A Cover Is Not A Book…Part 2
It is perhaps the most imaginatively redesigned book of them all. George Orwell’s 1984 has become a symbol of surveillance and oppression that speaks out to everyone, even though it now reads very much as a reflection of its time. The US pulp cover above is probably the strangest attempt made at portraying the events of the book – I’m not sure what the pile of bricks is about, possibly an incredibly prescient comment on Trump’s wall? Pulps can sell anything the way they want. I once owned a paperback copy of Boswell’s journals that had been repackaged as a ‘bawdy’ Barbara Cartland-style romance.
Over the years and across international boundaries the same visual symbols from 1984 crop up on the covers. The all-seeing eye, the clock striking thirteen (the one above is a favourite), censorship, designs that invoke paranoia. Big Brother appears in various forms, not all human, and of course ended up as the name of a trashy reality TV show whose participants had not heard of Orwell.
The rallying cry of 1984 is always picked up by the young, who adapt its dystopia in myriad ways. It was brave of Penguin to remove the title completely from one of their paperback editions but why not? The visual mnemonic does the job brilliantly. Penguin had enough brand identity on its old paperbacks to be able to play with the imagery. The one below has a touch of Quatermass at a time when British SF was hugely successful.
The book’s sales have dipped and risen over the years, but soared once more upon Trump’s arrival. Still, its old problems remain, even within its ‘classic’ status; Winston Smith, led on by a wildly dangerous Julia, is a man doomed from his first free thought. He was always a cipher because Orwell intended him as an everyman – it’s what he needs to be for identification purposes.
So if you don’t have strong characters to put on the cover, how do you depict the book’s ideology? You can cite the slogans or pick representative images for the ideas, as designers do with Kafka, and the title is a designer’s dream, forming a logo of its own. It’s interesting that nobody picks Room 101 or the caged rat as a cover, which would surely prove more visceral.
Many of us can probably date the first time we read the novel by the cover it had then. It has always surprised me that other ‘classic’ reads have not achieved this level of design status – why hasn’t Dickens been given such treatment? Surely Hogarth’s pictures would make an appealing match even if the time periods are slipped. Perhaps only books with timeless universal themes can pull off the trick. 1984 barely has real characters and in its hero we simply get the latest in a long line of British wimps that include Guy Crouchback, Charles Ryder and Patrick Melrose. The images depict the themes because they have to; imagine a version with Winston Smith as a hero and you go right back to the pulp cover. The artist is trying to colour in a blank.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been granted an image made popular by its television incarnation, so that the white hood is now synonymous with the idea of female oppression. And of course the Guy Fawkes mask now associated with all rebellious causes stems from the graphic novel of ‘V For Vendetta.
Perhaps big ideas are more fun to visualise than the interior lives of characters. One thing is sure; the symbolic value of 1984 will continue to be reinterpreted for each new generation.