Animal Farm (1954)

[28 December 2004]

By Kevin Devine

Psychological Warfare

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a taut fable with a thick rage brimming beneath every word. (It’s necessary reading and it’s like 100 pages, so if you’re unfamiliar with it, familiarize yourself.) Like his other totemic work, 1984, Animal Farm is a kind of social horror story, a relentless, grotesque metaphor about fascism imbued with the strong sense that if this is what people can and will do with power and privilege, well, we’re basically doomed.

Orwell might have been talking specifically about the death of the Marxist dream in Stalinist Russia when he chronicled Animal Farm’s descent from revolutionary utopia to totalitarian semi-slave state, but really, he could’ve been talking about any number of sad, sick failures of systems to take care of all of their pieces, throughout history and across governmental and ideological lines. Basically, Orwell saw the potential for abuses of power and it scared the hell out of him.

It should scare the hell out of all of us. Revolutionary ideas die all the time, of course. (In the U.S., for instance, more than half of the electorate pledges its support to an oil-swilling, xenophobic, genocidal lunatic who believes he was bulls-eyed into office by the divine right of kings. Hey, whatever keeps Hummer sales up, gas prices down, and gay people from sharing a tax return and workplace health care, right?) Orwell saw the danger of protecting the ruling class’ “best interests,” and 60 and 70 years on, his work still offers salient social analysis deserving of all the canonization it receives. (Though, I’d argue Huxley’s Brave New World is the more accurate long view, at least in the post-industrial, televised West, where we’re choosing death by amusement. Big Brother doesn’t need to watch you 24/7 when you’re too busy watching Road Rules to care about what’s actually happening.)

This is why it’s profoundly creepy to read Karl Cohen’s DVD liner notes, accompanying John Halas and Joy Bachelor’s animated re-imagining, originally released in 1954: “To use Animal Farm to suit their own ends… the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination had two members of their Psychological Warfare Workshop staff obtain the screen rights to the novel.” What the fuck? Did I wake up as Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory? Isn’t this, well, the most absurdly Orwellian thing you could possibly conjure up?

It’s up to you to decide if the CIA’s involvement is at the root of several integral characters being left on the cutting room floor (most notably, frightened Molly and the competitor farmers, whom I read as Orwell’s criticism of wasteful capitalism), or if that’s why Benjamin the donkey is transformed from a detached, wrecked, life-is-hell cynic into Che Guevara (or George Washington) in the film’s totally (and controversially) altered ending.

I’m confused by this move, because, if Old Major was Marx, and we’re rooting for the animals when they revolt (which means we’re rooting for a Marxist revolution) and Snowball, whom we sort of like despite his gruffness and occasional apple-hording, is Trotsky, and Napoleon is Stalin, and (SPOILER ALERT) the animals re-revolt to unseat Stalin/Napoleon and reclaim the initial and true spirit of Old Major’s original declaration of rebellion—doesn’t that mean we’re still pulling for an egalitarian, theoretically sound socialist society to replace the totalitarian regime the first rebellion morphed into? It’s not like, at the end, the animals all line up outside voting booths in the farm gymnasium, or Napoleon convinces the animals that he was actually elected to office and then launches into some totally unfounded war with his father’s arch-rival on some farm in the Middle East.

Maybe I’m not following the film’s logic. The filmmakers might have wanted something a little lighter for boffo box office, as suggested in the DVD’s featurette on the making of the movie. Admittedly, the book’s ending is super dark and leaves you feeling like you just got punched in the sternum by George Foreman while Hulk Hogan held your arms behind your back.

This isn’t to say that this Animal Farm is a sunbeam and rosebuds experience. Up until the intensely questionable final act, it translates the novel pretty well, helped considerably by John F. Reed’s animation. Resolutely un-Disney, the backdrops are washed straight through with dense blacks, dark browns, and blues. Everything looks like varying stages of a bad bruise, characters included. Mean-ass drunk Farmer Jones looks particularly scary, a haggard mess with graveyard-toned skin.

I’d love to know what Orwell thought of this re-appropriation, if he felt the themes and intent were bastardized, if the CIA thing got his blood hot. I’d like to think the very idea of the agency abusing his work to help ramp up nuclear tension and flag recruits would’ve disgusted him. The featurette asserts the film was actually more prescient than the novel, due to the fall of communism and the rise of democracy at the tail end of the 20th century. But this misses Orwell’s point. There’s a new kind of totalitarianism at play now, an economic strangling that gets firmer with every new “free market” that opens “democratically,” every new malquidora that doesn’t let pregnant workers take bathroom breaks until that swoosh is firmly fixed in place, and every new McDonald’s ready for business in central Moscow.

This makes for a less sensational enemy than a big bad fascist like Stalin, but the effect’s not changed: the same people are still having their throats stomped in, and the same people are doing the stomping. In Animal Farm the book, Orwell spoke the truth: the cycle won’t break so long as people in power maintain their hunger to stay in power, however they can. It might be bleak, but it’s resonant. And sad as hell that 50 years from now, if we haven’t blown everything to shit and if King W. VII hasn’t outlawed the free press, someone else will be writing yet another review of Animal Farm, making the same angry observations.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/animal-farm-dvd/