Book Review: Animal Farm by George Orwell


There has been a lot of talk of Animal Farm on the internet lately, so I thought, what better time to post a review of the 1945 George Orwell classic than now?

For those of you not familiar with the story of Animal Farm, here is a quick low-down (spoiler-alert):

After an uprising from the animals of Manor Farm, it is renamed Animal Farm as it’s “four legged” residents run its human owners out, representing the events prior to World War II in Stalin-led Russia.

During this revolt, Old Major (who is said to channel Karl Marx or perhaps Vladimir Leninalthough Christopher Hitchens notes that “there is a Stalin pig and a Trotsky pig, but no Lenin pig… Nobody appears to have pointed this out at the time [sic] and if I may say so, nobody but myself has done so since; it took me years to notice what was staring me in the face”) the farm’s boar leader, comes up with the Seven Commandments of Animalism (mirroring Communism), which young pigs Snowball and Napoleon put into practice after Old Major’s death. These Commandments are:

  • Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  • Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  • No animal shall wear clothes.
  • No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  • No animal shall drink alcohol.
  • No animal shall kill any other animal.
  • All animals are equal.

At first the residents of Animal Farm are happy and embrace the Seven Commandments, but turmoil quickly ensues. Snowball and Napoleon (meant to represent Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, respectively) become drunk with power, challenging the other residents of the farm and each other.

Snowball suggests building a windmill, but Napoleon opposes it and has Snowball run out of the Farm. Napoleon takes over leadership, and he and his army of pigs, including right-hand man Squealer, declare that Snowball stole the idea for the windmill from Napoleon, and that they will go ahead with the erection of it.

After a violent storm, the windmill is found destroyed and Napoleon accuses Snowball of sneaking in and demolishing it. Anyone believed to be consorting with Snowball is killed off, and Napoleon brainwashes the poor residents into believing that Animal Farm is better than the human-run Manor Farm. Meanwhile, the pigs adopt human characteristics and begin to walk upright.

As the novella comes to a close, the Seven Commandments have been changed to accommodate Napoleon and his pigs; “no animal shall sleep in a bed” becomes “no animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets”, and “but some animals are more equal than others” is added to the final commandment. After the sacrifice of many of the Farm’s residents, the final scene describes a dinner party held by Napoleon for the residents of the area, both human and porcine, between which the other animals cannot tell the difference.

That’s the premise of Animal Farm crammed into as small a nutshell as I could find!

I loved that the book was simply written, yet the themes and messages were still easily deciphered. I highly recommend acquiring the book, as most editions come with several Orwell-written Appendices which highlight the political undertones of the story.

I also recently watched the 1999 film version, starring Kelsey Grammar as the voice of Snowball and Julia Louis-Dreyfus voicing horse Mollie. While Andrew O’Hagan writes that “art involving talking animals is often deeply political”, I chose to bypass the 1954 animation as the newer adaptation was more readily available for hire and more closely resembles the book.

One major difference, though, is that the role of border collie Jessie is heightened in the movie, and she plays narrator and the maternal voice of reason. Snaps to the dog’s trainer, as Jessie is very lovableas all dogs areand believable. It’s those puppy dog eyes, I tell ya.

Speaking of animal authenticity, the pigs chosen to play Napoleon and Squealer were appropriately repugnant, whereas Snowball’s onscreen incarnation garnered much more sympathy from me than he did in print.

The film version moved along much quicker, and I thought the use of propaganda films starring Napoleon and Squealer to address the animals of the farm was very smart. These films showed the pubic hangings of rats and hens, à la Stalin, and amendments to the commandments.

All in all, the movie was likeable, and served as a motion picture compliment to better illustrate the ideas and goings on in the book.

But book over movie every time, baby!

Elsewhere: [The Guardian] Andrew O’Hagan on Fiction’s Talking Animals.