When Big Brother took charge of Orwell's Farm

Orwell Subverted

September 7, 2007

There was always something about communism after 1941 that touched a raw, hysterical nerve in the American constitution, whether formal or emotional. There has also long been an impressive quantity of serious American research into the manifestations of this, whether the history of McCarthyism in the capable hands of Victor Navasky, or the far more shadowy histories of cultural propaganda and "covert operations", led by Christopher Lasch and Noam Chomsky.

Daniel Leab's book is a contribution to this latter line of inquiry, pausing somewhere on the path that led, once the Marshall Plan began to pour its limitless dollars into Europe in 1947, from the CIA to the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the European Co-operation Administration, which commissioned, in its impossibly elusive way, the film of Animal Farm .

Naturally, George Orwell's classic fable was to be adjusted - it didn't take much - to show the Stalinist pigs as being as hateful and monstrous as the old tyrant was, and the portrayal of Trotsky (Snowball in the story) was slanted away from that of fluent and attractive demagogue towards officious and ruthless organiser.

One's sympathies go out to Leab when he has to describe the origins of the decision to pay for the film. He has been unable to see far into the CIA's "impenetrable files"; he discovers a small cast of officials in the junior unit, the Office of Policy Co-ordination (these bland, blank mirror-names merit critical study in themselves), who seemed to be those with money and executive powers. He gives us brief biographies of those who then took up the enterprise and made the film: the producer, the animators (an English beauty called Joy Batchelor and a handsome Jewish Hungarian called John Halas), and Orwell's widow, Sonia, who in a very thin chapter has to be abandoned without a role in the narrative.

Leab is best on the small details of the five revisions of the script that, in a repellent though doubtless authentic CIA solecism, "psywar" principles required. All this really meant was that Orwell's dedication to democratic socialism was suppressed and the vilification of all things communist stepped up high. If, in the earlier script, Snowball seemed brave and intelligent, by the final one he had to be impractical and fanatical. Orwell's grim vision at the very end of pigs and men as indistinguishable was radically muted, and the farm fence turned into a metaphor for the Iron Curtain, with tyranny on that side and good guys (whether animal or human) on this.

At this distance from the release of the film, endlessly delayed until late December 1954, one is less struck by the surely not-very-important struggles over the shades of meaning. All adaptations violate aspects of the original; the film is a triumph of propaganda art, the line of its drawings bold and beautiful, those animals on the right side of endearing but never cute, and its villains entirely fearsome, its anti-tyrannical message rousing and unmistakable to the countless schoolchildren (as Leab gratifyingly reports) who watch it as part - probably the most memorable part - of their curricular study.

At a time when the CIA has become a byword for incompetence and stupidity, this book bears decidedly compelling witness to its once judicious absorption of George Kennan's policy towards the Soviet Union of "containment", and the impressiveness with which it planned a short propaganda cartoon to help, however slightly, that sensible policy along.

It's a worthy enough little book, if a bit disfigured by cliche and clunking prose, as well as by some rather blurred narrative - not only about the CIA, which lives in and behind a blur, but also as to the relevance of some of the more transient characters on the fringes of the tale.

Yet it remains a tale worth the telling, not least for its excellent and copious notes. It might presage a useful genre in mythopeia. Richard Howells' bigger-visioned, better written The Myth of the Titanic might, one imagines, be joined to Leab's monograph in a little series that would include, say, studies of Colonel Blimp (and Churchill's attitude to it), The Magnificent Seven (and the war in Vietnam), and Brassed Off (and the still unwritten history of the 1984-85 miners' strike).

Such essays would have more grip than the heavy-duty theory in old numbers of Screen .

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies at Sheffield University.

Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm

Author - Daniel J. Leab
Publisher - Penn State Press
Pages - 195
Price - £36.50
ISBN - 98701029786

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