Wednesday 7 February 2024

Big Brother's Big Shoes

There’s a graveyard in the publishing world that’s full of authorized sequels and companion novels to famous works. Neither Scarlett nor Rhett Butler’s People are talked about decades following their release or in as fond terms as Gone With The Wind. Return to Wuthering Heights seems to have existed just to cash in on Emily Brontë’s original. The less said about the sequel to Catcher In The Rye, the better.
(Image via Goodreads)

In that context, it seems foolhardy for an author to try and tackle a novel like George Orwell’s 1984, a book that is often ranked among the most important works of fiction in the 20th Century. Few novels have altered the dictionary as often and as profoundly; from doublethink and the memory hole, to Big Brother and the unperson. Moreover, every dystopian novel published in the past 75 years has been compared — often unfavourably — to this Orwellian classic.

Foolhardy or not, Sandra Newman was authorized by the Orwell estate to craft a novel set in the world of 1984.

You have to respect Sandra Newman’s ambition and, in our opinion, accomplishment. For the most part the resulting novel Julia meets the lofty standard to which it aspires.

This success can probably be attributed not to a slavish lockstep with the original, but rather to the fact that Newman’s evident affection for 1984 is tempered with a clear-eyed critical analysis of it.

This is more than an adaptation or retelling — it’s a companion piece that has something worthwhile to say.

As progressive as he was on matters pertaining to class and culture, and as observant as he was in the ways in which freedom could be subverted, Orwell neglected issues of gender equity. Notably in 1984, there are only two female characters, neither of whom is depicted as having agency or given any sort of interior development.
Multiple hit reality TV shows 
have been inspired by 1984,
the BBC has adapted it to radio
on six occasions, it's even been
made into a musical twice.
(Image via

Retelling the same narrative as Orwell did, but presenting it from the perspective of Julia, Newman recasts 1984’s protagonist Winston Smith as a self-absorbed brocialist who is willfully ignorant of much that goes on in the lives of those around him.

Newman imbues her protagonist with sly wit and an understated charm; her descriptions of working at the Ministry of Truth reveal how humour can be used as a coping mechanism for those living in totalitarian regimes. Julia is a warmer, happier person than the melancholic Winston Smith (whose nickname readers learn was ‘Old Misery’), despite having endured worse hardships.

Although it follows most of the same narrative beats, Julia is almost twice as long as Orwell’s original. This can leave the story dragging at places, but for the most part the extra length is used well, taking readers on a tour of proletarian districts, inner-party sanctums, and the wider world.

Julia is a more courageous character than Winston, and leans into the little rebellions that can make life more tolerable in a totalitarian state. Consequently, the story loses some of the bleakness that makes 1984 such a powerful novel. Perhaps this is the cost of storytelling that needs to present readers with a reflective mirror, and one that must recognize the jagged path of social progress that’s unfolded in the decades between 1984 and Julia.

In addition to being true to Orwell’s most famous work, Julia has a 21st-century perspective that might appeal more to readers under the age of 50. Those reading 1984 today may not have a visceral sense of the brooding and malign shadow the Soviet Union under Stalin cast across the globe when the book was published. As such, Newman’s take on totalitarianism — replete with subtle references to modern-day political issues — are likely to make the original more accessible to current generations.
The Orwell estate rejected Bowie's
request to make a musical based
on 1984. What other works have
been lost due to long copyright?
(Image via Rolling Stone)

In most jurisdictions (such as Canada and the United Kingdom), 1984 is already in the public domain, so anyone could have penned their own retelling in those countries — though not in the United States. But Julia came about at the express request of the Orwell estate, who invited Sandra Newman to write this book. We wonder what Newman might have done differently with Orwell’s vision if she had not been operating under the auspices of the rights holders. Likewise, what other versions might be out there ready to be created once Orwell’s book enters the public domain in the United States?

One can see why the heirs to Orwell’s intellectual property selected Newman, who is no stranger to genre fiction, having written about time travel and various apocalypses. But her work has been the type of science fiction that mysteriously ends up in the “fiction and literature” shelves of most bookstores, rather than being placed next to books with rocket ships and aliens on their covers.

This sheen of literary credibility may help Julia find readership in the wider world, but that unfortunately may also dissuade some Hugo Award voters from picking it up. Julia may only be the little sister to 1984’s big brother, but amazingly it’s not lesser.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that sounds very interesting. I've read the original, and now I *do* want to read this alternate take -- other reviews had left me shrugging. Thanks!