Hallmark Hall of Fame. 1999. Animal Farm. Atlanta: Turner Entertainment Networks.

Reviewed 03 October 1999

First off, two disclaimers.

  • The Henson Creature Shop did a marvelous job with the cowmanure they were handed. The animals were physically believable, although actually mechanical.
  • During my days in the wild and woolly world of literary studies, I studied and wrote on George Orwell. Some of those writings have appeared in professional literary publications.

The guilty parties here are among the following:

  • Robert Halmi, Sr., and Greg Smith, Executive Producers
  • John Stephenson, Director
  • Alan Janes and Martyn Burke, Screenwriters

Animal Farm is not that difficult a book to understand. I grant that one must take some liberties with the book to transfer it to the screen. The problem is that someone decided to rub the audience's face in the anti-Stalin aspects of the book—and thereby botched the entire book.

The initial, and by itself fatal, error was in the narrative method. Orwell quite properly made his narrator invisible, and of limited omniscience. The Hallmark production, however, makes Jessie (the old collie) the narrator, and compounds the problem by grafting on a prologue and epilogue that "frame" the movie as a flashback and by making heavy-handed references to the fall of the Soviet Union. "The wall came down," indeed!

We can't leave politics aside. As George Orwell himself noted, "[N]o book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." ("Why I Write") Orwell's purpose was far wider than criticizing Iosef Stalin himself. Orwell had studied the modern history of revolution, beginning with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (England), stretching through the American and French Revolutions, up to the tumultuous history of the twentieth century—including Hitler's rise to power.

Animal Farm has a far wider target than Uncle Joe. Orwell is aiming at totalitarians of all espoused creeds. Careful analysis of the incidents in Animal Farm and comparison to the Oktobritsaya Revolutskaya shows a lack of correlation that is completely inconsistent with the remainder of Orwell's writing. Several significant events in Soviet history—for example, the 1938 Purge, and involvement in the Spanish Civil War—have no counterpart in Animal Farm. Conversely, a number of incidents in the book have no counterparts in Soviet history, but do bear on events in other modern revolutions (particularly the French and Hitlerite).

OK, so Hallmark et al. butchered the politics. What about other aspects? I've already discussed the narrative strategy. This film also engages in an unfortunate amount of "head-hopping"—enough, in fact, to get it rejected by a respectable fiction editor. Comparing this film to the book is one of the best refutations of "always show, never tell" that I've ever come across. Orwell's "telling" is very low-key, while the "showing" engaged in in this film is preaching. (One would ordinarily expect the opposite.) As a specific example, we don't need to see the pub interaction among Jones, Frederick, and Pilkington after Pilkington has begun trading with the pigs. Showing that interaction broke the narrative flow back at the farm.

Then there's the critical error of rewriting the ending. Part of the point of Animal Farm is that there is no real escape from totalitarianism. Instead, in this film, Jessie leads a group of disaffected animals away from the farm to a "hiding place." The film also completely undermines the denouement of the book, which is as follows:

   There was the same hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover's old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? Then, the applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept silently away.
   But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously.
   Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

That passage is a marvelous opportunity for some Henson creature magic. Instead, the confusion between man and pig is from Jessie's viewpoint only, and due solely to some splotches on the window. And it's not even at the end of the book; that recognition is thrown away in about five seconds of visuals (the splotchy window) and one throwaway piece of monologue.

Overall rating: 1 star
Not an effort to be proud of. The producers' and screenwriters' understanding seems based on Cliff Notes® or the equivalent. George Orwell was committing a trilogy, of which Animal Farm is the first part, 1984 is the second, and the unfinished The Last Man in Europe was to be the third. And there's a reason that the subtitle of Animal Farm is not An Allegory, but A Fairy Story. Too bad not enough people associated with this film let Orwell set the agenda, instead of imposing their own. But then, that's been Orwell's fate ever since Animal Farm was published. I shouldn't be surprised.

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