There are a few reasons why my generation, “Generation X”, is the way it is. The looming threat of mass human extinction through a nuclear war is probably the biggest one – but another likely influence is that we are the generation who was assigned mid-century dystopic fiction as class reading in our schools. Most of us ended up reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; however, for school systems with more genteel tastes, you probably ended up reading Orwell’s Animal Farm. It’s not quite as damning of current politics, but is rather more of a parable about historic events, so it’s a little easier to swallow. Plus, hey, cute animals.
I’m likely not going to be able to separate my familiarity with the book from my response to the movie; so, I’m not even gonna try. The movie is a genrally faithful adaptation – but there are a couple of alterations that did stick out.
Really quick – this is the story of the animals on an English farm who revolt one day, inspired by the words of a wise pig named “Old Major” and fed up with the farmer’s cruelty. They happily figure out how to work together to keep the farm going, devoting themselves to Old Major’s vision of interspecies equality and mutual collaboration. However, the leadership falls to the pigs, who quickly end up getting seduced by their power and start to subtly change the rules to their own benefit, and ultimately end up just as exploitative as their former human caretaker.
The film tweaks things a tiny bit – possibly because even though this was a British production, much of the funding came from the CIA. No, really – funding for this film came from an early United States initiative to support anti-Communist propaganda. There’s certainly some symmetry, since the book was such a blatant parable about how the Russian Revolution gradually gave way to Stalinism – but the CIA still couldn’t resist asking the filmmakers to play up just how bad life was under the pig “Napoleon,” the film and book’s stand-in for Stalin himself. They also dialed back the book’s relatively favorable depiction of the pig “Snowball” (Leon Trotsky) and wrote out some minor characters for clarity’s sake. The film also has a happier ending than the book, but that may just be a function of “Hollywood”.
Strangely, though, those aren’t the changes that stuck out to me. Instead – and I am surprised how much this bothered me – this film cuts out nearly all instances of the animals talking. Some animals do still speak; in the very first scene, where Old Major holds a rally in the main barn to encourage the others to revolt, Old Major’s speech is intact (if abridged). However, Old Major goes on to teach the other animals a song called “Beasts of England”, which serves as an inspirational song and group touchstone throughout the story. In the book, there are English lyrics – but in the movie, while the animals do “sing”, what we hear is a cacophony of their barks, howls, bleats, whinnies, and brays. The sheep do bleat out the Animal Farm motto of “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad” at one point – but only at that one point, and never do we get to hear them get re-trained to bleat out “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better” when the pigs’ rule descends into oppression. Even the pigs don’t speak much. There are some speeches here and there – mainly from the pig Squealer, the “voice” of propaganda for the other pigs – but most of the time, when the brutish Napoleon is issuing a command, he just squeals.
This actually detracts from one of the more poignant plot points – the fate of Boxer, the loyal workhorse who believes so strongly in Old Major’s vision that he keeps plugging away despite the pigs’ leadership turning into oppression. Old Major rallies him to the cause by warning him that their human master is likely to send him to a glue factory when he is old and worn out, so it’s especially cruel when this is exactly what Napoleon and his cronies do. But crueler still is the propaganda spread by Squealer, who concocts a hokey “death scene” story to tell the others which claims that Boxer died peacefully, despite having “the best medical care”, and that his dying words were a pledge of loyalty to Napoleon and a plea to his friends to “work harder”. In the book, Boxer repeatedly pledges his trust in Napoleon so often that it’s a near catchphrase, so Squealer mouthing it seems a cruel betrayal. In the film, however, Squealer still says that speech – but we’ve never heard Boxer saying anything. All Boxer has done is neigh. So Squealer’s story comes across as more obviously fake, but less blatantly exploitative.
The animation is…eh, it’s fine. There’s some cute bits of business showing how the animals all chip in, each in their own way, to harvesting grain and building a windmill and other such tasks, but it’s not wildly different from similar scenes in Snow White or Dumbo. The pigs and people end up looking a little meaner, but that’s about it.
Whether or not the omission of the animals’ talking was the CIA’s call, or the animators’ call, it’s hard to say. Although if it was the CIA, I’m surprised they didn’t realize they were hobbling their own message as a result.