Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm

Daniel J. Leab,
Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm.
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978 0 271 02987 8
US$55.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Pennsylvania State University Press)

It is a truism of film theory nowadays that a book and a film are separate entities, and that one cannot legitimately be judged in terms of its relation to the other. From that perspective differences between Orwell’s book (UK 1945) and the Halas and Batchelor film (UK 1954) of Animal Farm are irrelevant. However, historians are always concerned with how something came to be the way it is – and that is what intrigues Dan Leab in this very careful and detailed production history of Britain’s first animated feature film.

In this history, the differences in the narratives of the book and the film are always significant, for it is argued here (very convincingly) that they arise out of tensions between the film-makers and their financiers. It has long been known that the CIA/OPC (Central Intelligence Agency/ Office of Policy Co-ordination) financed the film as part of American Cold War propaganda. Leab lays all the evidence of this on the table, and discusses in detail why certain changes were made: not just dropping out some of the book’s dramatis personae (the cows and, indeed, any obviously female character), but significantly altering some characterisations (for instance, Snowball), events (Boxer’s death) and, in particular the ending (which was changed several times). Overall, Halas and Batchelor set out to be faithful to the book, but the financiers wanted a far less equivocal message – one that was immediately and obviously anti-Communist. What they did not seem to understand, however, was the effect of their changing demands on the production process. Some script changes required whole new sequences, and others upset the rhythm and timing of animated sequences already completed: every change produced further delays, leading to loud complaints from the financiers. It seems amazing to a reader that the film was ever completed at all!

The delays, the technical compromises, and the heavy-handedness of the film’s final message all contributed to disappointing box office on its initial release. However, more recently the film has enjoyed a highly successful ‘afterlife’, on television and DVD, all fully covered in the later chapters of this book.

In Leab’s story, every player is given his or her own moment: their part in the film’s story is carefully assessed, but each is also given a ‘before and after’ treatment, a history that extends beyond the film. So, the full history of the careers of John Halas and Joy Batchelor is told, from their first meeting to their death – and they are attributed significance in the story of film animation in general, as well as to animation in Britain in particular. But so, too, are the histories of Joseph Bryan, F. Bordon Mace, Carlton Alsop, John Reed, John Stuart Martin and many lesser lights. Louis de Rochement is given particular attention: he was the charismatic producer who introduced Halas and Batchelor to ‘the financiers’, and navigated the sometimes tense relationship between them to the very end. He never admitted CIA involvement, and Leab leaves open the question of whether Halas and Batchelor understood where the money was coming from. They do seem, always, to have clearly understood that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’, and been willing (albeit occasionally reluctantly) to make any changes demanded of them.

The book has all the suspense of a thriller, though the final chapter lacks that genre’s satisfactory tying off of all loose ends. Nevertheless, this is such a thorough, convincing and entertaining telling of its chosen tale that it seems unlikely to be readily superseded.

Ina Bertrand,

Created on: Saturday, 1 December 2007

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →