I am frankly mystified by the comments of those who seem to find this film disappointing or inadequate, and even more by those who claim to prefer the 1956 version, which I consider to be inferior in every respect to the later version, except for some top quality performances by Donald Pleasence and Michael Redgrave in supporting roles. In my opinion, this later version of "Nineteen Eighty Four" is one of the best literary adaptations I've seen.
The film was obviously a labor of love for director Michael Radford, who also co-wrote the screenplay. As noted in the end credits, the film "was photographed in and around London during the period April-June 1984, the exact time and setting imagined by the author". If this were a big-budget Hollywood bomb, I might consider that a publicity stunt, but in the case of this little-known, little-seen British film, it's fairly obviously a form of homage.
The look of the film is extraordinary in its evocation of the world Orwell created, down to the tiniest detail. Although that world was obviously very different from the real world of 1984, a deliberate choice was made to stick with the Orwellian vision in every way, anachronistic technology and all, and I firmly believe it was the right choice, as opposed to the "updating" we sometimes see in adaptations of classic "futuristic" stories. Thus, we are treated to the baroque and slightly disorienting sight of black rotary-dial telephones, pneumatic document-delivery systems, old-fashioned "safety razors", tube radios, etc., all of which were already obsolete at the time of filming. And of course, the omnipresent black-and-white "telescreens" with rounded picture tubes.
As Winston Smith, the story's protagonist, John Hurt is an inspired piece of casting; absolutely the perfect choice. Not only does he fit the author's description of Smith to a "T", but with the haircut he's given, he even bears a striking resemblance to Orwell himself. And there is no actor alive better than Hurt at evoking victimization in all its infinite gradations and variations. Suzanna Hamilton, relatively little-known here in the US, also does a fine job as Julia. The film also contains the final film appearance of Richard Burton, in one of his most fascinating and disturbing performances as O'Brien. And the great Cyril Cusack does a classic turn as Charrington, the pawnshop proprietor.
Right from the opening scene, in which we look in on a screening of a short propaganda film, brilliantly conceived and executed by Radford, during the daily "two minutes hate", climaxing in Dominic Muldowney's memorable, genuinely stirring national anthem of Oceania played behind the gigantic image of Big Brother, we are catapulted headlong into Orwell's nightmare vision. While not a particularly long novel (my copy is 256 pages), it is nevertheless dense with ideas, and it would be impossible for a standard-length film to include them all, even if the audience could stand all the endless talking heads it would require. Given the inherent limitations, I think the film largely succeeds in preserving a good portion of the ideological "meat" of the novel. It is certainly extremely faithful in the material it does include. Even the incidental music by Eurythmics feels entirely appropriate, and doesn't in any way break the mood. In fact, it even enhances it.
While I thought the 1956 version did a fairly good job for the time, it had a number of flaws in my estimation that made it far less successful an adaptation. For one thing, although the world it portrays is grim, it's not nearly grim enough. Also, Edmond O'Brien may have done a creditable job as Smith, but physically he's all wrong for the part. The portly, even chubby O'Brien bears little resemblance to the slight, emaciated, chronically exhausted, varicose-ulcerated Smith described in the novel. Neither is the 1956 version as faithful to the book; some of the material is softened, and there are odd, unexplainable alterations: O'Brien becomes O'Connor, and I don't think that Goldstein, the possibly imaginary leader of the possibly fictitious "Resistance", is even mentioned. At 90 minutes, it runs a good 23 minutes shorter than the later version, which necessitates the trimming of even more of the novel, for all you literary purists. In all, for me, the 1984 version of "Nineteen Eighty Four" is the definitive version; a remarkably vivid and memorable film.