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In honor of the late, great David Bowie, who died on January 10, 2016

As many people are aware, David Bowie's album Diamond Dogs contains several references to George Orwell's classic dystopian science fiction story 1984 (most notably, the songs 19841 and Big Brother). Diamond Dogs is a concept album loosely based upon the book, but originally, the relation between Bowie's album and Orwell's novel was supposed to be much closer.

When Bowie started working on the material that would become Diamond Dogs, he initially intended for it to be a musical adaptation of 1984; unfortunately, negotiations between the musician and Orwell's estate eventually fell through, and the estate refused to sell Bowie the rights.

Why did David Bowie's proposal for an adaptation of 1984 fall through? Did Orwell's estate ever explain why they denied Bowie the rights to the adaptation?


1The thematic ties to Orwell's novel are even more pronounced in the original version of this track than they are in the version heard on the album; the song was originally much longer, and was titled 1984/Dodo.

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According to an excerpt from "The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s", the Widow Orwell refused the rights on the grounds that she had no intention of allowing 1984 to be turned into a musical. It would seem that his estate was broadly in favour, but she had final refusal:

There was a certain irony in Bowie’s attempting to translate the devious operations of Orwell’s (or more accurately Big Brother’s) Ministry of Truth into song. Minitrue’s constant rewriting of history was no more audacious than Bowie’s ability to fashion a fresh version of his own past whenever he was confronted with a microphone. But his sincerity was transparent: nothing he had conceived since the original blueprint of the Ziggy Stardust project had exerted such a hold over his imagination. So his sense of disappointment—almost betrayal—when the proposed musical had to be abandoned was crushing.

The problem was simple, and intractable: “Mrs Orwell refused to let us have the rights, point blank. For a person who married a socialist with communist leanings, she was the biggest upper-class snob I’ve ever met in my life. ‘Good heavens, put it to music?’ It really was like that.” Not that Bowie was given singular treatment: so protective was Sonia Orwell of her late husband’s legacy, and so appalled had she been by a 1955 film adaptation, that she had turned down everyone who approached her wishing to translate Nineteen Eighty-Four into another medium.

As her biographer noted, “Rejected applicants inevitably found her approach tiresome and high-handed.” Bowie was left to mold his Orwell-inspired rock musical into something equally apocalyptic, but sufficiently removed from the original to keep Sonia’s lawyers at bay.

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