Animal Farm: The Film to Out-Disney Disney

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Written by myself, Lucille M. Hatfield, for a class on the history of animation.

“The British out-Disney Disney,”  was what one newspaper said of Animal Farm when it was first released in 1954 as the first animated feature film to come out of Great Britain. When thinking of “the first animated feature film of so-and-so” however, something more conventional such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves tends to come to mind; especially so when those first reviewing Animal Farm were so eager to compare it to Disney. Animal Farm just doesn’t strike one as “first animated feature film” material. It’s so political in nature with propagandist intent; it contains such an odd “Disney but serious” art-style, and quality of the narrative and plot do not hold up as well as those of the novel it is based on. But considering that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is in reality not the first animated feature film, and other actual first-animated-feature-films are much more unconventional and bizarre than Animal Farm by today’s standards, such as The Adventures of Prince Achmed or Momotarou: Umi no Shinpei, perhaps its place in the Canon of Firsts isn’t so odd after all.

Now, as both an adaption of George Orwell’s novel of the same name and a standalone film, Animal Farm is not that good of a film. It’s alright, but nothing great. The general problem being that it tries to go for a more light-hearted tone than the novel, and in doing so tries to strike an awkward balance between being family-friendly and adapting a story as dark as Animal Farm. The film largely stays true to the messages and themes that Orwell tried to present, but with the lighter-tone lessens much of the impact.

If nothing else, the film certainly has an interesting background to it, not least of which because its origin almost sounds like that of a conspiracy theory. When it came out everyone thought it was just a simple adaption of a story about some farm animals, twenty years later it came to light that in reality, it was funded by the CIA as part of their cultural initiative for the Cold War; where they would fund and promote various artists to show the rest of the world how much better capitalist democracies are. Everette Howard Hunt was in charge of the initiative, and hired a number of Hollywood professionals to act as intermediaries. Hollywood writers Carleton Aslop and Finis Farr were sent to buy the screen rights to the film from Sonia Orwell, purportedly by promising to arrange a meeting with her and Clark Gable, while Louis De Rochemont was hired to act as the producer of the film. From there Rochemont decided on handing over the project to the studio Halas & Batchelor, owned by and named after the husband and wife John Halas and Joy Batchelor, who would both direct the film. Those involved on the project say that none of them–not even Halas & Batchelor–had any idea about the CIA involvement, but it still raises questions of just how much influence the CIA had on the film.

What’s almost odd about Animal Farm the movie though, is that many actually interpret it as the opposite of what Halas & Batchelor and the CIA intended it to be–that is they think it’s advocating for revolution against capitalism, and that it’s a pro-communism film. After all, if the pigs are becoming just like their former oppressors, does that not mean that they are bad because they became capitalists? Mr. Whymper, the human intermediary between Animal Farm and the outside world, is even portrayed in the film as a stereotypical capitalist; fat with a top-hat and monocle with a very devious and conniving smile.

It’s important to note however that just because the original book was mainly a satire of the Soviet Union, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily favorable of capitalism either. George Orwell himself was a democratic-socialist. Many see his two most famous novels Animal Farm and 1984 as just anti-communist and anti-totalitarianism, and although those are certainly the focus of his criticisms, he certainly wasn’t saying that socialism in general is a bad thing. The best explanation of what he was going for with Animal Farm would, naturally, come from the author himself. Here is an excerpt from one of his letters:

Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. […]  If people think I am defending the status quo, that is, I think, because they have grown pessimistic and assume that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism.[1]

With that in mind, it’s not too surprising that a faithful adaption of the novel would naturally lead to a story that people could interpret as either pro-capitalist or pro-communist–given that it’s really neither in reality. This also means that, if the CIA wanted to create an anti-communist propaganda film, this probably wasn’t the best choice of source material to begin with.

Now for how the film and the novel compare with each other.

There is an oft-given piece of advice that good fiction must show, not tell, and in some ways the film Animal Farm stays true to this, while in other ways relies heavily on telling. The entire film is narrated and voice acted by a single person, Maurice Denham, with none of the animals speaking save for the pigs. Since most of the animals do not speak, the film partly relies on their movements and animal noises in order to convey emotion and action, which leads to some nice animal animations. But on the other hand, each scene is described by the narrator, telling us what it is we’re supposed to be seeing and what’s going on, which downplays its strengths as a film. In a way this is a more “direct” approach to adaptation since much of the novel is told in a fairy tale style, where a narrator describes the events, but then in the novel all the animals also had dialogue too. It may have been better if the animals talked more in the film, and the visuals and dialogue were allowed to speak for themselves rather than have a narrator spell out for the audience what’s going on. After all, the heavy use of a narrator tends to work better in a novel than it does with a film. This also would have made for a more engaging film.

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As mentioned before, Halas & Batchelor’s film adaption tries to go for an awkward balance of being more light-hearted and optimistic than the source material, while still adapting a novel as bleak as Animal Farm. Sprinkled throughout the story is plenty of comic relief, which is often at odds with the serious aspects of the story. Such as a baby chick trying to help out with all the labor and failing; like slicing at single pieces of grass with a tiny sickle, which is odd because it’s juxtaposed with the whole theme of how the labor is exploitative. Another example is when Napoleon’s offspring emerges from the house and they all perform various acrobatics for the audience; glossing over how in the book, this is a litter of pigs all fathered by Napoleon from several swines.

Many of the most grim and darkest scenes of the book are toned down in the film. During the climatic executions scene of the book,  Napoleon executes a number of “traitors” confessing to their crimes, one by one until a pile of corpses lays before him and the rest of the farm to see, with “the air heavy with the smell of blood.” In the film, simply a handful of animals confess to their so-called crimes, and are then led-off away from the others to be executed off-screen–although we still hear it. Also in the book, it is alcohol right from the start which encourages the pigs to establish relations with the capitalist outside world, while in the film it is jam which sparks this (although later in the film the pigs do eventually start drinking alcohol, too.) These toned down scenes still gets the point of across; how Napoleon’s regime is executing any who stand against them, or how they’re exploiting the other animals for their own luxuries. But it lessens the impact and weight of these scenes. They’re not as serious or engaging as in the book. They get the point across, yes, but they don’t get it across nearly as well.

The most notable difference between the book and film versions are the alternate endings between the two. The book concludes after a timeskip, with the pigs remaining in power and establishing relations with human farms, and being being praised by the humans for creating a system where animals work harder and eat less than other farms. Just before the book concludes, a near-sighted Clover finds that she is unable to distinguish the pigs from the humans.

The film on the other hand has a much more optimistic note to end on. After the time-skip, Benjamin finds the pigs celebrating after enacting the new commandment “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Aghast by this, Benjamin spreads the message about the commandment, which causes all the animals throughout Napoleon’s rule to band together, and overthrow the pigs in a second revolution.

There are a few possible, not mutually exclusive reasons for why Halas and Batchelor may have gone with the different ending. Since the film tries to be more family-friendly in general, perhaps they didn’t want too depressing of an ending. Then there’s its purpose as anti-Soviet propaganda; with the ending, they’re clearly saying that the people of Russia should rise again and overthrow the Soviet Union dictatorship. Given that the CIA funded the film, it’s also a wonder how they may have influence the overall film and its ending, even if those involved with the film say they had no idea about the CIA. For one, the Hays Production Code was still in effect at the time, so that would have been another reason for them to opt for an ending where the good guys prevail in the end.

But this misses the point of what Orwell was trying to say in the first place. It gives the impression that it was the pigs specifically who were responsible for the farm’s corruption, rather than human nature and elitism. It’s blaming Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin for the Soviet Union, rather than looking at the larger picture and blaming “that kind of revolution.” If revolution lead to a life just as bad as before, how can we know that a second revolution won’t turn out just as bad? But of course, what the film is specifically advocating for is a revolution against the Soviet Union. Perhaps the animals would learn from their mistakes, and after the second revolution implement a system with proper checks and balances to keep one animal from acquiring too much power. And maybe even make their new form of government, as the CIA would hope, one which supports capitalism.

As for some more general differences, unlike the novel, the intelligence of the animals is seen in a higher light in the film. In the novel, Napoleon stays in power partly because most of the animals regularly forget about the corruption and atrocities of the Napoleon regime. They create a stir when Napoleon commits a wrong, but readily accepts any of Napoleon’s propaganda. In the film they never forget about any of Napoleon’s crimes however, and never forgive him, which eventually leads to the second revolution. Both oversimplify the issue of why people like Stalin stay in power though, really. As far as treating the animals as stupid, plenty of those in the Soviet Union were discontent with Stalin, but simply lacked the unity and power to do anything about it, especially after the Great Purge. The film however makes such a revolution seem easier than it really is. All it takes, as the film shows, is to spread the word, and all the animals across the Animal Farm system will converge and overthrow the evil pig dictators. This can all be forgiven though given the limited time and scope given to both the novel and film. They’re just analogies after all, and no analogy is perfectly like what it’s analogizing.

The plot of the film is more compressed than the novel. Some characters are reduced to background characters, such as Clover and the crow, while many plot-points are combined. For example, in the novel Napoleon’s coup of Snowball as they vote for the windmill is one scene, and it is shortly after that in another scene that Napoleon announces that the windmill was his idea all along. In the film, these scenes are combined, with Napoleon taking credit for the windmill immediately after Snowball is persecuted. Since the film is just 70 minutes long, and Animal Farm is only 112 pages, it theoretically could have been a much more comprehensive and faithful adaption of the story with just another twenty or thirty minutes of screentime. The choice of running time can probably be chalked up to budget though. Being less comprehensive or faithful than the source material isn’t necessarily a bad thing by any means; it’s just another notable difference to point out.

Lastly, the 1954 edition of the Animal Farm novel was illustrated by Halas and Batchelor, which offers an interesting contrast in how they handled the two projects of illustrating a book and adapting it to film. The character designs are almost identical, but the way they’re drawn is quite distinct from the film. The film is fully colored with painted backgrounds and flat cel-shading for the characters, whereas the illustrations of the book are black and white ink drawings. The shading is often quite rough and scratchy for the illustrations, especially with how the fur of Napoleon is emphasized; giving the illustrations a somewhat “ugly” feeling, which compliments how grim the book is. Each of the illustrations is original in design and framing too, as none of them are simply frames of the film redrawn. For the character designs in both versions, the pigs, Benjamin, and Jones all standout as designs which are particularly well-done, nicely-shaped and expressive. The pigs in particular are nice to look at with their roundness and the variations in expressions. The rest of the animals and humans were less impressive however. For the animals, they’re drawn a bit more realistically and less “cartoonishly”, but at the same time Halas and Batchelor just don’t seem to be as good at drawings horses and sheep as they are drawing pigs and donkeys, so they look more amateurish by comparison.

***

And so after all was said and done, Animal Farm went on to do well with in the box office and garnered a positive critical reception, allowing those involved to move up in life. Halas and Batchelor continued to have successful careers in animation, and Howard Hunt would go on more exciting missions as a CIA agent, such as breaking into Watergate for President Richard Nixon. Today the film hasn’t aged particularly well, especially when compared to the original novel, but it still holds an important place in Britain’s history of animation. …Even if it might not seem like “first animated feature film” material. It may be fitting to conclude by saying that the book is more equal than the film, but that would surely cause some eyes to roll.


[1] Quote retrieved from: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jul/11/animal-farm-what-orwell-really-meant/

References:

1. Chilton, Martin. (2014, Nov 4,) “How the CIA brought Animal Farm to the screen.” The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/11209390/How-the-CIA-brought-Animal-Farm-to-the-screen.html

2. Cohen, Karl. (2003, Mar 6.) “The cartoon that came in from the cold.” The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2003/mar/07/artsfeatures.georgeorwell

3. Zuckerman, Laurence. (2000, Mar 18.) “How the Central Intelligence Agency Played Dirty Tricks With Our Culture.” The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines/031800-02.htm

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One Response to Animal Farm: The Film to Out-Disney Disney

  1. Alyson says:

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