Flashback: David Bowie’s Failed Attempt to Adapt George Orwell’s ‘1984’
George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 worked its way into countless high school lit syllabi since it was released in 1949, outlining a brave new world ruled by strict government surveillance and, even more disturbing, mind control of its denizens. It’s a story that never quite went away, including a three-run stage adaptation from Robert Icke and Duncan Miller in 2013 in London’s West End that enjoyed a small number of international stagings, including Los Angeles and Washington. The familiar narrative surges in relevance in today’s political climate. When “alternative facts” rolled out of Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s mouth last January, the rumbling lilt mirrored Oceania’s “doublespeak” enough to rocket the 68-year-old book to Amazon’s top spot – before completely selling out. America’s appetite roared for the Orwellian nightmare. This week, Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation, starring Tom Sturridge (Winston Smith) and Olivia Wilde (Julia), debuted at New York’s Hudson Theatre.
But this isn’t what David Bowie would have wanted.
Bowie wanted a televised musical – or so he told William S. Burroughs in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview. His album Diamond Dogs, which dropped that same year, featured the straight-forward “1984,” with lines like, “They’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air/ And tell that you’re 80, but brother, you won’t care,” highlighting the novel’s revisionism themes and totalitarian government. Other tracks like “Big Brother” and “We Are The Dead” double down on the artist’s fascination not just with Orwell’s futuristic society, but Surrealism and Dada (which makes his timely interview with the post-modern author all the more fascinating).
Bowie dubbed this slice of the record the “glitter apocalypse.” If “1984,” heroic with gusto and Isaac Hayes-esque funk (never much imagined Orwell’s Winston Smith donning a leather jacket and/or egregious mustache, but the Shaft influence is strong), was any indication, Bowie’s production would have been something to behold.
However, flamboyant hellfire never descended, as the project failed to grow into the ambitious production described to Burroughs. Orwell’s widow and executor of his estate, Sonia Brownell, didn’t like Bowie’s ideas for bringing the book to life, so she denied him the rights. It’s a shame, really, considering the behemoth of his final goodbye and opus, Lazarus, which shook out to be a posthumous staging. Furthermore, Donald Trump called Bowie “a great talent” in a very bizarre remark on the singer’s death in January 2016. “Ignorance is strength” wouldn’t look out of place in the POTUS’ late-night covfefe tweet storms, coming from a man who doesn’t seem to care about being loved nor understood. (It should be noted Trump does not appear in any revisions to Icke and Miller’s script.)
“It’s not just like watching a play – it’s kind of like going on a really scary ride,” Wilde told Playbill about the current staging. Although perhaps true, who could be better trusted to manipulate its gears than an actual martian, an artist we still don’t deserve?
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