This news came down last week, but street artist Shepard Fairey is teaming up with two movie studios to produce a new film adaptation of 1984. Normally, I’d complain about Hollywood dipping back into the same well time and again. But I’m actually fairly excited for this. We still need mass art that grapples with what it means to torture people and to be tortured in the wake of the Bush administration’s distortion of our language and morals and our still-incomplete efforts to eradicate the sins of torture root and branch from our national psyche.
Now, I understand that 1984 isn’t completely or only about the power of torture. It’s about how propaganda shapes thought, how language changes over time, how difficult it is to break away from consensus, how cultural artifacts survive through oral tradition. If Fairey’s involved, this could be an opportunity for some incredibly sweet movie graphic design, and successful proof that you can conjure an uncomfortably foreign world without spending an enormous amount of money.
But what’s always stuck with me most about the book is Room 101, the cruel genius of a regime that figures out what its enemies fear most and forces them to confront it. Winston Smith, the cage, the rats—this, like waterboarding, is the stuff of nightmares even if you’ve never experienced it, the kind of thing you would give anything not to experience. The Hunger Games deals with torture, too. In Mockingjay, the third book in the series which will now inevitably be adapted into a movie, Katniss Everdeen, who becomes a political symbol of a rebel movement, has to deal with the consequences after the Capitol takes her partner in the arena, Peeta Mellark, captive and tortures and brainwashes him. While we don’t see these tortures directly, we do learn about them as Katniss learns about them, and feel her pain as she absorbs the full emotional impact of what could have been done to her.
It’s a good thing we’ll get two big-screen adaptations that take on the full and persistent impact of torture. We need to feel a visceral disgust for the tactics our government employed on our behalf, rather than to see them as proof of some sort of ludicrous manly resolve. But it’s one thing to see torture as repellant, and another to accept that our government did it, and we need to accept responsibility for that and move forcefully to make sure it never happens again. That’s a harder thing to accomplish in a narrative, particularly one displaced from our own place and time. It would require a character we’ve come to know and love to commit torture, and for him or her to make amends in a sustained way. Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison may not exactly be up to the task, especially now that she doesn’t have access to the CIA’s resources. But I wonder if she’s paved the way for a character who could take us on that journey, on television where it could happen over more time and with greater depth and clarity than in a two-hour movie.