy of its own screenplay.
Rosenblum’s late husband, Marvin Rosenblum, acquired the rights back in 1980 after flying to London to meet with Orwell’s widow Sonia. He was a transaction lawyer with no movie experience, but was fascinated with the novel and wanted to bring it back to the big screen in time for the titular date.
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Sonia Orwell hated the original 1956 movie version and agreed to sell the film and TV rights to the lawyer. (Left penniless after being swindled by an accountant, she died of a brain tumor just days after negotiating with Rosenblum). In an even stranger twist, the CIA had helped fund the 1956 version of the film and called for its ending to be changed in an effort to bolster an anti-Soviet propaganda message, according to British journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders.
Over the years, the Rosenblums flexed their legal muscle to protect their investment, suing Viacom over the reality series Big Brother (that suit was eventually settled). They also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple (over its iconic Macintosh ad that ran once during the 1984 Super Bowl, but then never re-aired). Marvin Rosenblum died in 2003 of cancer, leaving the rights to his widow, who is now producing the Sony film alongside Scott Rudin, with Paul Greengrass attached to direct.
“I feel incredibly fortunate that this book has found renewed interest and has become a phenomenon again for a new generation of readers,” she tells THR. “It’s as timely as ever.”
Above: An exclusive clip of director Michael Radford's new introduction to the 1984 version of 1984.
Though TV also would seem a ripe medium for 1984 (think Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle without the fantasy elements), Rosenblum declined to discuss any TV plans in the works. As for the film, Sony says writer James Graham (A Brilliant Young Mind) has only just started working on a rewrite with Greengrass, and a film is likely two-plus years out.
Coming much sooner is a new stage adaptation of 1984 that will hit Broadway this summer (Rudin is producing alongside Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s Sonia Friedman). The play — which will star Olivia Wilde, Tom Sturridge and Reed Birney, and debut at the Hudson Theater — focuses on a by-now all-too-familiar theme playing out in the “alternative facts” era: that truth is malleable.
In the meantime, new Orwell adherents can — at least for one day — watch the Michael Radford-directed 1984 incarnation in theaters. The John Hurt and Richard Burton starrer will screen Tuesday in 200-plus theaters worldwide, from the U.S. to Croatia to Sweden. On March 25, Magnolia Pictures founder and documentary filmmaker Bill Banowsky shot a new four-minute introduction and 15-minute coda interview with Radford in Rome.
“There’s no mention of Trump or movements. It’s about the rise of extremism worldwide,” says Banowsky of the extra footage. “But there’s no way to avoid political discussion with 1984.”
While the rerelease is expected to coincide with anti-Trump Resistance protests stateside, the book also is embraced by citizens across all parts of the political spectrum. The Orwellian neologism “thoughtcrime” has been co-opted by foes of political correctness. The British author also is revered by the libertarian set.
“Orwell wrote it as a pointer to the left to say that Communism is as bad as fascism,” says Radford. “People are just aiming for power not to bring about a better world but to seize power for power’s sake. Whichever way people want to take it is fine with me.”
Above: An exclusive clip of the new 1984 coda interview with director Michael Radford.
by Aaron Couch, Borys Kit
by Graeme McMillan