Last week in my English IV course for seniors, we had just finished reading George Orwell’s 1984 when one of my students commented, “I really liked the book, but I was hoping Orwell would show how this messed-up society came to be. How did people get to this point?”
“That’s a good question,” I said, “but Orwell doesn’t tell us.” But as I said this, I realized this wasn’t true: Orwell does tell how Oceania came to be! It’s just through a different book and different characters. Orwell’s Animal Farm shows how people (or their animal counterparts) seeking liberation become the victims of totalitarian leaders. Then with 1984 he shows us how those totalitarian societies maintain control over their subjects. Although I have taught these books for years (and sometimes in the same course), I never realized what Orwell was doing: He was showing us both the beginning and the end of the process. It just took students asking questions to make me connect the dots!
But let’s connect them a little more. My favorite follow-up activity to teaching Animal Farm is showing the film Planet of the Apes (1968). I don’t mean the new CGI movies (which I also like) or the Mark Wahlberg version (which I don’t), but the old, rubber-monkey-mask, Charlton-Heston-chewing-the-scenery version. It’s…amazing! Okay, it’s horribly cheesy in some ways, but so well-written that it doesn’t matter. (By the way, one of the writers was Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame.)
Planet of the Apes forms a bridge between Animal Farm and 1984. In the film we do not see when the animal (apes) took control (like you do in Animal Farm) nor has their society reached the extremities of Oceania in 1984. The apes are in a middle ground: They have made a society that oppresses humans, suppresses information, and slowly strips away human—I mean, simian—rights. All the apes lack is the technology of Big Brother, but it’s apparent that someday they will reach that point. Bottom line: The themes of Planet of the Apes are so Orwellian, the film is a perfect fit. The film even references Animal Farm at one point when Heston’s character comments, “It appears some apes are more equal than others!”
I have always taught Animal Farm to sophomores and 1984 to seniors, and at times I have questioned if maybe it’s Orwell overkill. Personally, I can’t get enough of the guy, but I wondered if maybe it was too redundant for my students. Now I see that it’s not. Orwell is presenting two sides of the same situation—a double warning. Animal Farm shows us how totalitarianism begins innocently but grows, and 1984 shows what happened when it is fully conceived. Using Planet of the Apes brings in a film element that ties the two together nicely! So if you are wondering which dystopia to teach—teach all three! Make a totalitarian timeline. Start with Animal Farm followed by Planet of the Apes (1968) and finish with 1984 to show your students the process from start to finish.
Here are some materials that might help:
Interesting side note: I also show my students a clip from The Simpsons, where the family attends a Broadway-style musical of The Planet of the Apes. The last scene shows Taylor (Charlton Heston’s character) telling Dr. Zaius, the leader of the oppressive orangutans, “I love you, Dr. Zaius.” How is that for an interesting 1984 connection?