Shortly after George Orwell’s death in 1950, his widow Sonia was visited in London by two representatives of the American film producer, Louis de Rochemont. They sought the rights to Orwell’s novel from five years earlier, Animal Farm. It’s said Sonia took some convincing but eventually agreed, on the promise that de Rochemont would introduce her to her hero, Clark Gable.
A conventional, live-action adaptation was out of the question given that the book’s main characters were farmyard animals, so an animated movie was decided upon instead. De Rochemont chose to have it made in the UK rather than the US — partly because of lower production costs, partly because he admired the work of British husband-and-wife duo John Halas and Joy Batchelor, a couple who ran their own animation studio and had produced several propaganda films for the British government during the Second World War.
Their adaptation of Animal Farm was released in 1954, to popular and critical acclaim — the first feature-length animation movie ever made in the UK. On 11 December, Christie’s will offer a selection of items connected to its production in the Valuable Books & Manuscripts sale in London.
They include 38 character cels over painted backgrounds. Essentially, these amount to the frames from a given scene: cels being movable, 3D cut-outs that were set against, and then removed from, a given background.
In one instance, we see the animals charging the farmhouse (from the start of the film); in another, we see them trying to repair the windmill (from the middle of the film); and in another, the pigs are lounging decadently on sofas (from towards the end of the film).
‘It’s fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes view at how this landmark film was made,’ says Thomas Venning, Head of the Books & Manuscripts department at Christie’s. ‘What we’re offering are the nuts and bolts of Animal Farm, which, because of the fraught geopolitical climate of the day, take on added interest.’
Venning is referring here to the Cold War, without which the film would never have been made. Though Halas and Batchelor didn’t know it at the time, de Rochemont — it has recently been revealed — was secretly in the employ of the CIA.
According to Hugh Wilford in his 2008 book The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, the organisation provided most of the $500,000 funding for Animal Farm. Wilford also suggests the real reason Halas and Batchelor were chosen as film-makers was ‘to disguise the American hand in the project’.
Put baldly, the CIA saw Animal Farm as a way of spreading a covert, anti-Communist message across the world. De Rochemont duly demanded a very different ending from that in the novel.
Orwell’s story is an allegory, recounting the events of the Russian Revolution in terms of a group of farm animals overthrowing their human master, Mr Jones. After high hopes early on, the revolution is ultimately corrupted — the book concluding with a summit between pigs and humans, in which ‘there is no difference between them’.
For Orwell, the Communists ended up no less rotten than the capitalists they’d rebelled against. For the CIA, however, such a view reflected as badly on Washington as it did Moscow. Hence de Rochemont’s request for a finale in which the humans were absent altogether — and in which the pigs get their comeuppance from the animals they betrayed.
‘This had the added advantage of ending the film on a high where justice prevails,’ Venning says. ‘The animation has a wonderfully stark style, which I think reflects the CIA’s stark simplification of Orwell’s tale.’
Among the other items being sold are original illustrations by Harold Whitaker — one of the film’s lead animators — for a comic-strip version of Animal Farm. Published in British newspapers to coincide with, and promote, the release of the film, these consist of 172 scenes executed in ink and blue crayon.
‘The items coming to auction are fine works of art in their own right,’ Venning says. ‘But they’re made all the more interesting for their connection with the 20th-century cultural touchstone that was Animal Farm.’