This essay attempts to examine the implications of an organized technocratic society, such as the one portrayed in George Orwell’s haunting vision of 1984. More specifically, the research question revolves around what follows when one attempts to create the ideal society. As a follow-up question – does governance and industrialization in an organized society lead to individuals being stripped off their identity for the benefit of a few in power? The issues explored by novelist George Orwell in 1984 will be discussed in relation to fictional works by his contemporaries – such as Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley – in addition to films exploring similar themes, while examining the filmic spaces and embodied image associated with them. Methods of analyses will include literature reviews, film, textual, and visual analyses. 1984 (1984) directed by Michael Radford, and The Truman Show (1998) by Peter Weir, will form the primary case studies for film analysis.
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The dystopian novel 1984,later adapted into a film of the same name, was written by Orwell as a portent against society of both his era, as well as for future societies. The plot revolves around the lives of the citizens of Airstrip One – part of superstate Oceania – who are constantly under surveillance by the inner party leader – ‘Big Brother’. The inner party is the totalitarian ruling body that exercises complete control over the inhabitants of Oceania. These citizens are controlled to the point that their every actions and thoughts are closely monitored, are prevented from leading social or familial lives, and are ordained to obey the instructions of the telescreens that monitor their activities round-the-clock. These telescreens which are present in their homes, offices, town squares, public spaces, and every other imaginable place, act as a prominent and significant prop in the film. The film adaptation of the novel, released in 1984, and directed by Michael Radford, was set in the exact time and place – London – that Orwell envisioned while writing his novel published in 1949. The film will be one of the primary case studies used to explore this theme.
Image 1 (Radford 1984, 0:11:02)
The above still from the movie is a testament to how effectively the telescreen is used as a prop to signify its dominance over the protagonist – Winston Smith – who is comparatively shown as miniscule and overpowered to symbolize his helplessness and insignificance. To reiterate this symbolism of dominance, below the telescreen is seen the party logo with INGSOC written on it, which is the ruling philosophy of Oceania requiring complete submission and devotion of its citizens to Big Brother.
The telescreens confer the inner party with the ability to invade the citizens’ privacy at any time, and therefore succeed in keeping them in a state of perpetual fear and terror. Any free thought against party ideologies or indication of sedition is punishable by torture at the Ministry of Love. Winston – an outer party member – works at the Ministry of Truth, involved in falsifying historical records and releasing distorted news to the public. This is done to keep the citizens in a state of constant fallacy that living conditions are constantly improving under party rule, when the reverse is in fact the reality. One of the Party slogans that state, ‘who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ embodies this paradox fittingly (Orwell 1949, 37). Through 1984, Orwell effectively portrays a society where people are controlled through fear and terror. The power of the party is the fear induced among its citizens.
As a reader, the main takeaway from 1984 is not the notion of constant surveillance or of Big Brother, but that of Newspeak as the language of Oceania. Newspeak is designed to weed out words deemed unnecessary and thereby limit the potential for free thought and acts of treason. Therefore, 1984 can be interpreted as a critique on distortion of language and its effects on society, in which Orwell effectively demonstrates how limiting language can fundamentally limit human thought and thus suppress rebellion.
The above still depicts a building that screams despotism – from its rigid and modular windows, to the rustic look created by the façade treatment, and to the huge poster of Big Brother reminding the citizens of their being watched. The still is a perfect embodiment of the ‘Space of Power’, creatively characterized throughout the film.
This next still – depicting Winston’s office space at the Ministry of Truth – only reinforces the aforementioned theme of control and dominance. The uninteresting and modular cubicles with their own telescreens, the dull greyish tone of the floor finish, together with the subdued lighting, all add up incrementally to create the desired atmosphere.
Image 4 (Radford 1984, 0:14:07)
The same argument can be extended to the above visual of the dimly-lit mess hall at Winston’s work place. The still unambiguously reminds one of a prison mess hall, in both the layout of the tables and chairs as much as the blue-collar attire worn by the employees.
It can be contended that the design of such spaces is ideal for the kind of activity that is meant to happen here – surveillance, control, and instilling fear. Conversely, this is far from being an ideal and habitable office space, where individuals are meant to freely express themselves and enhance their productivity and work efficiency. Therefore, the architectural implications that can be drawn from the examination of above stills are that there is no good reason or justification for the creation of such spaces and architecture if these are not the kind of activities that are envisioned to be happening in there.
The visual images and filmic spaces depicted in the movie – more specifically the sets and setting, props, and even the lighting used – are done flawlessly to convey the atmosphere of dominance, as has been validated in the analyses of the above stills. In most scenes with exception of a couple, it is worth noting that the hues used are shades of grey, brown, and dark blue, in keeping with the theme of the mise-en-scène. The only scenes where the director has strayed away from this norm were to symbolize freedom from party oppression, one of which is presented as a dream sequence. For these scenes, as depicted in the still below, the director boldly went the other extreme – brilliantly but metaphorically depicting lush greenery.
Image 5 (Radford 1984, 1:40:32)
Upon comparing Orwell’s 1984 with a similar work of dystopian fiction – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – written nearly two decades before the former, one may observe many similarities and differences. Although both works have a central theme of control over society exercised by a totalitarian ruling body, the manner they go about attaining this control is very different in both societies. While the inner party of Oceania achieves this end by terrorizing its citizens, the controllers of the World State in Brave New World employ a flawlessly orchestrated system of subtle manipulation through use of conditioning, recreational sex, and soma – a happiness-inducing drug.
Aldous Huxley rightly foresaw that such a regime as depicted in 1984 ‘could break because it could not bend’ (Hitchens 1998). The citizens of the World State who are conferred one of five castes right from birth, are conditioned to believe that they can be happy only in their assigned caste (Huxley 1932). Therefore, Huxley depicts a society where citizens are conditioned into loving their servitude, thereby eliminating all chances or cause for rebellion and creating a more stable system of governance. Both societies portrayed in 1984 and Brave New World, depict an obvious loss of identity and individualism for the citizens. The paramount difference lies in that the citizens of the World State are blissfully oblivious of their deprivation.
Another film that explores similar themes but with an entirely different treatment is The Truman Show, released in 1998, and directed by Peter Weir. The protagonist of the movie, Truman Burbank, unbeknownst to himself has been the central character of a reality television program from birth, which is broadcast live twenty-four-seven and across the globe. Round-the-clock surveillance is a common theme shared by both films. Christof – the architect of both the show and the arcological habitat that Truman resides in – is the ruling body in this case. Although Truman is led to believe he is leading a normal life with friends and family, they are merely actors. As the director controls all events that transpire in Truman’s life, it can be said that the identity possessed by Truman is a fake one conferred upon him due to his designed circumstances.
Unlike Winston who is aware of being watched in 1984, Truman lives thirty years without a shadow of a doubt as to the authenticity of the life he leads, with the crew of the show going out of their way to keep him away from reality, and within the confines of the set. Similar to the distortion of facts in 1984, Truman, in order to dissuade him from leaving the fictional island town of Seahaven, is fed fake news suggesting that Seahaven is voted as the best town on earth. When a spotlight falls from the sky and is noticed by Truman, the radio proclaims that an airplane started shedding parts in mid-air, to explain the bizarre occurrence.
The society depicted in The Truman Show, just like in the case of both 1984 and Brave New World, results in an indisputable loss of identity of the protagonist / citizens. While in 1984, the citizens are forced to follow orders for the benefit of the inner party, in Brave New World the citizens are conditioned into loving their roles in society and their assigned identities. However, in The Truman Show, Truman’s entire life is a travesty. The one glaring commonality between Brave New World and The Truman Show is that in both societies, the controllers attain their means by subtle manipulation and conditioning, unlike in 1984 where it is done through fear, hate, and violence. Nevertheless, unlike its counterparts, the utopian society depicted in The Truman Show eventually collapses.
Image 6 (Weir 1998, 0:03:55)
The above still depicts the urban landscape of Seahaven with its prominent green spaces. One can observe the contrast between the mise-en-scène employed in both films. The Truman Show makes use of livelier and more vibrant colors in their sets and setting – with appropriate lighting used to accentuate them – in stark dissimilarity to the dark hues of 1984. This is only fitting when considering that this film is a lighter and more comical approach to the depiction of a utopian / dystopian society. Nevertheless, once the film steps back outside the set of Seahaven to the real world, darker hues of grey are used, in stark contrast, to depict the outside world as grim and miserable.
The Truman Show is not only a satire of utopia or of reality television, but also of urban planning. New Urbanism is an urban design movement that originated in the United States in the late 20th century, characterized by walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Filmed in Seaside, Florida, in one of the first master-planned New Urbanist communities, Seahaven is a testament to the New Urbanist notion of how urban design can influence behavior and catalyze evolution of ideal communities. The island town can be considered an ideal community in that all residents seem to know and get along with each other, irrespective of race or class distinctions. This New Urbanist ideology is unequivocally demonstrated in how the design and planning of Seahaven succeeded in shaping the habits of Truman, such that he never felt the urge to leave the town for thirty years, thereby substantiating the town as a walkable, self-sustaining, and mixed-use neighborhood.
New Urbanism came about in the United States in early 1980s to effect a paradigm shift from the car-dependency that was prevalent in the post-World War II scenario, since the advent of automobiles, back into more traditional and sustainable notions of neighborhood design. The primary design principles that inform the New Urbanism banner include ‘walkable neighborhoods modeled around the five-minute walk’ and public transit systems, and those which incorporate a ‘greater integration of different land uses at the neighborhood level’ (Fulton 1996). More specifically, New Urbanist towns are designed to be walkable with wide sidewalks, narrow streets, and plenty of green open spaces dispersed throughout. The notion of the five-minute walk ensures that every home is within five walking minutes of the town center, and that ‘parks, schools, and shops are close enough to walk or bike to’ (Ryberg 2006). Many New Urbanists claim to be committed to notions of ‘strong citizen participation, affordable housing, and social and economic diversity’. Therefore, it can be said that ‘New Urbanism strives for a kind of utopian social ideal’, although the focus is on design of the physical environment, in the belief that this can ‘create or influence particular social patterns’ (Fulton 1996). This New Urbanism ideology of an equitable, utopian social community is exemplified brilliantly by the director Peter Weir in The Truman Show.
Designed by pioneers of the New Urbanism movement – architects and planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk – the Seaside development in Florida was chosen as the main shooting locale for The Truman Show, since Peter Weir felt the town ‘looked fake’ (Kates 2000). Ironically, ‘Seaside was designed to provide a community feel that countered Suburbia and felt authentic’ (Blackman 2013). However, Weir was able to transform Seaside into the fictional town of Seahaven with minimal change. The private ownership of Seaside enabled the developers to write their own zoning codes when planning the town, thus effectively integrating a good mix of functions. The development consisted of about three-fifty dwellings on an eighty-acre beachfront property, and a central business district from which the street system is designed in a radiating pattern, with pedestrian alleys, sidewalks, and plenty of green open spaces and public plazas (Dixon 2013). Seaside characterizes a network of walkable streets with an emphasis on the human scale, thus rendering them extremely permeable for pedestrians. The houses are typified by front porches and picket fences, consistent with the houses depicted in The Truman Show, and validated by the previously shown aerial view of Seahaven.
. Image 7: Master Plan of Seaside, Florida (Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. 2018)
Image 8: Aerial view of Seaside, Florida (Emerald Coast Real Estate Photography LLC 2018)
The above image of the post office at Seaside perfectly encapsulates the ‘fake look’ that fascinated Peter Weir, and rightly so, considering that this could well just be another still from The Truman Show, thus validating the selection of Seaside as the shooting locale for the movie. It can also be contended that the above image reminds the beholder of the artificial sets in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window (1954).
A local precedent for New Urbanism is Alkimos, a coastal suburb of Perth, located 42 kilometers north-northwest of Perth’s central business district.
Shorehaven, Alkimos, is a major master-planned residential community designed to respond to the natural coastal environment of the suburb of Alkimos. One of the main design principles that informed the planning of the community is ‘the preservation of the existing undulating landform in the future urban fabric’ (Taylor Burrell Barnett 2018). The above aerial view of Shorehaven is reminiscent of the previously shown image of Seaside, in terms of the form of the buildings, the narrow streets that promote walkability, and in the proportion of built and unbuilt space.
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Shorehaven consists of a ‘pedestrian-orientated coastal village center, based around a traditional main street’, overlooking a park with shops, offices, cafes, and a community beach club facility. The coastal village is designed to function as a mixed-use center that offers a variety of amenities such as recreation, employment, housing, and entertainment. A new primary school is set to be developed to service the community. A high amenity pedestrian network promotes pedestrian permeability and social interaction by linking users with key destinations such as the coastal village center. ‘A wide range of residential densities and housing types are introduced to cater for different housing demands’ (Taylor Burrell Barnett 2018). The incorporation of such a wide variety of land uses and public amenities, emphasis on pedestrian permeability by designing for the human scale, integration of a good proportion of public open spaces to promote social interaction, and introduction of different housing types that cater to diverse housing requirements, are all salient features of the project that confirm with New Urbanism.
The theme of control and dominance already examined can be observed in the concept of the Panopticon – a system of control designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. It consists of an institutional building designed as a circular structure, to allow the inmates to be observed by a single watchman from an inspection house in the center, without the inmates being able to tell when they are being watched, much like the system of surveillance seen in The Truman Show or 1984. Even though Bentham imagined the design scheme to be equally adaptable to schools, hospitals, sanatoriums, and asylums, he devoted most of his efforts into developing the Panopticon Prison (McMullan 2018). The Round House, located at Arthur Head, Fremantle, and built in 1830, is the oldest standing building in Western Australia, and can be labelled a local precedent that exemplifies the Panopticon Prison.
Image 11: Fremantle Round House (Callan Apartments 2016)
In retrospect, the essay has examined how loss of identity and individualism transpires in varying degrees in dissimilar societies, through film analysis of case studies, as well as literature reviews. It has also presented a profound analysis of the New Urbanism ideology, with both international and local precedent studies to support the argument. As an appendage to the examined theme of control and surveillance, the concept of Panopticon is presented with the support of a local precedent study.
- Blackman, Harrison. 2013. “Film Cities: The Truman Show, Urban Planning, And Television’S Evolution”. Expedictionary. https://expedictionary.com/2013/07/22/essay-the-truman-show-urban-planning-and-televisions-evolution/.
- Callan Apartments. 2016. The Fremantle Round House. Image. https://www.callanapartments.com.au/callans-choice-fremantle-round-house/roundhouse-group/.
- Dixon, John Morris. 2013. “How Seaside Helped Revive Urban Design”. ARCHITECT: THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/urbanism-planning/how-seaside-helped-revive-urban-design_o.
- Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. 2018. Master Plan, Seaside, Florida. Image. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/urbanism-planning/how-seaside-helped-revive-urban-design_o.
- Emerald Coast Real Estate Photography LLC. 2018. Seaside, Florida. Image. http://www.emeraldcoastrealestatephotography.com/portfolio/stock-aerial-photography-30a/.
- Fulton, William. 1996. “The New Urbanism Challenges Conventional Planning”. Land Lines, September. https://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/articles/new-urbanism-challenges-conventional-planning.
- Henderson, Paige. 2009. Seaside, Florida. Image. https://www.flickr.com/photos/paigehenderson/3721462893/.
- Hitchens, Christopher. 1998. “Goodbye to All That: Why Americans Are Not Taught History”. Harper’s Magazine. Public.Callutheran.edu. http://public.callutheran.edu/~mccamb/hitchens.htm.
- Huxley, Aldous. 1932. Brave New World. London: Vintage Publishing.
- Kates, Ronald. 2000. “New Urbanism Meets Cinematic Fantasyland: Seaside, The Truman Show, and New Utopias.”. Studies in American Culture 23.2: 93-98.
- McMullan, Thomas. 2018. “What Does the Panopticon Mean in The Age of Digital Surveillance?”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/23/panopticon-digital-surveillance-jeremy-bentham.
- Orwell, George. 1949. 1984. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
- Radford, Michael. 1984. 1984. DVD. Directed by Michael Radford. United Kingdom: Virgin Films.
- Rayner, Jonathan. 1998. “Fearless and The Truman Show”. In The Films of Peter Weir. 2nd ed. Pages 243-256. New York: Continuum.
- Ryberg, Erica. 2006. “Building the New Urbanism”. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/building-the-new-urbanism-126548080/.
- Taylor Burrell Barnett. 2018. Shorehaven-Alkimos. Image. https://taylorburrellbarnett.com.au/projects/shorehaven-alkimos/.
- Taylor Burrell Barnett. 2018. “Recent Project: Shorehaven, Alkimos – Ph: 08-9226-4276 – Taylor Burrell Barnett”. Taylor Burrell Barnett. https://taylorburrellbarnett.com.au/projects/shorehaven-alkimos/.
- Weir, Peter. 1998. The Truman Show. DVD. Directed by Peter Weir. United States: Scott Rudin Productions.