Read First, Watch After: George Orwell's Animal Farm

Since its publication in 1945, George Orwell’s Animal Farm has become one of the most controversial books ever written and to this day it remains as compulsory reading in most classrooms.

The fable uses barnyard animals as political pawns in a metaphorical tale of the rise of communism, which was a real hot-button topic back then. Since it’s set on a farm and it has talking animals, it was thought to be a palatable way of introducing politics to teens.

One of the four-legged characters in the book says, “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.” This sets the stage for an animal revolt.

A hand-drawn film adaptation of Animal Farm came out in 1954 and it has the distinction of being the very first feature-length animated film made in Britain – it was directed by filmmakers and animators John Halas and Joy Batchelor.

The basic storyline stays true to the tome – it’s about how absolute power absolutely corrupts. Farmer Jones is a no-good sort who often passes out before he remembers to feed his hard-working animals. They get fed up with this treatment and one of the pigs, Old Major, encourages the barnyard animals to revolt. The creatures do as they’re told, ousting the farmer and taking over the house and land. Mirroring Russian oppressive history, counter-revolutionary farmers try to take control of Animal Farm, but they fail.

A boar named Snowball tries to spread mutiny to other farms but is he is assassinated by Napoleon who wants to strengthen his unqualified might within the barnyard. The animal utopia crumbles and the lazy, greedy pigs begin taking advantage of the other animals’ labors… just like Farmer Jones did. It’s the old vicious circle, chasing its tail.

These aren’t cute little Disney characters who get all twitterpated or break into song — a pig is murdered in cold blood; vicious attack dogs are shown ripping a cat to pieces; and when Boxer the horse gets shot, vivid blood spurts from his wound. All comrades great and small are subject to terrible fates.

Orwell wrote his book as a condemnation of communism and fascist dictatorships, and that message still remains in the movie, but it is more talky than touching. Also, many important aspects of the story — like the pigs beginning to walk on two legs — are only quickly touched upon while the filmmakers apparently tried to fit everything from a landmark novel into a 72-minute movie.

While the film doesn’t quite live up to the its source material, it’s still an interesting thing for children to watch either as a companion piece to the book, or as a Cliff’s Notes version of fictionalized historical events.

Which books-turned-films do you enjoy reading and watching with the kids? Share your favorites with us!

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