Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New “Animal Farm” Targets Capitalism

Actor Andy Serkis is set to direct an upcoming movie adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm. But there will be a slight deviation from the story’s original focus: rather than serve as a cautionary tale about Communist totalitarianism, this updated version will address Hollywood’s predictable, go-to embodiment of evil, the Darth Vader of our time: corporate greed.

Orwell’s brilliant allegory Animal Farm was written during World War II as a satire on Soviet Communism (and very nearly wasn’t published, critical as it was of our Russian ally). It has since been adapted to film twice, a British animated version in the mid-1950s, in which the ending was altered to be more upbeat for its young audience, and a “live-action” take in 1999 featuring talking animals with the voices of an all-star cast including Kelsey Grammer, Ian Holm, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patrick Stewart.

Serkis, known primarily for his role as Golem in the epic Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and as the ape Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboots, announced that his version would address the political aspects of the novella, but not as overtly as the previous films: “First and foremost, we are not making a film about Communism and Stalinism because if Orwell was writing the story today, he would be talking about other relevant topics like globalization and corporate greed,” he explained.

Well, first and foremost, Serkis is not making a film about Communism because if he were, the project probably wouldn’t get a green light from the studio. Hollywood eschews making films about Communism’s ugly reality, and prefers to focus instead on ones about anti-Communist “paranoia,” about the witch hunts led by such easily-demonized caricatures as Joseph McCarthy against courageous Hollywood martyrs like devoted Stalinist Dalton Trumbo. George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck is a prominent recent example.

If Hollywood features Communists at all, it tends to paint them as beautiful idealists like Warren Beatty in Reds. The result is that Hollywood is leaving untouched a wealth of powerful true dramas that could be mined from the history of cruel and oppressive Soviet Communism, because at heart the wealthy capitalists of Hollywood (such as Howard Zinn fanboy Matt Damon, whose recently released Elysium is a blatant class warfare propaganda) lament the collapse of that utopian vision. But they have kept it alive by rebranding it as progressivism – and Hollywood is not about to make a movie critical of the progressive dream.

(A notable exception is last year’s TV series The Americans, about a husband-and-wife team of Soviet agents undercover in Reagan-era Washington D.C. I have written here about how that show, at least in its first season, showed American society positively, depicted the FBI as unequivocal good guys, and betrayed not a hint of sympathy for the protagonists’ ideology. That may change in the upcoming new season – and if so, I will report on that – but for now, The Americans is a lonely rarity among Hollywood’s output in its willingness to paint Communists as ruthless, subversive ideologues, and America as a land of freedom and prosperity.)

As for Serkis’ assertion that today the iconoclastic Orwell would be writing about globalization and corporate greed: I think it more likely that Orwell would still be writing about the issues that preoccupied him then, because those issues are still as relevant as ever: the conflict between liberty and oppression and the critical role of language in that clash (his essay “Politics and the English Language”  is a must-read). “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” Orwell wrote ten years later, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Socialist though he was, rather than take to the streets with the violent Occupy Wall Street movement, he might be taking up his pen against the abuses of government surveillance, the left’s alliance with the creeping totalitarianism of Islamic theocracy, and the oppression inherent in the left’s shrewd manipulation of political language, such as its relentless push for submission to speech codes and its intolerance of politically incorrect expression.

Serkis promises that in his new Animal Farm, he will be investigating “the world of the overarching ego that corrupts the innocence of the potential utopia that the animals create.” I have no idea what his political inclinations are, but this statement – that ego-driven capitalist excess corrupts and derails the “potential utopia” that the animals would otherwise naturally create for themselves – is a pretty clear hint. The utopian vision of a socially “just,” neatly organized society cleansed of messy human nature is leftist to the core.

“We’re making a family film,” said Serkis. Of course, because progressives are nothing if not proselytizers for their political religion, and they know how critical it is to preach their gospel to the youth. Hence all the family-friendly, anti-corporate, animated environmentalist propaganda films in recent years like Wall-E, Happy Feet, and The Lorax. Serkis’ Animal Farm seems destined to be burdened by a similar sort of heavy-handed agitprop.

“So, if you like the archetypes,” continues Serkis, “all the characters are exactly the same and will represent the same as the book. It's just that we’re not pinning them down to specific political targets, i.e. Napoleonism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, et cetera.” But what is Animal Farm without a political target? In fact, it’s likely the target here will be capitalism itself.

Capitalism is messy, no doubt about it, and that drives progressives wild because it resists their efforts to conform it to their ends. They are reduced to trying to equate it with greed, but in fact greed is a human characteristic, not solely a capitalist one; after all, the people in power in Communist societies live like kings while everyone else stands in bread lines. At least capitalism offers mechanisms for self-correction.

It’s not that corporate greed can’t be the subject of an entertaining movie – look at Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, for example – but to hijack Animal Farm’s anti-Communist message and twist it into “a modern commentary of the perils of corporate greed” makes this film a tragedy.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 12/27/13)