This feature, on the ways in which Orwell is mistreated and misunderstood by popular culture, appeared in The Telegraph in March 2020.
“You’ve read Animal Farm?” So says the female villain of The Hunt, Blumhouse’s slasher-cum-satirical film, to the unlikely heroine, a Mississippi hick she’s nicknamed Snowball. As she learns to her cost, during their showdown, she has a bad case of cognitive bias. Despite Snowball’s lowly identity – in the eyes of her hunter at least – our heroine, real name Crystal, has read a book or two.
Briefly, the background, and the premise of the film. Crystal is the last survivor of a human hunt that targets a group of ignorant, Right-wing “deplorables” – Trump supporters, in short – who have been kidnapped by Left-wing elites, transported to a hidden location and let loose on the countryside.
The prey is a sample of everything liberal America loves to hate: the NRA gun-toter, the Westboro Baptist Church homophobe, the right-wing shock-jock – a thinly veiled parody of Alex Jones – the trailer-trash beatnik, the big-game trophy hunter, and so on. When he heard about the film, Donald Trump himself issued a Tweet attacking “Liberal Hollywood” for making a movie which, he said, was “made in order to inflame and cause chaos”.
For me, it was more like tasting a sickly cocktail of leftovers from the last few years of cultural and political discourse. As a member of the committee of the Orwell Society, what rang alarm bells was the film’s Orwell fetish. It crawls with casual references to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The hunt, for instance, takes place in the grounds of Manor House (Manor Farm is where Animal Farm is set), and the name of the “mom and pop store” in which the hunted take shelter is Willington’s (Manor Farm is near the town of Willingdon). Early in the film, one of the hunters, fresh from bludgeoning a hick, declares “War is war” (a line from Animal Farm). I’ve already mentioned Snowball, and the chat about Orwell’s novel. And, just to make sure nothing at all is left to your imagination, there’s a pig on the loose – called Orwell.
To be fair, The Hunt doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it does take a stab at commenting on the state of polarised political discourse in the US, and, to an extent, the West as a whole. Yet it’s such a confused message that it’s hard to tell if The Hunt is critiquing the all-too-common phenomenon of citing Orwell as some trump card in a debate, or whether it’s guilty of this lazy tendency itself.
It often feels like the latter. The references don’t bear scrutiny. The Snowball character in Orwell’s novel is universally accepted as an allegory for Leon Trotsky, in the context of a post-Revolution power struggle, not merely some vague hero or “idealist”. And in the film, the hunters are achingly woke, powerful elites who check each other’s privileges (one tells another that he shouldn’t wear a kimono because it’s “appropriation”).
But it only takes a cursory reading of Animal Farm to know that the pig Napoleon, fighting it out with Snowball for control of the farm, represents Stalin – hardly a woke icon. And at the same time, on the Left it’s more on-message to contrast Orwell’s Napoleon with Donald Trump.
You’d think it impossible that writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof didn’t know all this. But there’s an extraordinary preponderance in Western culture of citing, quoting and evoking Orwell with only the thinnest understanding of his works.
At an event I attended last year, for example, to promote Ministry of Truth, Dorian Lynskey’s major new book on Nineteen Eighty-Four, an audience member raised their hand and asked whether the author would agree that the modern world had become “just like in Nineteen Eighty-Four”, before admitting: “I haven’t actually read the book, but…”
Orwell’s mass popularity, and revival in modern discourse as an omni-prescient figure, has also been his curse. Seventy years after his death, and with many of the copyrights on his works soon to expire, he’s in a state of being continuously claimed, appropriated and evoked. And both sides of the political divide are at it.
So, in modern Britain, it’s possible (supposedly) that to implore students to report “micro-aggressions” on campus is an “Orwellian attempt to silence free speech”, and that the expulsion of Labour members for alleged anti-Semitism is also “all very Orwellian”.
In promoting his newly-formed Free Speech Union, meanwhile, journalist Toby Young, who loves to rail against the Left, has resorted to one of the most commonly-cited Orwell quotes – “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear” – happily overlooking its author’s fundamental Left-wing politics.
It’s conspicuous in the American presidential campaign, too. The alt-Left media across the Atlantic say that “the anti-Sanders attack machine has taken an Orwellian turn”, while veteran CBS News anchor Dan Rather contends that “what [Orwell] wrote, it’s practically a shooting script for Trump”, a man who’s “trying to move us into an Orwellian space where truth doesn’t matter and the opposite of truth is truth”.
This state of affairs has long been the case. Even when Orwell was alive, he was claimed and counter-claimed by opposing sides. But the tendency has reached absurd proportions in these febrile modern times, the zeitgeist of which The Hunt is trying so hard to capture.
It comes down to your idea of what a dystopia would look like: whether Big Brother would be the authoritarian force that looms over all, suffocating free speech in the name of the collective good, or the warmongering enslaver who crushes individuals and teaches hate and mistrust. The Right tends to focus on Orwell’s defence of free speech and anti-Communist positions, while the Left cites vivid attacks on nationalism, colonialism, and the injustices of the English class system.
But to reduce Orwell to a meme theme, and his great works and thoughts to tick-offs on a game of cultural buzzword bingo, is to inflict a painful historical irony on a writer who, above all, loathed precisely this sort of casuistry, and the cheap “swindles and perversions” of language to which he himself is now subjected.
We can be glad that Orwell is alive in the collective mind. But we should be wary of the price that he, and we, may have to pay for the privilege.