Who is Big Brother watching? New ‘1984’ graphic novel leaves proles, forward-minded fans out | Mar. 23-29, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: ‘1984: The Graphic Novel’ By George Orwell and Fido Nesti | 2021 | Hardcover, $22 | Fiction, dystopia | Available at the Seattle Public Library

In 1949, fresh from the horrors of World War II and the collapse of the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, British author George Orwell published what is arguably the seminal dystopian novel of the 20th century: “1984.”

Set in an alternate universe version of London, the novel charts the radicalization and downfall of Winston Smith, an office drone who spends his days rewriting history to conform to the mercurial mandates of The Party, which rules the totalitarian province of Oceana, a dictatorship headed by a mysterious figurehead known as Big Brother. Life is squalid and oppressive, war is constant (although the enemy changes from moment to moment) and Winston longs for freedom.

In 2020, seven decades after “1984” was published, Brazilian illustrator Fido Nesti produced a graphic novel interpretation of Orwell’s vision. First released in his home country, the book was reissued in the US in 2021.

Nesti’s adaptation of the novel’s text is extremely faithful; very little of the story was cut or altered. The resulting graphic novel is dense, both in narrative and imagery. Nesti’s drawing style is reminiscent of mid-20th-century comic strips, with a color scheme consisting of understated variations of black, white and a shade of sepia that calls to mind the “night mode” blue light filter on a phone or tablet. The overall impression is of a bleak, colorless and depressing world.

At its core, Nesti’s simple art is the stylistic embodiment of Newspeak, the stripped-down version of English used in “1984” that was created by The Party to restrict people’s ability to both express and think about forbidden concepts. There is no nuance, color or ambiguity in Newspeak or in Nesti’s work.

It’s clear why Orwell, as a writer, would find the concept of Newspeak abhorrent. And it’s clear why Nesti, too, would find a graphic version of Newspeak to be an appealing way to depict the world of “1984.” Unfortunately, this artistic choice is double plus ungood. And just as calling it so only gets across a fraction of the point I hope to make, so too does Nesti’s barebones art fail to capture the dark fascination of Orwell’s novel and Winston’s expanding inner and increasingly grim outer lives.

The art remains the same, whether Winston is plugging away at the office, reveling in a moment of undistilled freedom with his lover, Julia, or even being tortured in the Ministry of Love. The result is a story leeched of its ability to shock or outrage. By the end, the effect of reading the graphic novel is similar to perusing a series of gloomy memes on
r/ABoringDystopia.

This lack of differentiation in the art between pessimistic and optimistic parts of the story highlights a key issue with the original text and, in fact, many 20th-century dystopias: the “proles.”

The proles, or proletarians or working class, are a part of the story I had never latched onto, though I’ve read Orwell’s novel several times, seen Michael Radford’s film adaptation and listened to the 1949 radio play. The proles make up 85 percent of the population and, interestingly, aren’t subject to the oppressions that Winston and his upper-class brethren suffer. In fact, according to Winston, their lives have improved compared to how they lived under capitalism.

Unlike Winston and other members of The Party, proles aren’t obliged to use Newspeak. They get to hang out in pubs rather than ideological community centers during their downtime. Proles can gamble and watch sports and they can marry whom they like. Neither the nefarious Thought Police nor the more expectedly unjust civil police bother them. Proles are even known to form vast criminal organizations.

But the proles don’t count; according to The Party, they aren’t real people.

Orwell gets away with this disregard because real-life proles aren’t his audience. Orwell had both sympathy and a marked praise for the poor and working class. In an earlier nonfiction book, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” he wrote of his time living with the Brookers, a lower-income family: “It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay. … The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all.”

However, this lower-income routine is exactly how Orwell describes the terrible life of the upper-class intelligentsia in “1984”: housed in smelly and crumbling living quarters, forced to eat bad food, engaged in repetitive and meaningless drudgery, and limited by the noncommunication of Newspeak.

Orwell’s interpretation of the dystopia of “1984” is a classist one; his imagined hell is a real situation for many people. Winston wants everything the proles have. So why doesn’t he join them? He could live a life of freedom, retain his individuality from him, marry Julia and work for revolution from within the majority populace. Vanishing into the faceless crowd is posited as a possibility — a difficult one, but a possibility. The reason he won’t do it is the same reason the US is facing a democratic crisis. We may live exactly like Those People, but don’t ever suggest They are the same as us.

Since the proles of “1984” never rise up in the revolutionary manner Winston specifically envisions, he can’t fathom they might radically change society anyway — in a bloodless coup. Eighty-five percent of a society is society. The elite of The Party are the outsiders. If the proles continue to consolidate power under their “criminal” organizations, what is The Party to them? It’s just empty platitudes and lies—exactly what Winston impotently rails against the government for being. If nobody listens to and understands Newspeak, does it matter what it says? If the authorities don’t have control, are they really the authorities?

Who was Orwell’s “1984” written for, then, if it was not for the proles of his time? And, in turn, who was Nesti’s “1984” graphic novel produced for? Publisher HMH Books’ stated intention was to offer a new perspective on the story for Orwell fans and to be an accessible entry point for young people who have never read “1984.” On one of these points, it succeeds. Nesti’s graphic novel is an extremely recognizable and literal interpretation of Orwell’s 70-year-old vision. But the strict faithfulness of its artistic outlook offers nothing new to anyone who has already encountered the novel.

Big Brother looks like Hitler. London looks like Blitz-era London. The Thought Police are jackbooted authoritarian thugs. Winston Smith is a middle-aged white guy.

Fido Nesti’s graphic novel interpretation of “1984” doesn’t challenge the reader’s notions of the subtle ways political oppression presents itself; the calculating facades a dictator and his or her dictatorship can assume, now that we have futuristic surveillance and interactive communication technology; or how a dystopia might appear to those living within it. It’s for members of The Party, not for the overlooked revolutionaries of the 85 percent.

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