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Orwell’s Novel ‘1984’ Vs McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’

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The dystopian novel ‘1984’ by English novelist George Orwell, is based on the dangers of totalitarianism, and how the world is governed by propaganda and surveillance. Contrastingly, the biographical drama film, ‘12 Years a Slave’ produced by Steve McQueen, is an adaption of the 1853 slave memoir ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup. Although George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ are based on different genres and are set years apart, they similarly share the lack of identity, whether it be through the use of costumes, dialogue or techniques. The differences between these works include the endings and how identity is lost in ‘1984’ due to brainwashing and manipulation, or regained in ‘12 Years a Slave’ when the main protagonist regains their freedom. Both McQueen and Orwell depict manipulation in order to portray lack of identity.

Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ and McQueen’s film ‘12 Years a Slave’ similarly portray the theme of lack of identity through the main characters. In ‘1984’ the main character Winston Smith is described without the correct use of pronouns or collective pronouns. This demonstrates that Orwell develops Smith’s character in order to portray the lack of individuality and identity. Smith’s lack of individuality is evident when he is stretching in front of the telescreen. The instructress refers to Smith as ‘6079 Smith W.’, implying that they were addressed more as a number rather than their given name. Comparatively, Solomon Northup, the main protagonist in ‘12 Years a Slave’, was originally a free man until his life was corrupted and he was presented with an identity that was decided upon from those with greater power. Towards the beginning of the film, two men intoxicated Northup and coerced him to sign his identity away. By altering Northup’s identity, his freedom was diminished, and he was converted from a free man to a slave named Pat.

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Both works use characters uniforms as a tool to portray lack of identity. In ‘1984’ colored overalls, such as black and blue, are used in order to determine the party that each citizen represent. Smith wears blue overalls which represent the outer party, whereas the inner party workers would wear black. Waist sashes are also worn, mainly by women, to represent their devotion to chastity. This tool is similarly used in ‘12 Years a Slave’ as free men wore suits, while slaves were forced to wear tattered tunic shirts and cloth pants. The costume used in ‘12 Years a Slave’ reflect Northup’s oppression and identity throughout the film as they gradually become torn and withered.

Although both works portray lack of identity through the use of collective pronouns, character development, manipulation and character uniforms, Orwell and McQueen use different events to develop the characters’ individuality. This allows the audience to interpret Smith and Northup’s experiences contrastingly. Towards the conclusion of ‘1984’ and ‘12 Years a Slave’, techniques such as imagery, symbolism, repetition and motif are used in order to portray the lack of identity through the main characters. Orwell uses symbolism and motif to enhance the novel’s themes in order to warn the audience of the dangers of totalitarian societies. Big Brother is a major symbol, as he is the face of the party and the leader of a corrupt society. Big Brother controls every action of all citizens living in this society. The glass and coral paperweight represent the past before the revolution and also symbolizes the freedom of both Winston and Julia. This is implied, as production standards were dropped due to the party meaning that the paperweight was made before Smith’s time. When the paperweight is smashed by the thought police, it signifies the bond between Julia and Winston also being destroyed. “The paperweight was the room he was in, and the coral was Julia's life and his own, fixed in a sort of eternity at the heart of the crystal”. Motif is also used in ‘1984’, as the use of doublethink develops the text’s major themes. While O’Brien brainwashes Smith, he forces him to believe that Oceania has been at war with Eastasia, whereas he knew that previously Eurasia were their enemies. The party’s aim is to break down Smiths ability to possess his independent thought. This is evident at the Hate Week rally, as the party alters its sensitive and tactful allegiance, again changing Oceania’s allies. the party manipulates its citizens in order to destroy the capacity for independent thought with the use of their ministries. The ministry of plenty is in charge of economic shortages, the ministry of peace is responsible for war, the ministry of truth rewrites history with lies and the ministry of love is where torture and punishment take place. None of which make sense, hence doublethink. Towards the end of ‘12 Years a Slave’ when Northup is confronted by the slave owner, the slave owner tries to tell Northup that “you’re a slave, you’re nothing but a slave”. This connotates an image to the audience, that Northup is not a free man, but a slave. It is basic knowledge for the audience to understand a slave as a person who is the legal property of someone else and who is forced to obey their owner. This repetition enforces the lack of identity that Northup had, as he was only seen as ‘nothing but a slave’. As the phrase is repeated, the audience visualize the greater hierarchy of the slave owner as it is implied that Northup’s identity has been decided for him. McQueen through dialogue reinforces characters of a greater hierarchy in order to brainwash slaves such as Solomon Northup. Manipulation is also portrayed in ‘1984’ with the use of propaganda and elements of torture.

The techniques used in ‘1984’ and ‘12 Years a Slave’ are quite similar in the sense that they manipulate, brainwash and force the main protagonists to have lack of identity, however the techniques used are enforced differently and imply separate meanings and outcomes. Contrastingly, Orwell’s ‘1984’ and McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ both have different endings to their texts. In ‘1984’, Smiths identity is completely lost due to manipulation, torture and brainwashing. However, in 12 ‘Years a Slave’ Northup regains his identity as a free man. Throughout ‘1984’, Smith gains his ability to think for himself by making individual decisions and going against the laws of the party. This leads to his arrest as well as his partner Julia’s arrest, as the party plan to torture them and strip away their identity as it were initially. The party force Smith to believe in the society and develop a worship for Big Brother. Smith’s identity disappeared along with his ability to think independently. In his place is a model citizen that was conditioned. This ending provides a stream of consciousness, as his stream of consciousness keeps working after ‘the long-awaited bullet entered his brain’.

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Orwell’s Novel ‘1984’ Vs McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from
“Orwell’s Novel ‘1984’ Vs McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Orwell’s Novel ‘1984’ Vs McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 Mar. 2024].
Orwell’s Novel ‘1984’ Vs McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Mar 2]. Available from:
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