In 1954, husband and wife animators John Halas and Joy Batchelor were hired by an American production company to create an animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Through early script treatments project’s ‘financial backers’ made numerous script suggestions. They insisted, for example, that the despotic pig Napoleon should not be presented as on par with the farm’s former leader Mr. Jones and should instead be clearly shown as far worse.
They also worried that the film, in keeping with the spirit of Orwell’s original, was far too flattering in its portrayal of the Trotsky analogue Snowball, who was described in a memo as a “fanatic intellectual whose plans if carried through would have led to disaster no less complete than under Napoleon.”
Apart from other minor changes these mysterious financiers insisted on a new ending where the cynical and passive donkey Benjamin would help kickstart a rebellion that would lead to the overthrow and death of Napoleon and the pigs.
It was only years after completion that Halas and Batchelor learned of the true identity of their financiers: the CIA.
There’s a great irony in the radical appropriation that Animal Farm underwent during the Cold War. Orwell famously struggled to get his book published at a time when an alliance with the Soviet Union was seen as a necessity to defeat fascism. By the end of the Cold War the same CIA that had bankrolled the 1954 film had opted to side with fascists throughout the world in order to defeat the Soviet Union. No matter what context Animal Farm finds itself in, it seems incompatible with dominant ideologies.
Like Orwell himself, and the donkey Benjamin, the book is stubbornly iconoclastic.
Any act of adaptation is an act of interpretation. It inherently changes meaning in the addition and removal of certain features and the emphasis or de-emphasis of others. But, being conscious of the ideological football that Animal Farm had become, I was determined to follow the political spirit it was written in. Despite the preciseness of its allegory Animal Farm can’t function as straightforward agitprop, otherwise it would actually suggest a path forward down which we could follow. For me the book has two central ideas that anyone who claims to understand it must appreciate.
The first is that Animal Farm is a socialist text by an unabashedly socialist author.
Despite its admonishment from hardline Marxists and weaponisation during the Cold War, Animal Farm unfolds with the logic that the human rule that bluntly parallels capitalism is untenable and a rebellion must occur. In the opening speech of the wise boar Old Major, Orwell managed to create an approachable explanation of Marxist labour theory that has surreptitiously found its way into classrooms across the western world.
The second is that there is no room to defend Napoleon/Stalin in defense of the revolution.
One of the key tactics that the pigs use to solidify their own power and increasing brutality is to remind the other animals that any deviation from their authority will lead to Mr Jones’ return. Orwell here anticipates the criticism that greeted him from the hard left: when any and all actions can be justified if they oppose some ideological ‘other’ the entire revolutionary project collapses in on itself.
Animal Farm (1954)
A right wing critique of Stalin/Napoleon would see the regime as brutally radical, an example of the infamous horseshoe theory where the hard left begins to mimic the hard right, but I don’t think that’s at all what Orwell is going for. In Animal Farm the only horseshoe on display is on the feet of those workers that meet their fate at the glue factory; Napoleon’s sin is not that he is a radical but that he is the exact opposite. Napoleon can only conceive of power in the terms established by the old masters and thus prevents any radical reimagining of society from truly occurring.
Between Jones and Napoleon we are given a litany of characters who fulfill a particular role in relation to revolutionary activity. The noble but naive workhorse Boxer follows every direction until it eventually kills him. The smarter but idealistic goat Muriel sees the dream of revolution becoming something else entirely but doesn’t have the heart to turn on the dream she helped create. The mare Clover is caught between these two viewpoints.
A simplistic reading of Animal Farm would say we must see the lies being told to us, which might be why the cynical donkey Benjamin became the hero of the animated films and many other adaptations, but this misses one of the book’s cruelest strokes. Very much reflecting Orwell’s own viewpoints, Benjamin is a dark look at the limits of skepticism, destined to stand by and sarcastically refuse to take an active role in the fight for the future. When the only things he cares about are eventually taken away from him he becomes as deeply detached as he once only pretended to be.
Animal Farm is resolutely a book without heroes.
It is not a story that provides answers but a warning of where answers aren’t. Some leftists have attempted to rescue the character of Snowball as the story’s hero but one of the most striking things about revisiting the text is how Snowball anticipates strategic blunders on the left throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Orwell clearly held a fascination with Trotsky but that fascination is tinged with frustration. As Napoleon quietly seizes power around him, Snowball places blind faith in his jargon-laden committee meetings and technocratic dreams of the future. When he is cast out in the midst of promising a technical revolution via the windmill it feels painfully familiar to those of us who remember poor Bill Shorten being caught completely off guard when his litany of in-depth policy proposals failed to excite the electorate.
These little echoes with our own present are part of the joy of staging Animal Farm today. Having to invent most of the play’s dialogue (structured as a fable, the book offers very few extended conversations) it was shockingly easy to find a place for today’s political idioms. In fact the politicking of Animal Farm remains so vivid that two contemporary political speeches have been inserted into the text with only key words changed.
But I am also cautious that Animal Farm cannot be treated as an entirely elastic metaphor you can just throw on any political figures you don’t like.
Napoleon is not Donald Trump, he is not Boris Johnson, he is not Scott Morrison. While features like Snowball’s ineffectiveness and Squealer’s propaganda may resonate with us as sadly constant political features, we have to keep sight of the specific story Orwell is telling. This is the story of a revolution that goes wrong and it is that relationship between revolution and tyranny that is so important.
So why return to Animal Farm now?
It is certainly not to warn against revolution as the CIA may wish. Rather, it’s to get us to start thinking about the difficulties that we’ll encounter as change inevitably starts to take place. With rising income inequality, the existential threat of climate change and the cracks starting to show in our economy from COVID-19 (that will also lead to the second “once-in-a-lifetime” recession in one lifetime) it is clear that the current way of doing things cannot hold on for much longer. And so if change is inevitable then looking at the dangers that change could hold seems vital right now.
Despite its ulterior motives, the CIA had one good idea in its adaptation: the ending. Because while the Soviet Union would outlive both George Orwell and Joseph Stalin it would fall only a few decades later. Another revolution, another opportunity. Russia returned to a dire combination of oligarchy and totalitarianism, the cruel inequalities of the Tsars and the strongman tactics of Stalin.
If Orwell was alive to see it, he might smile for being so correct in guessing the tendency of history to repeat but he’d probably remember that, as his books teach us, being right doesn’t count for much. Change is always possible but there’s no guarantee it will be positive, especially if we don’t do anything about it.
Animal Farm plays at the New Theatre, Newtown, from October 13 – November 7.