1984, V For Vendetta, And John Hurt’s Hope-Filled Legacy

I was shocked when I heard that John Hurt had died. I knew he had been ill and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but still… One of the many actors that had always been there for me was now gone. The Elephant Man, Alien, Watership Down, some TV thing called Doctor Who, and Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings.

But there’s two films that stand out particularly for me – 1984 and V for Vendetta. In those films, we see Hurt play both sides of the coin in narratives that depict dystopian totalitarian societies. V for Vendetta has long been a favourite of mine and I always remember, remember to watch every November! I read 1984 as a youth and later immensely enjoyed the film – and the great music from the Eurythmics!

dys·to·pi·a (noun):

  1. An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.
  2. A work describing such a place or state.

Naturally, being somewhat angry at the state of world affairs now with the likes of Trump and Farage running rampant with their brand of doublespeak, or “alternate facts”, I thought I would pay tribute to John Hurt with a review of these two films and how they relate to my view of world affairs right now.

DISCLAIMER: By the way, I am not looking to enter into a political debate here. This is a Doctor Who fan site, not a political platform. Views expressed here are purely my own and do not reflect those of the Doctor Who Companion, its contributors, or editors.

In 1984, we see Hurt play the main protagonist in George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future wherein the ruling party controls the people through fear of an outside enemy, constantly rewriting history and, most insidious of all, the use of “doublethink” – altering the perception of reality with lies that people believe alongside what they know was previously truth.

“Doublethink goes on forever. With the lie always one step ahead of the truth”

Does that sound familiar? Does that sound like a certain President and his newly-selected press officer and spokespeople who just seem to make stuff up on the fly, and then tell the people it’s the truth? Tell a lie often enough and it seeps into the subconscious of the people hearing it until such time as they can’t distinguish the truth from the lies. Can I just say that the phrase “alternate facts” seems to me to be practically interchangeable with “doublethink”?

Anyway, I think most people are familiar with the basic story of 1984; Winston Smith works in MINREC (Ministry of Records) as one of the workers tasked with rewriting history by changing old news articles to suit the message of the day. He becomes so disillusioned with this state of affairs that he starts writing a journal, committing his thought crimes to paper and rebels by falling in love with Julia, committing the hideous sin of a sex crime in the process. However, the man he thought was sympathetic was actually working for the thought police to catch him in his crimes. Winston and Julia are carted off and we see Winston undergo torture in the infamous “Room 101” to re-instil his love for Big Brother and The Party.

Hurt’s performance in this is, of course, outstanding and should have won more awards than it did. 1984 won Best Film and Best Actor for John Hurt at the 1985 Evening Standard British Film Awards. Richard Burton deserves a mention for his chilling portrayal of the party official who betrays and then tortures Smith.

And now, on to one of my all time favourite films, V for Vendetta! This time, Hurt plays the glorious High Chancellor of the ruling party, Adam Sutler. It is interesting to note that the film’s producers decided to change the name from the graphic novel in which he was known as Adam Susan. Sutler is a portmanteau word made up from “Susan” and “Hitler”!

Whilst Hurt’s role isn’t that large in the film, it is still great to see him ranting on screen and chewing the scenery – especially during the scene where he plays two versions of himself (both fools) in a comedy sketch. As Adam Susan in V for Vendetta, Hurt becomes the very thing that Winston Smith rebelled against in 1984 the leader of the totalitarian state that wants to control every aspect of the people’s lives – and he does it marvellously! In another parallel, the logo of the ruling party in 1984, INGSOC, is backed by a big “V” and in V for Vendetta, the “V” represents the rebel. Nice. I like connections like this!

The world of V for Vendetta has many parallels with that of 1984, a totalitarian state with, most likely, an invented enemy to keep the population fearful and compliant. Here, we have a government that even more blatantly uses the media to brainwash the populace that that in 1984. I’m sure that if Orwell had written his story in modern times then it would be very much like V for Vendetta and the Chancellor would be orange with shredded wheat for hair!

In a nutshell, V for Vendetta chronicles the story of Evey Hammond, as V saves her from secret police thugs and introduces her to his crusade against the tyrannical state. This is part revenge story and part freedom fighter tale, as V sets about killing those who created him and destabilising the government enough for the people to take note and stand up for themselves. Evey eventually takes on the role of rebel, making the final play in place of V and becomes the new saviour of the people by making the choice to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

So my tribute to John Hurt is really to thank him for playing such a large part in bringing two stories that are supposed to be fiction to life in a world that seems to be hurtling head first into the very state of affairs that these films were warning us against! Whilst 1984 is much more bleak, offering us little hope, I do take courage from V for Vendetta knowing that there will always be people willing to fight for freedom from the tyranny of authoritarian states!

Verily, I say “Vive la revolution!”