This scenario for a short film was written in 2007, or thereabouts, and entered for a competition. I don't remember which, but it did not win. One day, I may write the script.
The Lesser In Fortune
‘The door opened. The light came on. There stood Orwell, armed with his shooting-stick … I looked at his face. Through my private mist I saw in it a curious blend of fear and sadistic exaltation. I moved sideways, caught up Michael’s chair. I had it raised sufficiently to receive on it the first crash of the descending metal-fitted stick.’
Rayner Heppenstall (Four Absentees, 1960)
Rayner Heppenstall shared a London flat with his friend George Orwell until an outbreak of violence forced them to part in 1936. In January 1950, Orwell died of tuberculosis, survived by Heppenstall, now a BBC Radio producer and novelist – Heppenstall is the narrator and protagonist in this story of unexplained rage, miscommunication and lost friendship.
The film opens with Orwell and Heppenstall being introduced in a London pub, instantly forming a strong bond. They excitedly discuss each other’s writing and agree to live together. Months later, Heppenstall returns drunk to their London flat, to find Orwell furious about his loud entrance. They row: Orwell attacks Heppenstall with his shooting-stick, then departs, leaving Heppenstall, shocked, to comprehend what has just happened with their alarmed neighbours.
Heppenstall provides a voice-over talking about how Orwell and he quickly became close, sharing an intense emotional and intellectual connection, remaining friends after the incident but finding that the relationship gradually, painfully faded. Heppenstall has spent over a decade trying to make sense of Orwell’s behaviour, as we see in a scene with him at the BBC, thirteen years later, struggling to pitch a radio script about the place of violence in the post-war world to a programme director.
The director thinks Heppenstall wants to discuss the war, and the Cold War: he suggests adapting Orwell’s Animal Farm, “the best Cold War novel” which would be “a better use of taxpayers’ money”. Heppenstall reacts angrily, asking what is wrong with his script. The director tells Heppenstall that he cannot see what he is trying to say; Heppenstall concedes, and says he will consider the adaptation.
Throwing himself into a programme on existentialism, Heppenstall is interrupted by a telegram telling him that Orwell is dying. Heppenstall drops his work and travels to hospital to visit Orwell, the violence on his mind as he prepares for what may be their last meeting.
When he reaches Orwell’s bed, Heppenstall finds him claiming to be too ill to discuss the incident. There is a fractious conversation, in which Heppenstall nervously placates Orwell, who frets about how he will be remembered: Heppenstall tries to explain his feelings of sadness and alienation but cannot find the words. Heppenstall leaves in tears, saddened by Orwell’s refusal to open up: although they have grown apart due to long-term changes in their opinions, careers and characters, he cannot help obsessing over the violent moment. His colleague, passing, asks if Heppenstall is okay – he refuses to answer.
Sitting in Regent’s Park planning his Animal Farm adaptation, Heppenstall is accosted by an anti-Stalinist journalist obsessed with Orwell’s novels, who wants an account of Orwell’s life for The Daily Telegraph. Heppenstall tells him that it would be dishonest to provide an uncritical perspective, and would prefer to say nothing. The journalist, sensing the opportunity to secure explosive copy, presses Heppenstall, persuading him to provide an open, honest story about their relationship.
Nostalgically, he agrees to take the journalist to the pub where he and Orwell met. Heppenstall laments that his own literary career is floundering amidst his BBC obligations, comparing Orwell’s brilliant Cold War novels to his two (already obscure) published novels. Throughout, Heppenstall provides a commentary that contrasts with the conversation and the scenes shown, which include footage of the Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought, and World War II, when both were conscripted but never saw active combat. We also see Heppenstall directing Animal Farm in a BBC studio, arguing furiously with his actors about how he has edited Orwell’s text.
Heppenstall resents this journalist trying to claim Orwell, especially when he feels that his own integrity is being cast into doubt. The journalist instead tries to reproach Heppenstall, suggesting that his opinions on Orwell are coloured by jealousy, and particularly his failure to capture the Cold War realities with Orwell’s skill.
We see Orwell and Heppenstall’s meetings in London pubs in 1943, where the conversation has become more fractious: Heppenstall is suffering a nervous breakdown (which we see, in flashback, with Heppenstall’s treatment in military hospital), while Orwell is concerned solely with Animal Farm. Finally realising that the friendship broke down largely due to Orwell’s increasingly obsessive hatred of Russia and his own inability to define himself politically, Heppenstall angrily demands that the journalist leave, only just restraining himself from a violent response. Then, Heppenstall is interrupted by a second telegram telling him that Orwell has died. Heppenstall is distraught: his anger dissipates, and he breaks down, lost for words. The journalist asks Heppenstall for an obituary: he declines, saying that he has broadcasting to do, and leaves.
There is a final scene of Orwell and Heppenstall playing chess together in happier times, playfully discussing each other’s projects and their literary contemporaries. Heppenstall talks about his immense sadness that Orwell has died without ever explaining the incident; and that for all their shared talent for words, they somehow lost the ability to communicate.