Jonathan Safran Foer on 'Eating Animals' and the Cruelty of Factory Farming: 'There Is No Defense'; If Foer's Book "Eating Animals" Didn't Make You a Vegetarian, the New Film Adaptation Just Might

By Schonfeld, Zach | Newsweek, June 29, 2018 | Go to article overview

Jonathan Safran Foer on 'Eating Animals' and the Cruelty of Factory Farming: 'There Is No Defense'; If Foer's Book "Eating Animals" Didn't Make You a Vegetarian, the New Film Adaptation Just Might


Schonfeld, Zach, Newsweek


Byline: Zach Schonfeld

Jonathan Safran Foer frequently hears about his readers' eating habits. This is perhaps unusual, considering he is not a physician or a nutritionist; he's a best-selling novelist, known for, among other books, 2002's highly inventive Everything Is Illuminated. But the author's 2009 foray into nonfiction, Eating Animals, has become an influential text for a new generation--probably the most popular consideration of the ethical dimensions of meat eating since 1975's Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.

Since then, "I don't give a reading, anywhere, for any book I've written, that someone doesn't come up to me and say, 'I became a vegetarian because I read that book,'" says Foer, now 41. In terms of impact, this is perhaps the literary equivalent of the Smiths' "Meat Is Murder," though the author steers away from militant vegan sloganeering; he prefers to reason with rather than condemn steak lovers.

Eating Animals memorably questioned why Americans treat dogs like friends yet remain curiously indifferent to the suffering of, for instance, pigs--affectionate creatures capable of intelligent and social behavior. One person especially moved by the book was Natalie Portman, Foer's longtime friend and occasional email pen pal. "Eating Animals changed me from a 20-year vegetarian to a vegan activist," Portman wrote in 2010 for HuffPost.

Now, the Black Swan actress has produced and narrated a documentary adaptation, more than five years in the making, in collaboration with the director Christopher Dillon Quinn and the nonprofit Farm Forward. According to Foer, Portman read a draft of Eating Animals and began talking about making a film out of the book before it was even published. (She had come to one of his early readings in 2002, when Everything Is Illuminated made him a literary wunderkind, and they struck up a correspondence.)

Why was the actress the best person to take on the project? "I've just known her forever, and she is as smart as they come," Foer says. "It's an uphill climb to get any movie made, and you're climbing almost vertically to [make a film] on a subject as serious as this. I knew she would both have the energy and the wisdom to work for it to get done."

While writing Eating Animals, Foer spent several years observing animal agriculture, researching meat production and considering difficult questions that most Burger King customers prefer to ignore. The resulting book merged memoir-style reflections on our emotional attachment to food (the author's grandmother's beloved chicken recipe, for instance) with harrowing journalistic accounts of what it's like to visit a factory farm. (Sample sentence: "Jamming deformed, drugged overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy.") Foer's conclusion: "To accept the factory farm feels inhuman."

The documentary is an adaptation in the loosest sense of the term, since it loses Foer's distinctive personal narrative, providing visual documentation of the modern factory farm: animals pumped up on antibiotics and stuffed into tiny crates to await slaughter. While much of the film meditates on that cruelty and the environmental consequences of raising animals for meat (accounting for between 14 and 50 percent of climate change, according to one scientist interviewed in the film), there is also an intimate glimpse of how factory farms exploit small farmers and other individuals. …

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