Flashback Friday, Movie Marketing

Flashback MMM: 1984

1984 played select independent theaters this past Tuesday as a form of protest of sorts against the current Presidential administration and its…authoritarian tendencies, including a habit of denying facts are facts. It’s just one way ordinary people have continued to push back since Trump’s election and inauguration. Why April 4th? Because in the story that’s the date Winston Smith begins keeping the diary that will lead to his downfall.

The movie, released of course in 1984, is of course based on the classic George Orwell novel of the same name. The late John Hurt stars as Winston Smith, a worker in the Ministry of Truth whose job is to rewrite news and history to match with the current political agenda. So when grain crops wind up being less than expected, the past is changed so that yields are actually a record high. Smith is vaguely discontent in a society where he and everyone else is always under the watch of Big Brother, the benevolent leader that keeps everyone in line through constant monitoring of thought and deed. A meeting with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) exposes him to an apparent underground of political dissidents but sets Smith down a path that ends with prison and torture/reeducation at the hands of O’Brien (Richard Burton), a political loyalist who knows the only reality is that one must deny reality.

This trailer is so interesting as it seeks to sell a dark, dystopian story in the middle of the 1980s. It starts with an original song from Eurythmics called “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four) that sounds like the epitome of mid-80s New Wave pop. That continues to play as footage from the movie starts showing the Two-Minute Hate and local violence as O’Brien explains to Winston what it will take to create a peaceful new world. We see Winston going through his day amidst the bombed-out buildings of the city. The narrator comes on to explain that  the movie is based on Orwell’s groundbreaking novel before we get more insights from O’Brien and details from the narrator about how society works. It’s then sold as a love story between Winston and Julia as we get more story points, with it ending as O’Brien explains it’s not enough to obey Big Brother, you have to love him.

This is such a weird trailer. 1984 is a dark story, one that’s all about how the human spirit has to be crushed in order for leaders to achieve complete power and resistance is not only futile, it’s part of what the totalitarian regime counts on to keep people down. So the kind of upbeat synth-driven music that accompanies this seems very out of place and tonally dissonant. There may have been an attempt to make it more “hip” or at least add some element that might be more attractive and relevant to the audience of the time that would balance out the frankly depressing tone of the movie itself.

Even the way the movie itself is presented is kind of odd and shows how hard an adaptation of this story is. There’s the basic setup that Winston’s job is to rewrite history. And we see plenty of O’Brien, which makes sense given Burton’s status as a Hollywood legend, but his scenes with Winston are free of the context they’re given in. Finally, the attempt to sell a romantic subplot between Winston and Julia again seems like an attempt to keep things a bit lighter and not sell it as such a bummer.

That’s a counter-intuitive approach, though, considering the story is presented in a very nonlinear way, with no progression from one storypoint to the next. Instead it seems to be appealing to those who were already familiar with the book (a group that likely included most everyone who had taken English as a high school sophomore) by relying on their existing familiarity with the subject matter. But anyone who is familiar with the book is going to look at this trailer and think this is a stark deviation from the point of that story, completely different in feel from what they’ve read.

The poster continues that strange dichotomy between the two storylines. At the top there’s copy saying “George Orwell’s terrifying vision comes to the screen” just above the dramatic title treatment, which is presented as a hard metallic “V” with 1984 over it. This looks like the kind of symbol that would be placed on an imposing highrise building housing various bureaucratic functionaries. The video screen image of Big Brother looms in the background but the foreground shows Winston holding Julia, though it’s unclear if their pose indicates passion or if she’s suffering in some way as he holds and supports her. There’s also a promotional note at the bottom mentioning Eurythmics and the movie’s soundtrack, showing how important those elements are to appealing to audiences at the time.

Throughout the campaign there is a consistent tone and feel in terms of the visuals, even if the rest of the messaging zigs and zags in unexpected ways. Everything here is grey and metallic, looking like the kind of colorless world that’s described in the book. So that at least is making an appeal to the fans that it got that right about the adaptation. That’s the biggest point it has, though, as the rest of the campaign seems to try too hard to be relevant and timely to 1980’s audiences as opposed to selling the timelessness of the cautionary tale that’s contained in the story itself. The movie did not become a huge success, only grossing about $8.4million at the box office when it was released in December of 1984. Not only has the book become a best seller once more as people become interested in stories of political parties who mold facts to fit their worldview but the movie came back to the forefront when Hurt passed away. So it’s more timely and relevant than ever, but I’m not sure the campaign back in 1984 conveyed that in an effective manner.

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