May 2012 was “Dystopia Month” on Geek Juice Media with reviews and articles on all kinds of dystopian films, games, comics, etc. To start of this themed month I chose to tackle Animal Farm because not only is it my favorite dystopian-themed story, I have always felt it to be the most perfect political allegory (that I’ve ever encountered at least). Most dystopian stories you will encounter take place after the fact. Characters in most stories are not aware, or later become aware, of the events that led to this corrupt society. Several dystopian works deal with a revolution of some sort that is the downfall of their dystopian state. While dystopian tales are usually a warning of events that could come to be given modern political trends – Animal Farm is a story about events that were happening at that time – a non-fiction sort of corrupt utopia. How have George Orwell’s novel held up over the years? How have the 1954 and 1999 film versions been as both adaptations of the novels and relevant political tales of their age?
Animal Farm – 1945 novel by George Orwell
George Orwell, a democratic socialist, penned his allegorical novella to reflect the events leading up to and during the Stalin era before World War II. The novel addresses not only the corruption of of the revolution by its leaders, but also how wickedness, indifference and ignorance and greed spoil the revolution. While the novel portrays the corrupt leadership as a flaw in the revolution, it also shows how potential ignorance and an indifference to problems could allow horrors to happen if a smooth transition to a people’s government is not achieved. Though no publishers were eager to take on such a bold work at the time, it has gone on to rank highly on lists like Time’s “100 Best English-language Novels”, the “Modern Library List of the Best 2oth-Century Novels,” and the “Great Books of the Western World.”
Old Major, the prize boar on Manor Farm, calls the animals together to tell them of a dream he had. He talks of the abuse all the animals have had to suffer at the hands of the greedy humans. He teaches them a revolutionary song called “The Beasts of England.” When Old Major dies three days later, the animals, led by the pigs Snowball and Napoleon led a revolt and take the farm away from the drunkenly irresponsible Mr. Jones. The ideas of Old Major’s dreams are turned into a philosophy called Animalism and write their “The Seven Commandments” on the side of the barn
- Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy
- Whatever goes upon for legs, or has wings, is a friend
- No animal shall wear clothes
- No animal shall sleep in a bed
- No animal shall drink alcohol
- No animal shall kill any other animal
- All animals are equal.
Snowball struggles to create an ideal future for the farm and its inhabitants. However he is eventually chased out by his rival Napoleon who instills himself as leader and announces that instead of a town-meeting sort of leadership the farm’s activities will be overseen by a committee of pigs.
Eventually Napoleon’s corrupt regime begins to transform this animal utopia into a repressive state. With his propaganda pig Squealer, they re-write history – painting the absent Snowball as the cause of all their strife. Napoleon’s regime eventually rewrites the seven commandments to suit their purposes while convincing all the other animals that these were the commandments all the time:
- No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets
- No animal shall drink alcohol to excess
- No animal shall kill any other animal without cause
Corrupted by power, Napoleon and the other pigs change replace all of these rules with: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better.” Napoleon banishes all the practices of the revolution, instills a murderous police state and even renames the farm back to Manor Farm. Years later, while the pigs continue to consort and trade with humans, the rest of the animals are unable to tell the difference between the pigs and the humans.
This is the most basic synopsis of the story I could come up with. Of course you could check Wikipedia or something similar for more details but reading the book would actually be simpler. After all, the book is barely even a hundred pages and is written with a very simple and direct prose making it an easy read. I will be getting into a few more of the details I skimmed over earlier as we get into a discussion of the two film adaptations.
I first saw this film during a social studies class in middle school and it was certainly an eye-opening experience. I read the novel later, after studying the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s regime throughout high school and found the biting allegory behind Orwell’s story. However I didn’t watch the film again until this week and found that it thematically holds up to its source material in a peculiar fashion. While Orwell’s story was simple it delivered a political message that was based on the times people were living in. By 1954 Stalin was dead and a new regime was in power – so the film carries a more heavy-handed message making it’s allegory and satire a whole hell of a lot less subtle. I had, even while watching the film, assumed that it was decision on the filmmakers’ part to drive home what they took from the novel. The ending of the animated film is vastly different than the novel’s conclusion. The novel simply ended with the realization that the animals could no longer tell the difference between the pigs and the humans. However, once this is discovered in the film, the animals rise up again and take the farm back for themselves, destroying the reign of Napoleon.
It wasn’t until researching some more background information on this film that I discovered the true purpose behind its look and demeanor that, honestly, I should have picked up on before. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) obtained the rights to Orwell’s novel and provided the funding for this movie. After all, 1954 was at the height of the Cold War and the era of “The Red Menace.” The reason this is so heavy in depicting Stalin and Communism is because this is pure anti-Soviet propaganda. This is rather ironic since the film discusses the ill uses of propaganda while being the very thing it speaks against. The reason for the change in ending is still open for debate. Some would believe that having the animals take the farm back is representative of Democracy vanquishing the evils of Communism. Other people believe, and I am more inclined to follow their thought, is that the ending is more upbeat just to give the film more audience appeal.
The animated film loses the thrill the novel’s allegory had by making it’s message a lot more blatant. Despite this and the altered ending – its still an enjoyable and insightful film. It is very stark and violent which one rarely found in an animated film – especially in 1954. In fact, the bleakness of the movie startled a lot of parents who took their kids to see this expecting something along the lines of a Disney cartoon. If I were to do a versus of Animal Farm 1954 VS Animal Farm 1999 I would pick this one as a clear winner. It’s faithful enough to its source material in both letter and spirit while still being a visually impressive bit of entertainment.
Animal Farm 1999 Live-action film I can’t hate this film too much for its looser adaptation of the novel, especially since it was made nearly a decade after the fall of Communism. How does one update the political message of a story from 1946 to make it relevant for audiences in 1999? Simple – they don’t. They just keep it as a period piece that takes place in 1946. The film certainly is respectful to its time and place but it looses ALL of its allegorical and political meaning and simply becomes treats Orwell’s tale as nothing more than a historical oddity – something that happened in the past which we no longer need to worry about.
The film starts with a Border Collie named Jessie (not a character in the novel) narrating the events of Animal Farm. The ending is changed here as well, with the farm eventually collapsing under the greed and arrogance of Napleon’s reign and all the animals have, essentially, learned from their mistakes. This ties well into it being a historical piece as the USSR collapsed for more-or-less the same reasons. The imagery is much more in the style of Stalin’s regime however it’s an odd mix between historical accuracy and tongue-in-cheek humor. While the feel of the 1954 animated film was alarmist and bleak in nature, everything here just fells like a presentation of “that’s what life was like in Stalin’s USSR.” The pigs incorporate a greater amount of revolutionay music and propaganda films into their regime – something that was not quite in the book or 1954 film. Instead of being insightful, however, these just seem like flashy music numbers and special effects to make history look fun.
There is an all start cast here. The late Pete Postlethwaite plays Mr. Jones, the owner of Manor Farm, Kelsey Grammer voices Snowball, Patrick Strewart voices Napoleon, and Ian Holm, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Peter Ustinov voice several of the animals as well. That said, the acting throughout the whole movie is outstanding. The special effects, which are a combination of CGI, live-animals and puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop all work seamlessly well to look effective. While it’s a made-for-TV film it certainly doesn’t LOOK like one. It does feel like a made-for-TV film, however, with its loads of unnecessary melodrama that just disconnects the viewer with its insincerity. Seeing that this was produced and distributed by the Hallmark Channel is really no surprise at all.
Choosing between the two films comes to a simple question of what one would wish to learn. If one wants to learn about political revolution and how the pursuit of a utopian state will forever be made impossible by human nature – watch the 1954 film. If one wants to get a brief idea about what life was like in Stalin’s Soviet Union without all those depressing newsreel footages of mass graves – watch the 1999 film. The novel and both film adaptations, however, still stand as a great example of what “dystopia” means outside of the realm of many of the science-fiction films to be featured later this month. I’m certain that the Russian Revolution started with a great ideal – people felt they were being treated unfairly and rose up in an attempt to make a country that was perfect for them. Their efforts to obtain that utopia ended up being one of the darkest moments of the 20th century – corrupt, oppressive and altogether dystopian.
And that’s Animal Farm which I hope sets a good enough definition of “dystopia” for the upcoming month. Lots of great content about dystopia coming in the next 31 days so stay tuned!