November 07, 2019
(+++) THE LIMITS OF ADAPTATION
Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel. By George Orwell. Adapted and illustrated by Odyr. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $22.
Still one of the most impressive and telling modern indictments of totalitarianism, specifically Communism, George Orwell’s Animal Farm seems on the surface to be a book that can translate easily to graphic-novel form. The story is comparatively simple and straightforward, and the primary characters are animals, so a skilled illustrator should be readily able to create a visual world in which the animals’ actions and appearances reflect the narrative effectively, thus bringing the book to the attention of a new generation of readers.
Brazilian artist Odyr Fernando Bernardi, who uses the single name Odyr, is certainly skilled, and his adaptation of Animal Farm has a fine visual look that places the story both in the real world and in the mythic realm. Even the printing – made from Odyr’s own handwriting, digitized and turned into a unique type face – matches the overall mood of the tale and enhances the visual presentation.
But there is something that does not quite gel in Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel. Orwell’s indictment of Communism turns out to be less suitable to this format than it seems at first. The reason is that the book is resonant with a history that today’s readers will know, at best, in part – and more likely not at all. Virtually all the characters in the book, certainly all the major ones, represent very specific historical figures, and without knowing just who the personages behind the story are, readers will find the power of Orwell’s thinking and writing vitiated in a way for which the illustrative process cannot compensate.
This is not, in other words, just a modern fairy tale in which animals take over a farm and run it for their own benefit, only to find themselves crushed by a tyranny every bit as oppressive as the one they thought they had escaped. That is how the story comes across in Odyr’s retelling, to some extent; but even that simple plot description is not quite what readers get in the graphic novel, because the details of the way the new regime clamps down harder and harder and eventually becomes indistinguishable from the old one are not put together nearly as elegantly in the graphic novel as in the original book.
Orwell modeled Mr. Jones, the original owner of what was first called Manor Farm, on Czar Nicholas II, and Old Major, the pig who calls for animal rebellion at the start of the book, on a combination of Marx and Lenin – prime movers of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The two pigs who assume control after Mr. Jones is ousted are Snowball, modeled on Leon Trotsky, and Napoleon, modeled on Joseph Stalin. Individual animals on the farm have specific referents as well; so do the human farmers who eventually make common cause with the new dictatorship, or at least learn to tolerate and do business with it. It is not necessary to know all the specifics of Orwell’s construction to appreciate the book’s brilliance and the care with which Orwell constructed it, but Odyr’s adaptation includes less than a minimum. A series of footnotes regarding some of the underlying elements of the story would have helped, but would not fit the graphic-novel format very well and was probably never considered. However, the dropping of some other elements of Animal Farm is less easy to explain. For example, the most tragic character in the book is Boxer, the hard-working but rather dim horse who constantly repeats two sentences: “Napoleon is always right” and “I will work harder.” The first of those is absent in the graphic novel, and the second is mostly implied, so when Boxer is eventually taken away to the knacker, the force of the scene is largely absent. And the fact that it is the rarely speaking donkey, Benjamin, who tries to alert the animals to what is happening even to ever-loyal Boxer – an important point in the story – has no particular significance in the adaptation. On another important matter, the way in which Napoleon produces his cadre of “storm troopers,” in the form of large and vicious dogs, is also downplayed in Odyr’s handling of the book, although the key scenes of the dogs chasing Snowball away and, later, becoming executioners, are of course included. These are just some matters among quite a few.
It is patently unfair, and indeed impossible, to expect a graphic novel to include everything from its original source, and certainly Odyr’s illustrations are, as art, quite impressive – to cite just one example, the mostly gray and green pictures of summer scenes give way to mostly brown and red ones in autumn in a way that captures the change of external seasons beautifully, even though the change of what may be called “internal seasons” as Napoleon tightens his grip is less well communicated. It is hard to fault Odyr for leaving things out – that is, after all, the nature of adaptation. The fact is that Animal Farm is actually quite a short book, but it is very rich indeed in nuance and reference and historical and political awareness. Odyr has done an able job of visualizing some of the elements that Orwell included, at the unavoidable expense of others. The result is that while graphic novels in general can serve as gateways to the books on which they are based, this one works better for readers who already know Animal Farm and are interested in seeing an artist’s impression of how some of the events in the book unfold. Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel lacks the depth and nuance that make Orwell’s original so important a cautionary tale, even decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and three-quarters of a century after the death of Stalin. Perhaps this is inevitable in a book as richly layered as Orwell’s: the basic story comes through well here, but for the underlying meaning and full impact of the story, readers will have to seek out the novel in its original form.