Culture > Television

TV: Orwell with muppets

Television | Turner Network's production of the anti-totalitarian classic Animal Farm rings true

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

First, a warning: This is not Charlotte's Web. And it's not Babe (though it might be turned into Babe III: Pig in the Gulag). Turner Network Television's excellent production of George Orwell's Animal Farm is not a children's tale, despite the talking beasts and the involvement of Jim Henson's master puppeteers. It's a brutal allegory about a brutal regime-the Soviet Union. And like all the best allegories and fairy tales, Animal Farm's truths outlast its facts. The USSR may be history, but the dog Jessie's words in the opening sequence of the movie are timeless, biblical truth. "I knew that as with all things built on the wrong foundations, the farm would one day crumble," she says, surveying the wreck that was once Manor (and then Animal) Farm. It's a little paradoxical that the network founded by and named for liberal atheist Ted Turner (who wed Viet Cong cutie Jane Fonda) should have a recent track record of producing first-rate films, including Gettysburg and biblical dramas about Moses and Abraham--while the supposedly conservative Rupert Murdoch plumbs new moral lows in his Fox network. It's Turner's liberalism and sympathy for heavy-handed means to social ends (like his funding of UN population control projects) that make the faithful retelling of Animal Farm so curious. Because when George Orwell (English author Eric Arthur Blair) published Animal Farm in 1945, he ran afoul of the liberal intelligentsia of the day. He was seen as a traitor to socialism because he criticized the Soviet system. Malcolm Muggeridge captured the mood of the intellectual elite of the period: "Liberal minds flocked to the USSR in an unending procession, from the great ones like Shaw and Gide and Barbusse and Julian Huxley and Harold Laski and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, down to poor little teachers, crazed clergymen and millionaires, driveling dons, all utterly convinced that, under the aegis of the great Stalin, a new dawn is breaking in the world, so that the human race may at last be united in liberty, equality, and fraternity forevermore." But Orwell saw the evil in the Soviet system, and he saw it early. He wrote Animal Farm during the Second World War, when the free nations thought it prudent to overlook Soviet evils in the interest of fighting Fascist ones. Publishers felt the public wouldn't want to hear about communist abuses; four of them rejected Orwell's book. A fifth publisher agreed to release the book, and it eventually became a bestseller and a classic. The charge of treason was unfair; Orwell never really strayed far from his faith in socialism. And that's why Animal Farm fails to tell the whole story. As Orwell tells it, communism failed because evil men rose to power. The truth is, of course, that communism and socialism fail because all men are evil, and selfishness is not a product of class conflict--it is the wellspring of all conflict. But the parts of the story Orwell does tell are vital truths. That he told them in fable form reinforces their universality. Like the book, TNT's production of Animal Farm shows the terrible conditions at Manor Farm (paralleling czarist Russia). The humans in charge are nasty, mean, and neglectful of the hard-working beasts. So by the time the senior pig, Old Major, tells of his new vision for a utopian farm, we're all ready for a little revolution. (Personal note: I paused the review tape after about 15 minutes and went outside to give my horse Jake an extra bucket of sweet feed-better safe than sorry.) But when the revolt comes, it is disturbingly violent. Old Major is not only killed, he is butchered. We're used to seeing talking pigs on television, of course, and it's not unusual to see meat-packing. It's the combination of the two that jars. Again, this is not a children's show. Later, when Old Major's decaying head is put on display, it is the perfect-but disturbing-parallel to the USSR keeping Lenin's corpse in a glass coffin in Red Square. In one of the few deviations from Orwell's original, TNT gives the dog Jessie a narrator's role; she's a humble worker, full of hope for the new regime. "And so at last, the farm belonged to us," she says. "We knew we could live without fear, and that Snowball would show us the way." One truth Orwell and TNT demonstrate well is that people are born idolators. If they are denied God, then they will make their own, complete with all the trappings. Snowball does assert the great blasphemy of communism: "There are no rewards after death," he tells the animals. "There is only the here and now." But Snowball is clever enough to provide a messiah anyway. He declares that Old Major "died for us." And he paints a new Seven Commandments on the wall of the barn. The rest of the story is about how Napoleon (Stalin) betrays Old Major's vision, betrays and rewrites the commandments, and betrays the animals themselves. Orwell and TNT reveal another great truth, in the scene where Napoleon and his henchpigs realize the power of the mass media. Just as the animals are starting to ask, "Who has all the milk and apples?" Napoleon switches on the television, whereupon the counter-revolution is forgotten. There is much more in the story--how Napoleon takes away Jessie's puppies to be raised by the state; how the animals work harder than ever but are starving, nonetheless. There are unforgettable characters--Boxer and Mollie, the faithful horses, and Squealer, the perfect party apparatchik. There's an ineffectual crow, who spouts religious maxims but flies away from any hint of danger. Visually, TNT's production is competent--the animatronic effects range from amazing to adequate-but its faithful retelling of this classic is compelling. Homeschoolers will find this a valuable resource (for older students, of course), and it should serve as a cautionary fable for the rest of us.

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