Animal Farm is another of those stories that people know of, but haven’t necessarily read. For those who don’t want to read the original – which is one of his most accessible books – this is a sterling adaptation by Orwell himself, first recorded in 1947, with many scenes dramatized, but a narration (by Tamsin Grieg) that avoids the necessity for some clumsy exposition. It means that some of Orwell’s best-known phrases from the book, including its final line, can remain intact.
The 90 minutes speed by, and, as with the original, you can read as much into this as you want. On one level, it’s a story that children can understand, about how people (or animals) don’t live up to their high ideals, and will ensure that their own interests are taken care of, if they are in a position to do so. But if you know the history of the Russian Revolution, you’ll pick up so many of the little digs that Orwell gets in – the rivalry between Napoleon and Snowball, and the way in which the latter’s part in the revolution is downgraded and eventually traduced, is a considerably less than subtle attack on Stalin and both Trotsky and Lenin. The changing of the key tenets of the revolutionary creed, and the “confessions” of those who try to point out the failings of the regime both have their bases in the way in which Stalin and the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) operated before the Second World War.
Published in 1945 – at a time when Stalin was still the friendly Uncle Joe who was helping the Allied war effort against the Nazi regime – it was a timely warning about how communism worked… and the events of the last eight years of Stalin’s life (he died in 1953) show how accurate a prophet Orwell was.
The production is very well put together: the soundscape (with its bleating sheep and their occasionally changing anthems) makes you feel as if you’re on a farm, preserving the balance of the book. A strong cast – with Nicky Henson making a particularly effective Napoleon, and Toby Jones suitably menacing as his propaganda spouting porcine number two, Squealer – bring Orwell’s words to life. The only slightly annoying element is the song of the rebellion, which is just a fraction too close to My Darling Clementine in places!
Verdict: All versions of Animal Farm may be equal, but some (such as this) are more equal than others! 8/10