Recommended reading – WE

I pride myself on having a pretty good knowledge of dystopian film and fiction. Sometimes, though, you discover a gap in your knowledge that leaves you scratching your head and thinking, ‘how did I not know about this?’ I made such a discovery earlier this year when I found out about WE, a Russian novel from the 1920s, written by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I’d been intending to post about it, but was prompted to do so now when I heard that a new Russian film version is due to be released shortly. You can see the trailer at the end of this.

The reason I was so surprised not to have come across WE before, is because the book was clearly so influential. George Orwell accused Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD of taking cues from WE (though Huxley denied this). Later, prior to writing 1984, Orwell stated that he intended to use WE as his ‘model’ for his next novel. Whatever each writer’s influences were, there’s no doubt that, collectively, these novels form the foundation of the modern dystopian genre.

In a glass-enclosed city of absolute straight lines, ruled over by the all-powerful “Benefactor,” the citizens of the totalitarian society of OneState live out lives devoid of passion and creativity—until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: He has an individual soul. Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is the archetype of the modern dystopia and the forerunner of works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Suppressed for many years in Russia, it details the fate that might befall us all if we surrender to some collective dream of technology, and remains a resounding cry for individual freedom.

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V for Vendetta

Now that I’m sitting back behind this desk full-time again, I hope to catch up on the backlog of stuff I’ve built up to share. I have a whole heap of book and film recommendations that I want to add to the already substantial page of book and film recommendations that you can find here.

This week, a post that’s been sitting on my desktop unfinished for 6 months and 1 week. How can I be so precise about the date? Because I watched the 4k restoration of the movie on the day UK cinemas closed back in November last year – masked up for literally the final showing before the multiplexes shut their doors. Roll on next week when, hopefully, they’ll be opening up again.

If you’ve read any of my recent posts about AUTUMN: DAWN (and if you read the bonus material that’ll accompany the limited-edition hardcover), then you’ll know that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how our appreciation of things we’ve watched and read can change according to our current circumstances. I seem to be making a lot of STAR WARS comparisons at the moment, and this reminds me of my reaction to THE PHANTOM MENACE. Back on opening night in 1999, I was blown away. A new STAR WARS movie! It didn’t seem real, and I loved every second of it. But as time went by and I watched the film a few more times, I started to think that, actually, it wasn’t that good. Fast-forward to 2015 when I did a complete re-watch of the films in anticipation of THE FORCE AWAKENS, and I absolutely HATED the prequels. And now here we are, post-Disney, and yet again they’re being reappraised.

I guess my point is this: your engagement with a film or book is inevitably shaped by your life at that moment in time. Case in point, V FOR VENDETTA. I enjoyed the film a lot when I first saw it in 2005. Fifteen years later, it blew me away.

In a future British tyranny, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only by the alias of “V”, plots to overthrow it with the help of a young woman.

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Sir John Hurt (1940 – 2017)

I was saddened to hear today about the death of Sir John Hurt. I don’t usually write about individual actors on this site, but his impact was such that I couldn’t let his passing go unnoticed. He was one of those rare actors who, to me, seemed both recognisable and unrecognisable at the exact same time. His face (and voice) was immediately familiar and yet he completely inhabited the roles he played to such an extent that any familiarity quickly disappeared. When I see Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp on screen (something I try my best to avoid doing), I know I’m watching Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp, albeit in a different setting and with a different haircut. With John Hurt, however, I was only ever watching the character he was portraying. Does that make sense?

There are three particular roles he played I wanted to mention. When I was nine and was rapidly discovering my love for all things horror, ALIEN was released. I’m assuming anyone reading this will know that his character, Kane, has one of the most famous death scenes in movie history. Of course, as a bloodthirsty kid, all I was initially interested in was the chest-burst and the gore. It was only when I later learned more about how the scene was filmed – how he knew what was going to happen but the rest of the cast didn’t – and when I watched the film again (and again and again) did I realise how smart and clever Sir John’s performance was.

A couple of years later he starred as the titular ELEPHANT MAN in David Lynch’s adaptation of the life of the hideously deformed John Merrick. I rewatched the film recently and was again spellbound by his performance. Despite being unrecognisable and with limited movement under Christopher Tucker’s ground-breaking makeup, he succeeded in playing Merrick in such a way that the character’s pain and suffering was abundantly clear.

But my favourite John Hurt performance is as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. I’ve already written about the film here so I won’t go into much more detail, other than to say that the physical and mental transformation of Smith is remarkable. It’s a superb adaptation of a book which in these days of ‘alternate facts’ and the like, continues to feel increasingly relevant.

So goodbye Sir John, and thanks for the many magnificent performances. I’ve barely scratched the surface: V FOR VENDETTA, HELLBOY, HARRY POTTER, DOCTOR WHO, SNOWPIERCER… I could go on and on. Instead, I thought I’d post this compilation clip instead:

1984

1984A week or so ago I attended a school production of 1984. With a small cast, limited props and basic lighting and sound, they did an excellent job of bringing George Orwell’s classic novel to life. As I was watching, it struck me how relevant and frightening the story remains today (in fact, just about the only thing that’s dated about it is the title) and I immediately dug out and re-watched the most recent film version starring John Hurt and the late Richard Burton. This bleak and powerful film is my movie recommendation for this week.

1984 is a remarkable novel which has, of course, had an enormous cultural impact since its publication in 1949. I could write reams about the continued (increasing?) relevance of Orwell’s nightmare vision, but this is neither the place nor the time. Instead, the purpose of this post is simply to draw your attention to a beautifully made adaptation of an extraordinarily important book. Here’s a trailer. Click the link below for my thoughts.

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