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Pork-Barrel Politics: Squealer the pig ministers to the propaganda needs of the porcine elite in the TV adaptation of 'Animal Farm.'

In a Pig's Eye

TNT takes the sting out of Orwell's satire

By Richard von Busack

GEORGE ORWELL'S FAMOUS POLITICAL FABLE is given the Babe treatment with live-action talking animals in the TNT adaptation of Animal Farm. During a revolution at a badly run farm, the animals take over but are betrayed--in circumstances that mirror the history of the U.S.S.R. from 1919 to 1940--by the intelligent pigs who become the ruling elite of the newly named Animal Farm. The satire is specific. Orwell wrote that its purpose was to overcome Stalin's lies. Unfortunately, Animal Farm has been also been used in a way Orwell never anticipated: as an illustration of the lesson that socialism always fails. (If the Russian experience completely discredited socialism, why hasn't capitalism been completely discredited by what's going on in Russia today?) Animal Farm's real timeliness may be that reflects the dour yet glib note of 1999 politics. The moral is summarized by the Who in their song "Won't Get Fooled Again": "Meet the new boss/same as the old boss." It may be zeitgeist that "Won't Get Fooled Again" has turned up in two very different movies this year: American Beauty and Summer of Sam.

The worst moments of this live-action version come at the beginning. Major, the boar modeled on Karl Marx, is voiced by Peter Ustinov as a harrumphing, senile old Labor Party member of parliament, instead of as a spellbinder pleading with an audience to remember their history. The debunking of Major's speech as empty politics is, at the least, a dramatic mistake--and at the most a deliberate misreading of the book. Jessie the dog (Julie Ormond), essentially a reprise of the maternal dog from Babe, narrates. By contrast, Benjamin the donkey (Pete Postlethwaite) provides a natural point of entrance for today's burnt-out and apolitical types. Yet he's only a peripheral character. He has none of his grumbling wisecracks, let along his famous response to any talk of the hopes of the future: "Donkeys live a long time. None of you have ever seen a dead donkey."

Kelsey Grammer does the untrustworthy voice of Snowball, the Trotsky pig. Ian Holm steals the show as the smooth propagandist pig Squealer, who wears a monocle on a green ribbon. One of director John Stephenson and screenwriters Alan James and Marilyn Burke's improvement on Orwell is the conceit that Squealer is a film director--Animal Farm produces its own homemade propaganda movies. The out-of-focus, badly synced films bring a witty Gary Larsen note to counterpoint the darkness of the last third, with its show trials and purges. Patrick Stewart voices the piggie Stalin, Comrade Napoleon. This adaptation gives us something the book didn't: the first conciliatory meetings between swine and humans. Napoleon is hugely amused to be addressed as "Old Boy" by his neighbor farmers and keeps repeating the phrase.

I don't think this Animal Farm gives a child the pleasure of discovery. The pigs never turn bad, they're just born piggy, snickering and sly from the beginning. That makes for broad amusement, but no kid would learn from this how it is that animals (or humans) are fooled by rhetoric. And the happy ending--meet the nice, rock & roll-loving new bosses, so different from the old boss--takes the sting out of the story. It left me more depressed than I would have been by Orwell's original stark ending.

'Animal Farm' (120 min.), directed by John Stephenson, written by Alan Janes and Martyn Burke, photographed by Mike Brewster and starring Pete Postlethwaite, Kelsey Grammer and Ian Holm airs Oct. 3 at 8 and 10pm and midnight on TNT, with additional showings Oct. 6, 9-10, 13 and 16.

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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