I’ve had the Simon Callow reading of Animal Farm in my Audible library for a while now but it’s never felt like the right time to listen. Until this weekend. I just had a desire to revisit George Orwell’s animal allegory. I’ve always loved Animal Farm. I think it’s a really great book and is so readable. I love a book that you can digest in one sitting and I love one that does exactly what it needs to. Plus, the idea of it being read by Simon Callow was wonderful. I love his voice and the thought of him playing an angry pig made me very happy.
I might as well start off by saying something potentially controversial. I much prefer Animal Farm to 1984. George Orwell’s classic dystopia may have a much more exciting narrative but his Russian Revolution fable just hits harder. For a start, it’s written better, it doesn’t waste time getting its message across, and follows a clear structure. 1984 is a rambling and slow story with underdeveloped characters. Is it more exciting? At times. Does it have a powerful message? Yes. But was it as successful a whole as Animal Farm? No. 1984 is undoubtedly a classic but it feels a little indulgent. It’s always kind of bewildered me that 1984 has always been the more popular one. It feels like dystopian fiction just gets more of a pass.
When you really look at it, Animal Farm does almost exactly what 1984 does but in a much cleaner and accomplished way. Instead of looking to the future, Orwell looks to the past. The novella uses farm animals to depict the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. When the animals of Manor Farm finally have enough of their owner, they come together to overthrow him. Once he’s gone, the pigs start to paint a picture of a wholly equal society and things start off well. Tensions begin rising between the two wisest pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, and the happy society begins to fracture. How long can the animals live together in harmony?
Okay, so there’s no real surprises with this book because we know how Stalin worked out for the Soviet Union. It’s not as if the twists will really shock you but that’s not really the point. This is a story with a powerful message and it works so well. The farm structure reflects Rusian society so perfectly and it really lends itself to the overall message. The way that the hierarchy works within the animals is really clever and the whole concept grabs you from the beginning. And that ending? If the opening line to 1984 is one of the most well-known in literature, the closing lines of Animal Farm have also got to be up there. It punches you in the gut and will leave you with a chill up your spine.
Now, let’s talk about those characters for a second. Can anyone say that they really cared about anyone in 1984 as much as anyone in Animal Farm? I felt like I knew more about the sheep and chickens than I did about Winston and Julia. When you have a character like Boxer, the longer novel can’t stand up. Maybe it helps that the characters are representing historical figures but so what? They are all so perfectly rendered here and you really get to grips with them. You understand who they are and where they’re coming from.
It might sound impossible but turning these characters into animals only makes them seem more human. The tyrants of 1984 are evil, there is no doubt, but there is an emotional connection missing. Their actions don’t have that personal touch because you aren’t fully engaged with the main characters. In Animal Farm there is an added tragedy to the proceedings. We understand these characters and we care about them. It only makes the awful actions of the pigs more emotional for the reader. Not only does this change the way they read but the way the story gets across. The animals really help project Orwell’s argument onto the real world. It is easy to see their behaviour as human behaviour and, therefore, take heed of the message. 1984 is too far removed from reality for that to happen.
I’ll never understand the epic popularity of 1984. I would happily reread Animal Farm every year but I’d have to push myself to reread 1984 that often. Every line in the shorter book is practically perfect and is there for the right reason. The writing is superior, the pace works, and the whole message is much clearer. There is more balance and lightness in this novel that makes it a much more enjoyable reading experience. I guess its true, “all Orwell books are equal but some are more equal than others”.