Why Has Orwell Not Translated Successfully to the Screen?


Notable for his ability to compress a whole chapter’s worth of insight to the size of Christmas cracker joke, George Orwell’s influence should be obvious to even those who have yet to read a single word that he wrote. His ideas have far transcended his books, providing the inspiration for countless works, including Terry Gilliam’s magnificent film Brazil and many songs by the band Muse, whose derivative form of alternative rock has become a tremendous hit with angry thirteen-year-old boys who refuse to tidy their bedrooms.

The quality of many these derived works, Brazil being one of few exceptions, is often pretty bad, which is perhaps proof enough of Orwell’s competency as a writer. It is true that often when something is said so well, there’s really no need to elaborate much further. But then why is it that screen adaptations of the author’s books have so frequently missed the mark?

One possible answer could be that Orwell’s work is largely open to interpretation depending on the reader’s political leanings, and that the satisfaction of reading a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four comes from being able to imagine its dystopian world from a personal point of view. Free from heavy-handed adjectives and graphic description, Orwell’s text enables readers to experience his ideas for themselves.

In the case of Animal Farm, however, perhaps fables are just best left on the written page. There are two major film adaptions of the book, both of which are reasonably enjoyable, but ultimately contain too many deviations from the source material to have any great sense of depth.

The first of these adaptations was a British animated feature from 1954, which was produced by Halas and Batchelor, a firm that had previously made propaganda films for the British government. As an early artefact of British animation, the film can only be described as a triumph, but as an Orwell adaption, it does very little to show what happens when well-meaning ideas are distorted by those who rule with iron fist and little else.

The same is true of the second big Animal Farm retelling, which was produced, once again, by the most unlikeliest of companies, this time the cuddly and inoffensive Hallmark, who turned Orwell’s story into something that looked and sounded like the then recently released Babe. Starring a fantastic cast comprised of Pete Postlethwaite, Patrick Stewart and Kelsey Grammer, it was oddly disjointed, and seemed to linger uncomfortably between being part cute critter story and part political satire.

Another Orwell adaptation from around the same time starred Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter, and was released in North America under the title A Merry War. Adapted from Orwell’s socially critical novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, it was released here under the same title, and told the story of a successful copywriter who
suddenly quits his job for the artistic satisfaction of writing poetry.

Of all of the films that have been based on Orwell’s books, Keep the Aspidistra Flying was one of the best, offering up a well-observed and humorous critique of the rigid class-system that both fascinated and horrified Orwell in equal measure.

Since Keep the Aspidistra Flying’s release, though, films—particularly those made in Hollywood—have become noticeably faster-paced, often to the point where they induce nausea. A film like Fast Five, for instance, which as I understand was written by a hyperactive seven-year-old, has presumably been made to replicate the sensation of being stuck on a speeding merry-go-round.

It’s all part of a strange trend in which the industry has developed a propensity to cater to a fictitious audience of barely conscious mouth-breathers, who enjoy nothing but loud noises and rapid movement. Of course, this is the complete opposite to how Orwell wrote, which was not to guide his readers by the hand or tell them how they should feel.

It’s for this reason why news of there being a Hollywood Nineteen Eighty-Four film in the works is so underwhelming. Michael Radford was one of the few who was able to successfully translate Orwell’s vision of the future in his adaptation of the novel, and he did this by remaining true to the source material and not updating it for contemporary audiences.

Alas, it seems unlikely—although certainly not impossible—that the same can be achieved in this current era of cinema.