A Beautiful Mind1984-Big Brother is Watching

A Beautiful Mind

Return to 1984

John Nash is Winston Smith from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Don’t worry, Winston. Big Brother is here to help you.

liam connell

“You asked me once, Winston, what was in Room 101. I told you then that you knew already. Everyone knows. The thing that is in Room 101: it’s the worst thing in the world.”

That damn Orwell. That damn, damn, damn, George Orwell. A hex on him for making the masses see such a biased, one-sided version of his truth, his own twisted, socialism-hating, state-fearing, perception of the truth. These are the thoughts of those who felt especially challenged by the publication of Orwell’s 1949 masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four and its subsequent reproduction-for-mass-consumption, in the form of the film by the same name, released in 1984. Such a confrontational work challenged the ideas of thinker, statesman, proletarian, and peasant alike. Some no doubt felt his work was a little too powerful, a little too convincing, and, ultimately, a little too one sided.

What was needed from the socialist-apologist corner, who also saw the life of Nineteen Eighty-Four protagonist Winston Smith, was a reply to the statements made in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And now, finally, fifty-four years after its original publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four has another answer to the question it originally posed: “What is freedom?” This answer comes in the form of the Academy Award-winning film A Beautiful Mind.

A Beautiful Mind is a deceptively clever retelling of the events that took place in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It tells the other side of the story.

An honorable delusion

A Beautiful Mind, much like the major revolutions of modern history, begins with honorable intentions. We see John Nash (the “everyman” that George Orwell chose to name Winston Smith) begin his work at Princeton University with seemingly harmless intentions: to discover a mathematical theory that will make him “matter,” as his roommate Charles observes. This is essentially what Winston Smith is trying to do by keeping a journal, an activity as discouraged in Orwell’s world as is Nash’s desire to skip class and alienate his colleagues so as to discover something truly original.

Winston’s journal springs from the same desire to “matter” that John Nash harbors. He wants history to record him, the fact that he existed, before “the Party,” the totalitarian government that controls every aspect of society in Nineteen Eighty-Four, wipes everything clean. Winston eventually comes to despise his life and the conditions in which he is forced to live. John Nash comes to realize that such thinkers as Adam Smith, who govern what students of economics and mathematics learn, are similarly wrong—and that there must be another way.

Winston’s seemingly innocuous desire to keep a journal leads to peril. He becomes involved with a group known as “the Brotherhood” who plan to overthrow the Party and “Big Brother,” its elusive and absolutist head. John Nash’s desire to invent an original theory similarly leads to his involvement with a group of military men that becomes a hazard to his well being. This group is not trying to overthrow the government and re-invent society—but it is attempting to overthrow the world of John Nash.

Nash and Parcher

Is big brother watching you?

At one point during his first encounter with this governmental group, Nash sees a sinister looking man staring down at him from above (Parcher, played by Ed Harris, aka Christof in The Truman Show). He asks one of the men, “so who’s big brother?” It is a question not asked by Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston desires to destroy Big Brother, but A Beautiful Mind prefers instead to explore just who really is the evil Big Brother that Winston so bitterly opposes. Rather than portraying him flatly as the oppressor of the people, as Orwell—so unfairly—did, A Beautiful Mind lets the audience get to know him and see him for who he really is.

It turns out that Parcher, Ed Harris’s character, doesn’t even exist. He is a figment of Nash’s imagination. “You see?” A Beautiful Mind argues, “Big Brother was not a tyrant hell-bent on keeping the populace under his boot. The Big Brother Winston Smith imagined simply did not exist. Big Brother was a product of his paranoid, delusional, schizophrenic mind. ‘Big Brother Is Watching You.’ Ha! Is this not the ranting of a paranoid mind? Winston’s objection to society and oligarchy was all in his head, and the world really was not such a bad place after all. Sure, it was a bit conservative, but hey, it was the fifties after all.”

Let us help you

The pivotal scenes in A Beautiful Mind come when the audience is first informed that John Nash, like Winston Smith, is mentally ill.  “My name is Dr. Rosen, I’m a psychologist.”

“Forgive me if I’m skeptical,” Nash replies. Winston, as a result of the implementation of such tools of thought-control as Newspeak and doublethink, always listens skeptically to the words of those who claim to be in authority. Yes, you’re a “doctor” here to “help” me. [Before continuing the essay, you MUST click here.]

“Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength,” is one of the mottos of the Party. “But,” A Beautiful Mind protests, “look at it from our side: He really was delusional. Those who were forced to take him into custody really were on his side!”

And indeed, the scene in which Rosen and the other doctors hold Nash down mirrors curiously the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four when the Thought Police burst in on Winston and Julia, beat him into submission and take him away. “No, no, no, no, NO! They weren’t ‘Thought Police,’ they were psychologists. In his paranoid delusional state, Winston thought them something worse than they were. And they didn’t beat him into submission, they administered tranquillizers because Winston/John reacted violently when they tried to apprehend him.”

One of the ways that Nash’s insanity is given away is by his belief that his imaginary roommate Charles is real. Charles “denounces” Nash’s insanity, or bad thinking, in the same way that Charrington, the antique store owner whose room Winston and Julia are renting when the Thought Police burst in, denounces Winston. Both Charles and Charrington are present when the Thought Police/psychologists apprehend Winston/Nash.

Just because you’re paranoid . . .

Still eternally cynical of the Thought Police and the Party, which he now perceives as out to get him, Winston knows he will be taken to the Ministry of Love—a curious place whose name evokes doublethink, a concept that runs through Orwell’s masterpiece. Doublethink is the process of knowing two contradictory concepts at once.

An example of doublethink is when your country suddenly goes to war with another country, you know that the war has just begun, and you also simultaneously know that the war has always been happening. Another example is knowing that a diseased mind that endangers the life of its baby son, is also “beautiful.”

So the place where wars are conducted is the Ministry of Peace. The place where propaganda is constructed is the Ministry of Truth. The economic heart of a world forced to live on the most meager of rations is the Ministry of Plenty. Winston knows that the Ministry of Love is a doublethink name for the place where you are tortured into confessing anything Big Brother wants you to confess.

“Objection, your honor,” A Beautiful Mind interrupts, appealing to the audience, which is ultimately judge, jury, and executioner. “Again, it was not some sinister—What, what, what do you call it?—‘ministry of love’ that tortures people for their own ends. The defense repeats that the man is sick. He’s paranoid, schizophrenic, he needs help. Calling a hospital a ministry of love isn’t far from the truth: They are genuinely trying to help him. They are, honest! Okay, okay, that shock therapy thing was unpleasant, but it was necessary. And it certainly wasn’t as bad a picture as that bastard Orwell painted. Strapping rat cages to people’s faces, indeed!”

The league

Another unpleasant part of Nash’s therapy was the ongoing forced medication. He was required to continue with it even though, as he complained to Dr. Rosen, it prevented him from “responding” to his wife. “But,” A Beautiful Mind argues, “although it prevented him from ‘responding’ to his wife, it also prevented him from becoming paranoid and violent to her. And this is a totally different thing from saying that there existed such a thing as an ‘anti-sex league.’ No, no: The intention wasn’t to eradicate the act altogether, it was merely an unfortunate by product of the medication, necessary to stop him from becoming violent. But these advantages to Nash’s life are again, naturally, overlooked by Orwell.”

Indeed, a major part of what A Beautiful Mind attempts to demonstrate is the advantages of Winston/Nash’s life. Nineteen Eighty-Four ended too soon, before we can see what happens afterward, after Winston/Nash is “cured” of his illness.

1984 soundtrack cover

whose side are you on?

The character of Alicia Nash, the wife, was similarly portrayed unfairly as Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not only was she there for the rebellion, the sole purpose of Julia, as we saw, she was there to support Nash, too. Much as Julia will not sell out Winston to the Thought Police, Alicia maintains to the psychologists that Nash is not delusional, that he really did have a roommate named Charles.

Much like Julia, Alicia comes to “see the light,” but still, things do turn out pretty sweet for both of them eventually. “And no, don’t give me the cynical clap-trap about ‘happy conformist endings’,” A Beautiful Mind continues, “Nash was headed for total self-destruction before he was cured by the psychologists, and look at how well he does afterwards. The man goes on to win a Nobel Prize. Who would turn that down? Orwell ended the story too soon—typical of his blind one-sidedness.”

Freedom is . . .

A Beautiful Mind attempts to show that Nash was ill, mentally. He could not perceive correctly.

Nineteen Eighty-Four portrays its incarnation of Dr. Rosen as the sinister O’Brien. In Nineteen Eighty-Four we see O’Brien using torture to coerce Winston to his way of thinking—ultimately not O’Brien’s, but the Party’s. In the same way that O’Brien wants Winston to see something different than he was perceiving himself (the number of fingers O’Brien was holding up), Dr. Rosen wants Nash to perceive Rosen’s own reality, which again wasn’t simply Rosen’s world, but “our” world—the “real” world, everyone else’s reality, the greater collective’s world.

1984's Room 101

Room 101

“You must love [Big Brother]. It is not enough to obey him, you must love him.” O’Brien forces Winston to change his perception of a man that he hates in exactly the same way Dr. Rosen forces Nash to change his perception of a man (Parcher) that he thinks exists. He forces Nash to recognize that he does not. He wants Nash to conform in exactly the same way O’Brien wants Winston to conform, except that nasty George Orwell paints a much more horrible picture of that scene. But now A Beautiful Mind is here to set the record straight about what really went on.

“What is freedom? Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4,” claimed Nineteen Eighty-Four. A Beautiful Mind, though, says “Freedom is the freedom to enjoy a better life when you are thinking in the same way as everyone else.” Sure, you can be original—you may even win a Nobel prize for it—but don’t get too wacky or we’ll have the Thought Police—oops, sorry, the “psychologists”—set you right. Or perhaps that should be, set you to our perception of what is right.

Consider the film’s tagline: “He saw the world in a way no one could have imagined.” Of course he did. So did Winston Smith. But in Orwell’s world, not only could no one imagine seeing the world as Winston did (since they were not allowed to), because of the way the world was, thinking along certain lines was simply not possible.

If the psychologists could get it right, the same would be true with John Nash. Perhaps in our world, if our dear psychologist friends get it right, the same will be true of us. Or maybe I am a delusional, paranoid schizophrenic in need of immediate therapy.

Or maybe A Beautiful Mind is trying to impose on us a perception that contradicts what we would otherwise perceive. In keeping with the theme, it wouldn’t be just A Beautiful Mind’s perception that is forced on us, but that of a higher, larger, grander body. Just whose perception that is—well, let’s leave that to the audience to perceive for itself.


Thanks to my good friend Danny C. for prying open my third eye. There is a scene where Parcher (Big Brother) tells Nash (Winston) that he will be sold out to the Russians if he does not cooperate. This is the worst thing that Nash can imagine happening; he will do anything to avoid this fate. At this point in the film, Danny leaned over and told me that the door of the room in which this was happening bore the numbers 101. Room 101. If Dan hadn’t pointed that out, I wouldn’t have noticed it—or anything else about the film—and this interpretation would never have appeared.

posted by editor ::: June 29, 2002 ::: philms ::: (6) Comments