DAVID GREENE, HOST:
George Orwell's "Animal Farm" turns 75 this week. The book is now considered a classic, but NPR's Petra Mayer reminds us that it almost wasn't published at all.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: An 8-year-old could read "Animal Farm." It is about cute animals after all, at least on the surface - pigs and dogs and horses and chickens who rebel against mistreatment and set up their own animal utopia. Here's a clip from a 1999 adaptation.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANIMAL FARM")
JULIA ORMOND: (As Jessie) Well, what does it say?
PATRICK STEWART: (As Napoleon) That is the farm's name. And as the farm now belongs to us, what words have I painted?
PAUL SCOFIELD: (As Boxer) Us Farm?
STEWART: (As Napoleon) Animal Farm.
MAYER: Orwell biographer D.J. Taylor says the 6-year-old nephew of one of Orwell's friends read it...
D J TAYLOR: ...And reported back via his uncle that he loved it because it didn't contain any difficult words.
MAYER: But "Animal Farm" is a dark, upsetting book. The pigs take over, and bit by bit, they grow more cruel and murderous, masking each new outrage in revolutionary rhetoric. By the end, drinking liquor, snapping whips and gambling with the neighborhood farmers, they're indistinguishable from the humans they originally overthrew.
Broadly, "Animal Farm" is a fable about tyranny, but specifically, it's a satire on the Soviet revolution and how it led to Joseph Stalin's reign of terror. So why tell such a painful story in such a childish manner? D.J. Taylor says that Orwell was influenced by "Gulliver's Travels" and French fables. But also, at the time he was writing "Animal Farm," he and his first wife, Eileen, were adopting a child. So not only did he have kids on his mind...
TAYLOR: The era in which he wrote for the 10 years previous, cinema screens had been full of cartoon animals. You know, it was the great age of the Disney cartoon.
MAYER: It was, in fact, turned into a cartoon a few years after he died, but it almost wasn't a book at all. Orwell was shopping "Animal Farm" to publishers in 1944 when the Allied victory in World War II was far from assured. Again, D.J. Taylor.
TAYLOR: So this is effectively a satire of Stalin, who was then - even America regarded as avuncular Uncle Joe, you know, our great ally in the fight against Nazism.
MAYER: No one wanted to take a potshot at Uncle Joe. It took more than a year and multiple publishers, but "Animal Farm" finally came out in the U.K. in 1945, and it was a massive hit. Its success enabled Orwell to write his masterwork, "1984." When people use the adjective Orwellian today, they're almost invariably talking about "1984." But "Animal Farm," though it's about a specific time and place, still has lessons for us. Jean Seaton is a professor of media history at the University of Westminster and the director of The Orwell Foundation.
JEAN SEATON: "Animal Farm" ought to resonate because it's about the beguiling lure of messages that tell you they have answers.
MAYER: Seaton says the animals' revolution is driven by real mistreatment and anger, and that feels important right now when people have very real fears about inequality and injustice.
SEATON: And then it's the way in which those real fears for the future, real sense of loss is manipulated...
MAYER: Not only by propagandists, Seaton says, but by we ourselves batting opinions back and forth in an online echo chamber until we've convinced ourselves that black is white and two plus two is five.
SEATON: It feels to me a very pertinent book for protecting you against making the small concessions towards being cruel or unfair or accepting injustice or accepting that the rules are changing that we're all tempted to make all of the time because it's a terrible path.
MAYER: So just remember, four legs good, two legs bad - unless we keep George Orwell's message in mind. Petra Mayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.