Almost four years ago, the novelist Adam Biles was talking to a friend about the fact that George Orwell’s work was going into the “public domain” on New Year’s Day 2021. Under British law, copyright expires seventy years after end of calendar year of author’s death – Orwell died in 1950.
The two men joked about possible sequels: “1984 sequels will be considered in 1985,” “Maybe there could even be an Animal Farm sequel?”, “I wasn’t seriously thinking about it, but for a few months it kept coming to my mind Biles tells BBC Culture. “It was one of those ‘useless’ thoughts that stuck with me.”
“I’ve always believed that Animal Farm isn’t just unimprovable, it’s unrepeatable”
“Oooh, you’re going to get a lot of flak for this”
Taking time off from his job as director of the literary department at the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company during the Covid-19 lockdown, Beals began writing what would become Beasts of England. “I started it as a literary experiment,” he says. “I always hoped I would finish it and share it with the world, but I was never quite sure. I didn’t know for sure that any publisher would want to “touch” it.
He was fully aware that he was up against one of the most beloved books in the English language. “When I mentioned it to people, they were like, ‘Whoa, that’s cheeky,’ which I took to mean, ‘Whoa, you’re going to get yelled at for that.’
Around the same time, Bill Hamilton of the literary agency AM Heath was also thinking about life after copyright. The agency has represented Orwell’s estate since 1950, and Hamilton has been personally responsible for it since 1989.
He wanted to take the initiative, commissioning someone to remake 1984 from the perspective of Julia, Winston Smith’s lover and fellow dissident. “I’ve always thought that Animal Farm is not just unimprovable, it’s unrepeatable,” Hamilton tells BBC Culture.
»1984 is very different. It’s full of narrative gaps that beg to be filled: who the hell was Julia? Where did it come from? Was she spying on him? What if Julia was telling this story? It was begging to be written and it took someone with great finesse to start it.”
He chose Sandra Newman, the American author whose work includes the dystopian novels The Men and The Country of Ice Cream Star. After rereading 1984 and seeing the narrative potential, Newman jumped at the chance. “Orwell left a lot of money on the table for me,” he tells BBC Culture. “I tried to spend it wisely.”
No, David Bowie
Every copyright management company dreads their expiration, both for financial and authorial reasons. Until her death in 1980, the staunch guardian of Orwell’s legacy was his widow Sonia, who fended off numerous would-be biographers. The best-known story of “denial” was David Bowie’s request for permission to write a rock musical for 1984, a venture that morphed into 1974’s Diamond Dogs album.
Hamilton has trademarked phrases like “Big Brother is watching you”
In 1983, Hungarian author György Dalos published an unlicensed sequel in 1985, but copyright enforcement of that work was not a top priority. In the UK, novelists curious about Orwell had to turn to the author’s life rather than his copyrighted words, producing semi-biographical novels such as Norman Bissell’s Barnhill, David Caute’s Dr Orwell and Mr Blair and Peter Hodgkinson’s Orwell Calling. “Almost everyone followed the rules,” says Hamilton.
“The literary curator’s job is to filter, but you have to be quite open-minded and vigilant. I was interested in quality control.”
The expiration of the copyright caused an avalanche of new releases from various publishers, but not a completely free circulation. Letters and essays uncovered after Orwell’s death by the late scholar Peter Davison remain restricted.
Hamilton has trademarked phrases like “Big Brother is watching you” to ensure that Orwell merchandise continues to maintain certain standards and bring in money for the Orwell Foundation. And in the US, where copyright lasts 95 years after publication, Animal Farm is protected until 2040 and 1984 until 2044.
Considering that many Trump conservatives are sure that the latest book is aimed at them, maybe this one saved us from a novel in which Joe Biden is a “woke” Big Brother.
“Six months later they were coming back pulling their hair out”
Orwell-loving filmmakers face a more difficult hurdle. A few days before her death, Sonia Orwell sold the film rights to lawyer Marvin Rosenblum, who produced Michael Radford’s 1984 adaptation. Even now, the US rights are still owned by Rosenblum’s widow, Gina . “So many ‘suitors’ over the years have gone to talk to her and come back six months later pulling their hair out,” says Hamilton.
A remake has been in the works for years with producer Scott Rudin and director Paul Greengrass, but its current status is unclear. “He couldn’t make a remake, which I find outrageous,” says Hamilton. “It’s a ridiculous waste of an opportunity.”
Orwell wrote six novels, three classics and more than a million words, but all are overshadowed by his two masterpieces: 1984 and Animal Farm. They are two very different books with a common political agenda. First Orwell explained the rise of Soviet totalitarianism – which totalitarianism imagines the capitalism of our time – in the form of an allegory.
Four years later, he used dystopian science fiction as a tool to “detonate” the methods of an all-powerful totalitarian state. The first was a lesson from the recent past, while the second was a future warning. As much as regimes seek to distort reality and suppress freedom, these books will create “suspects”.
*With information from BBC | Main subject photo: Orwell Archive/University College London