Friday, March 11, 2011

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo: The Book and Pre-Thoughts on the Film Adaptation

I recently read the book War Horse in preparation for the upcoming film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg.

The book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo is a young adult fiction book. Told from the perspective of a horse just prior to and during WWI in Europe.

Now, to be fair, I'm one who normally doesn't find themselves liking "animal movies" and while there horse movies can have a different flavor, I don't know that I've ever read with a horse as a narrator. In the case, the narrating horses name is "Joey."

And so while the book generally bored me to tears and made me imagine a Black Beauty or National Velvet type of story might have the same feel, as the story got moving along my feelings began to change.

The first change in my feelings occurred, when I realized that what Morpurgo was doing was going to be moving this horse in the midst of a variety of characters, and the somewhat pathetic obsessive young boy who loves the horse in the early stage of the story (Albert) was not going to be in the book the whole time. And instead, through the changes that occur in the horses life.

In this way the book reminded me of the movie The Red Violin that follows the object (the violin) through time with various settings and characters. This film was similar in that regard, with the exception that the horse was a character with a name, thoughts, and an internal voice. But like an object it had little ability to impact it's own personal situation, had limited ideological allegiance, and like an object had the capacity to be owned (and trade hands among various owners).

The second thing I found myself appreciating in this story was that how an animal narrator, particularly in the harsh setting of war, could have a unique role in the way that Morpurgo wrote the character of the horse, Joey. Because the various owners and carers of Joey formed an emotional connection to the horse, the human characters in the book often speak openly with the horse as though he were a trusted confidant, giving the opportunity to really know the inner thoughts of all the other primary characters in the story. As they share and Joey relays to the readers what he has heard, this first person perspective truly is able to present a more omnipotent perspective into the various characters in the story.

So as this story unfolds, the simple perspective it presents of WWI, with some themes one might expect in a young adults fiction novel unfolds, you find that the story is still quite touching and enjoyable.

This book was written in 1982, and 25 years later this story made it's way to the London stage after Nick Stafford wrote a stage adaptation with some unique life size stage horses which can be seen in the YouTube video below. The play then came to the West End and Broadway.

After Kathleen Kennedy saw this play in London, she told Steven Spielberg who bought the rights to the book, which is being adapted independently for the film expected later this year.

Having read the book, it is clear that a film or stage adaptation will have a different flavor for a couple reasons. The first is that the element of horse narration will be lost. The second is that as a children's novel much of the brutality of war can be easily glossed over with simple lines that summarize briefly battles, death, and animal brutality. But in a film version, a picture is worth a 1000 words, and the pictures of these war sequences will have a different flavor in color than with simple words (from the perspective of a horse).

And so the final product will admittedly be different from the initial 1982 packaging, and I can imagine that being ruined in many ways, or hopefully under the hands of the respected director Steven Spielberg, and the Oscar nominated screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) the final project will be it's own masterpiece.

Film still from Dreamwork's War Horse via The Film Stage site.

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