'Animal Farm' on the tube: There's peril in televising art

On Books

October 03, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

At 8 o'clock this evening, Turner Network Television, which coyly designates itself "The Best Movie Studio on Television," will broadcast a two-hour adaptation of George Orwell's "Animal Farm." If you are getting married or being launched into space at that moment, rest easy: Seven "encores" are scheduled over the next two weeks.

TNT's publicity declares this "the most ambitious film ever made for television." Not only that, TNT also proclaims that the film "is destined to become the most important television event of the year." Years in planning, it employs more than 120 live animals on which Jim Henson's Creature Shop has wrought major technical wonders.

Buried in books, as usually I am, I am seldom glued to the tube. But I have seen this one in advance. In it, I find a cautionary -- distressing -- lesson about art, entertainment and the pursuit of larger truths. So forgive me as I jump the line.

But first, the book:

"Animal Farm" was published in 1946. It is a conquering metaphor for the eternal verity that power tends to corrupt. That decay already had shown up in state socialism: For all its ideals of equality, Marxism, particularly under Stalin, had swiftly become hideously, barbarically tyrannical.

For two years, almost every established publisher in Britain and America refused the manuscript. Some admitted political fear of offending the Soviets and their allies in the non-Communist world. Others apparently acted on innocent incompetence.

When it was ultimately published -- in America by Harcourt Brace and in Britain by Secker and Warburg -- it was an instant, soaring success. Since then it has become one of the 20 best-selling books in the history of publishing, in any language.

Now, on to television:

The two hours begin beautifully in very dramatic English countryside. (Actually, it was shot in County Wicklow, Ireland, but the story and the accents all suggest England.) The initial narrator is an almost blind but visionary sheep dog. Quickly and dramatically, the other voices -- the animals are all superb off-camera actors -- show that the animals are innately decent, mostly smart and articulate. The humans, on the other hand, are depicted as stupid or gross or both.

The photography is splendid. The Henson technicians' electronic manipulation is smooth and almost eerily convincing in making muzzles, snouts and beaks move as if they are talking.

Like "Hill Street Blues" and its successors, the film volleys back and forth from one venue to the other, between wonderfully caring, responsible animals working selflessly on their revolution -- and disgusting, grasping, hateful human beings bent on exploitation and self-indulgence. (Yes, of course, ultimately the dominant pigs come to behave precisely as the worst of humans.)

The essential problem is that within a few minutes of the film's beginning, the suspension of disbelief -- even for one keenly primed, as I was, to favor it -- begins to be a chore. Turning metaphor into verisimilitude simply fails.

However often I reread it, what this book leaves me with is a rekindled awareness of the consummate importance of the lone spirit, the sublimity of courage, the fragility of liberty -- and the enduring, timeless genius of great writing.

What this film left me with was a sense that I should be careful around stupid, grasping pigs. I could probably make it through life without that instruction.

In reading the book, it is possible to accept Orwell's anthropomorphization -- his imposing human characteristics on a farmful of beasts and birds. That leap of faith is earned with simplicity and guilelessness, the deftness of superbly disciplined metaphor.

In this film, in total contrast, the effort is to present humanized animals as real. This is Bambi-ism at its most soullessly saccharine.

I am not suggesting for a minute that fine books can't beget fine movies: See "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Godfather" and "The Wizard of Oz."

To mark the 50th anniversary of the original publication of "Animal Farm," Harcourt Brace & Co. produced a new edition in July of 1996, blissfully laid out and illustrated by Ralph Steadman, an artist with glorious imagination and a profound understanding of the book's core concerns.

In Steadman's illustrations, animals and people are unmistakably animals and people -- but fanciful, imaginative ones, extended to extremes, their souls writ large. One double-page spread of the barnyard is a respectful burlesque of "Guernica," Picasso's classic declaration of the horror of war. The pigs at their arrogant worst are appropriately more corpulent and cynical than even the grossest human politician ever could be. And so on.

Those illustrations are successful, wondrously expanding the reach, the power of Orwell's fable. That stands in stark and awful contrast to tonight's film, which trivializes the tragedy and assassinates the irony with the ax of hyperrealism.

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