Why Jonathan Safran Foer (and Natalie Portman) brought Eating Animals to the screen
The author's best-selling book on veganism is now a documentary, narrated by Natalie Portman
It’s been nearly a decade since Jonathan Safran Foer published Eating Animals, his best-selling nonfiction book on veganism and factory farming. And in the time since, it feels like things have changed both dramatically and not at all.
The book was a conversation-starter of sorts, probing important questions about food choice and the suffering of farmed animals which helped lead to other popular works on the subject, including documentaries like Food Inc. But while others have continued banging the drum, meat consumption remains on the rise, and factory farming is as well. As Foer sums it up, “There are reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic.”
Now the book has been adapted into a documentary of the same name, narrated by Natalie Portman, out in limited release today. It is, of course, different, both due to the difference in medium and the fact that the industry has changed over the past 10 or so years. And yet it continues a discussion, a debate, that Foer’s book is partly responsible for launching. To reflect on Eating Animals‘ legacy, and provide insight on its long road to the screen (including his decades-long friendship with Portman), Foer caught up with EW by phone. Read on below for our full conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What are your thoughts on the book now, 10 years later?
JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: The world changes in a lot of directions at the same time. There are reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic. Reasons to be pessimistic include more meat is consumed now than when I wrote the book, and American eating habits are proliferating — most frighteningly, to India and China — and … factory farming is also proliferating, mostly to Eastern Europe. If that happens, there’d really be no way of coming back, just in terms of environmental impact, putting aside all of the other costs of factory farming. Everybody at this point is sort of familiar with the idea that we’re reaching a point of no return with the environment, where even if we were to correct our ways, it would at that point be too late. But there’s no greater contributor — even close — to climate change than animal agriculture. If that spreads, and as the American diet spreads, it becomes harder and harder to imagine how we’re going to save the planet. So that’s pessimism.
Optimism is the way that the conversation is now had and feels, and particularly among younger people. There are more vegetarians on American college campuses than there are Catholics. So it’s not fringe identity — certainly, there’s not even an identity anymore, which I think is in a way the thing to be most optimistic about is when it shifts from how one describes oneself as a political or ethical stance, to a norm — a societal norm. We don’t litter, for example. We don’t smoke inside. We don’t use aerosol spray, or at least not the kind that damaged the ozone. All things people used to do — now, we just don’t, because the norms changed. It feels like in America norms are changing; on college campuses, in high schools. It used to be the case in the pretty recent past that somebody who didn’t eat meat would be questioned: “Why are you doing that? That’s weird?” Now the reasons go without saying, and it’s more or less an unnoticeable choice. We’re approaching a point where the question won’t be “Why don’t you?” but “Why do you?” The cultural expectations have flipped.
Is the film getting made a reflection of that culture change?
Natalie [Portman] wanted to make the movie even before the book came out. I think the passage of time is just a reflection of how long it takes to make a movie, especially this kind of movie that involves the director traveling to I don’t know how many countries, doing I don’t know how many interviews. Plus the subject matter is resistant to documenting — they’re very secretive. I don’t think there’s anything about this moment — the fact that the movie’s coming out now I don’t think actually represents larger than it just took that long to do.
What’s your relationship with Natalie Portman?
I’ve known her for 25 years now — long time. Vegetarianism is something we’ve talked about a lot … for as long as we’ve known each other. She knew I was working on this book, and she read a draft of it before it was published. That was when she said, “Hey, I would really like to make this into a film.” If I remember correctly, in the beginning, she didn’t really know what kind of film it would be — just as I didn’t really know what kind of book it would be until I did.
What was that process like for you, writing Eating Animals? Did you find the topic a challenging one to tackle?
It’s a very difficult conversation to have because it makes people defensive. And I guess it’s kind of scary. It’s an incredibly important thing — not only incredibly important, but a subject which actually almost everybody agrees on. I’m not talking about whether or not it’s right to eat meat; I’m talking about whether factory farming is a good system of producing food. When exposed to the realities of it, you just don’t meet people who are excited about it. Some people will say, “Well, that’s an extremely regretful reality, but I’m going to continue to eat it.” Some people will say, “This is just a f—ing horror show, and I want nothing to do with it.” But you don’t meet anybody who’s excited about it. Because there’s nothing to be excited about — it’s just bad news from A to Z, really. Everything about it, whether it’s the environmental impact or the animal welfare or what it does to small family farms or air pollution and water pollution to local communities, it’s just really bad news. One of the wonderful, kind of surprising things when my book came out was to witness that consensus. I thought animal welfare people would love it and farmers would hate it; it was almost exactly the opposite. A lot of the strongest support I got was from farmers, and it was oftentimes animal rights people who were critical, because the book isn’t just a straightforward refutation of meat-eating. It’s a little bit more complicated. Finding the way into the language of the book was what I spent an awful lot of time doing. And Natalie and Christopher [Quinn], the director, spent quite a bit of time finding the language for the film.
What was your level of involvement in the film?
It was pretty limited. I had a really nice relationship with Christopher, and he’d bounce ideas off of me, but that was pretty much it. It doesn’t work to have too many different creative visions, and I’m not a filmmaker. I had very, very strong feelings about the book and how it should be — how it should be structured, what the voice should be, what the rhetoric should be — but I don’t know how to make a film. I trusted him, and Natalie trusted him. He really did it.
What are your thoughts on it?
Film can do all these things that books can’t do, just as books can do all these things film can’t do. It’s nice to witness some of that: It’s one thing to describe a farmer like Frank Reese, who I go on about at length in the book, and to give him voice and let him share his ethics and philosophy and practices. It was another thing to see his face, to see the pauses when he speaks. He’s an incredibly captivating person. There’s a lot of information in the film, but I think even more, it’s really driven by personalities. You feel like you’re in conversation with — or at least you’re hearing the stories of — really interesting people who have important stories to tell. They can tell it on film in a way that’s quite different in a book.
The book was framed around how you want to raise your son, vegan or not. You chose the former: How do you feel about it, a decade later?
I feel the same. It might sound like splitting hairs — a distinction without a difference — but I don’t think of it as a choice. I think of it as choices. Making food choices depends on where you are and who you are. It feels great to just say “I’m a vegetarian!” or “I’m a vegan!” and maybe that simply makes sense for some people. But for most people, it’s complicated. I think we have framed the question of meat-eating as too much of a binary question of identity, rather than something more like, “Hey, we are a society, and we make these decisions as individuals. We’re all participating in the creation of the world, or the destruction of the world. In the course of a day, we have so many different opportunities to make choices, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or whether you recycle, or whether you drive a car or ride a bike. I could think of 100 examples. Food [should be] brought into that. Everybody reading this is going to eat a meal in the next four to six hours, probably. That’ll be a choice. If we are aware of that choice, and make the choice, it’s so much more powerful — and it’s also so much easier — than if we just say, “Hey, I want to be vegetarian tomorrow for the rest of my life,” or, “I can’t do that, so I’m just going to be a meat-eater tomorrow for the rest of my life.”