January 21, 2021

In November 1973, Rolling Stone magazine brought together David Bowie and William S. Burroughs for a wide-ranging conversation between two icons of the counterculture. At one point, Bowie let slip that he was writing songs for a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which has just this month entered the public domain under UK copyright law. It did not come to pass. Orwell’s famously protective widow Sonia vetoed Bowie’s request, forcing him to feed some of his Orwellian leftovers into his 1974 album Diamond Dogs. “The whole thing was originally 19-bloody-84,” he complained when the album came out. “It was the musical, and she put the clappers on it by saying no.”

The details are hazy. Bowie variously described his take on Nineteen Eighty-Four as a TV show, a stage musical and an album. Despite his claim that Sonia was “the biggest upper-class snob I’ve ever met in my life,” it’s very unlikely that they ever spoke, or that she had a specific objection to Bowie. Horrified by the 1956 Hollywood version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which softened the edges and mangled the ending, she effectively imposed a blanket ban on adaptations (aside from radio) until shortly before her death in 1980. It is perhaps for the best that she died six months before the release of Rick Wakeman and Tim Rice’s unapproved concept album 1984, which featured a duet between Chaka Khan and comedian Kenny Lynch called “Robot Man”.

Bowie framed Sonia’s rejection as terribly unfair: a snobbish old fogey standing in the way of his brilliant notion. But really, what was lost? At the time, Bowie was far more interested in collaging striking images in his lyrics than in telling coherent stories and showed no indication of having the narrative discipline necessary to adapt a whole novel into songs. If Sonia had approved the project, it would probably have either collapsed or ended up as a grand folly. Instead, by having to combine fragments of Orwell’s dystopia with the more anarchic, youth-driven visions of Burroughs and Anthony Burgess, Bowie created a far more idiosyncratic and topical sci-fi nightmare. If you like Diamond Dogs, then you have Sonia Orwell to thank.

The other great counterfactual collision between rock and literature is the Beatles’ version of The Lord of the Rings. In 1968, Denis O’Dell from the Beatles’ Apple Films thought that J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga could form the basis for the band’s third live-action movie vehicle and pitched it to them while they were in India. United Artists, who had the Beatles on contract, had just acquired the movie rights from Tolkien, so that wasn’t an issue. It was loosely decided in India that Paul McCartney would play Frodo, Ringo Starr Sam, George Harrison Gandalf and John Lennon Gollum, and they would all record new songs for the film.

After David Lean and Stanley Kubrick turned it down, Michelangelo Antonioni was apparently interested in directing but as the band fell apart, so did the film. Again, it’s hard to mourn the loss. I can just about picture the Fabs in Middle Earth in an animated sequel to Yellow Submarine but a live-action musical fantasy epic starring four non-actors who were increasingly sick of each other’s company? It had all the ingredients of a historic disaster.

There is an enduring cultural obsession with might-have-beens. In The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, the critic David Hughes examines in tantalising detail such abandoned projects as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Frank Herbert’s Dune (the job went to David Lynch) and Tim Burton’s Nicolas Cage-starring Superman Lives. Every couple of years, the story of Nick Cave’s berserk rejected screenplay for a sequel to Gladiator resurfaces to general delight. There are long Wikipedia pages devoted to films that the likes of Spielberg and Tarantino talked about but never made.

As the title of Hughes’ book indicates, such what-ifs are usually predicated on the assumption that movie-goers missed out because of killjoy rights-holders or short-sighted studio executives. If only the real artists had got their way! In the realm of the counterfactual, movies never have a chance to fail, so all we have to go on are their would-be creators’ best intentions. In reality, passion projects stumble all the time. Philip Roth is arguably the greatest novelist of his generation but until HBO’s The Plot Against America, adaptations of his books ranged from merely underwhelming (The Humbling) to utterly misbegotten (American Pastoral). In fact, Lego bricks have inspired more good movies than Roth.

To take one legendary example, it’s possible that Jodorowsky’s Dune, which was set to involve Orson Welles, Pink Floyd and Salvador Dalí, would have been a far-out masterpiece. But you could just as easily imagine Frank Herbert fans being bitterly disappointed by it and fantasising about what it could have been if only the visionary behind Eraserhead and The Elephant Man had been trusted with it. Counterfactuals usually flatter the thwarted.

The mythology of creativity requires villains in the form of out-of-touch gatekeepers who obstruct the path of talent. We laugh at the A&R man who turned down the Beatles and the numerous publishers who rejected Animal Farm because they epitomise the obstacles our heroes must overcome on their journey to greatness. That’s why Paul McCartney gave director Peter Jackson the misleading impression that the rock’n’roll-hating septuagenarian Tolkien himself kiboshed the Beatles’ Lord of the Rings movie, and it’s why Bowie invented a frosty encounter with Sonia. It’s a better story.

If Bowie were still alive, he would be free to do something with Nineteen Eighty-Four now that all of Orwell’s books are out of copyright. (The screen rights to that novel, which Sonia sold in 1980, are more complicated.) There is already an Animal Farm video game and what happens next will be interesting. I’d like to see people use Orwell’s books as springboards rather than blueprints. The movie Clueless, a freewheeling 90s reimagining of Jane Austen’s Emma, and Damon Lindelof’s ingenious HBO sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen both prove that one way to respect beloved source material is to turn it into something radically new. Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s inspired 2013 stage play of Nineteen Eighty-Four turned the book inside out.

I’m not sure, though, that even hamfisted takes on Orwell will do him any harm. Like other overzealous managers of literary estates — Lord Tennyson’s son, T. S. Eliot’s widow — Sonia believed that a reputation was a fragile thing, vulnerable to serious damage in the wrong hands, but great work is impressively resilient. It’s unlikely that Austen would have endorsed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or that Eliot would enjoyed the movie Cats, yet the status of those writers is undented. There is no idea bad enough to diminish the standing of Dickens or Shakespeare. It’s the adapter who takes the blame when a new version goes awry. So I suspect that when Sonia killed the glam-rock Nineteen Eighty-Four, it wasn’t her late husband’s reputation she ended up protecting but Bowie’s.