Hallmark Hall of Fame. 1999. Animal Farm. Atlanta: Turner Entertainment Networks.
Reviewed 03 October 1999
First off, two disclaimers.
The guilty parties here are among the following:
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 bookand 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 centuryincluding 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 historyfor example, the 1938 Purge, and involvement in the Spanish Civil Warhave 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.
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.
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