Wednesday, 13 August 2014

War Horse (Book, Play and Film)

Back in 1982 the children's author Michael Morpurgo wrote a novel called War Horse. This was then adapted into a hit London play in 2007 which then led to a film adaptation of War Horse being made in 2011. Since I'm now familiar with all of these versions of the story I felt like reviewing them all in one post. My introduction to War Horse was back in 2011 when I saw the film version. I got to see the play version of War Horse last October when it toured the UK, and a few months ago I re-watched the film and finally got round to reading the book.

The book, play and film versions of War Horse all follow the same basic story. It begins in 1912 when a young foal is bought on impulse by a drunken farmer. The horse is then brought up the farmer's loving son Albert who decides to name the horse Joey. Albert rides Joey daily and trains him up for work on their Devonshire farm. Over the next couple of years Albert and Joey become deeply attached to one another but then Albert's father sells Joey to the British army at the start of WWI. Joey is then taken over to France and becomes a cavalry horse. His rider is a kind cavalry officer called Captain Nicholls but, when Nicholls is killed in battle, Joey is then taken by the Germans. Joey then finds himself serving the German army in addition to spending some time on a French farm. Meanwhile, a heartbroken Albert vows to find Joey again as soon as he's old enough to enlist in the army.

I really like the story of War Horse. I wouldn't describe the story as being one of my all-time favourites or anything but it's a very touching tribute to the animals who lost their lives whilst serving mankind. It has a lot of heart and the scenes between Albert and Joey are lovely. Although it's often sad the ending of the story is uplifting.

Even though the book is the original War Horse it's easily my least favourite version of the story. Unlike the play and the film, the book is told entirely from the perspective of Joey the horse. The premise of the book is obviously good but as an animal story it doesn't really work for me. Why don't the horses talk to each other?! Joey has companion horses called Old Zoe and Topthorn in the story and yet he never communicates with either of them apart from neighing at them every now and again. Why?! I suppose Morpurgo might have thought that animals talking to each other would be cheesy or unrealistic but if you're going to make a horse the narrator of your story then you should go all the way! The horses not talking to each other in this book made the story feel half-hearted and wishy-washy to me - and it's probably the reason why I found it harder to care about the horses than I did when I watched the play and the film. Another issue that I have with this book is a quote that occurs almost near the very end. Albert is talking to Joey about one of his former Sunday school teachers from back home and he says ' "God helps those who help themselves" she said. She was a mean old devil but she knew her scriptures well enough'. Erm... except that that phrase isn't at all scriptural :S

Rating: 2/5

The play version of War Horse was adapted by Nick Stafford and it initially ran at the National Theatre. The play won two Olivier Awards and later transferred to the West End. Some readers might be interested to know that the role of Albert was originated by Kit Harington who would later go on to play Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. This review of the play isn't going to be as detailed as I would have liked because it's been so long since I last saw it - but I can recommend it! If you're only ever going to seek out one version of War Horse then this is definitely the one that you should go for. It really is a fantastic production. It was very moving and the horse puppets and puppeteers were amazing. Within five minutes I'd completely forgotten that I wasn't watching actual horses! The puppets act just like real horses. They snort, they gallop, they breathe. They even show emotion. I love the songs in the play too, especially The Year Turns Round Again and Only Remembered. War Horse isn't actually a musical but it makes use of a "Song Man" - a narrator who occasionally sings songs that act as background music to what's going on on stage. This is actually hugely effective and the songs are very lovely and folky. As you've probably gathered the play version of War Horse is my favourite :)

Rating: 5/5

The 2011 film adaptation of War Horse was directed by Steven Spielberg with a script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. Although the film was my introduction to War Horse it isn't my favourite version of the story now that I've seen the play. The film simply doesn't have the same power and impact of the play, and although I would usually love an epic orchestral score from John Williams I actually prefer the play's simple folky music. Having said that I still think that the 2011 version is a really good film. It's touching, it's beautifully-shot and as much as I love those puppets it is nice to see real horses. The film has a great cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens and Niels Arestrup are all excellent in it. *This is off-topic but I'm dying for Hiddleston and Cumberbatch to do another film together at some point because they don't get a huge amount of screentime in this.* The 2011 film isn't the best version of War Horse but it's still well worth a watch. Even though it's a war film the violence isn't excessive or graphic and it was PETA approved. No animals were harmed during the making of the movie. My ranking of War Horse (from best to worse) is first the play, then the film and finally the book.

Rating: 4/5
Film Certificate Rating: 12


bookwormans said...

The stage version is also my favorite version. I was a little nervous at first that the use of puppets may be distracting and take away from the story, but the opposite was true. By the end, those were living breathing animals on that stage. Even the little roll around goose took on a life of its own.

Hannah said...

I know! You'd think that puppet horses would be incredibly silly and distracting but whether it's because of the skill of the puppeteers or the power of our imaginations, or both, it's not.

Hehe. I loved that goose!

Sarah said...

Great reviews! I've only ever seen the film, and it's sad, because about the time I saw the movie the show was in my city, but I didn't know until it was too late to go! And since I've decided that I *really* want to see it. I saw some trailers or what not for the show, and the puppetry looks just unbelievably amazing.

I gave the movie the same rating, so I wouldn't be surprised if I were to agree with you on the other two mediums as well. After your description of the book though, I'm not sure I want to read it at all -- it being from Joey's perspective isn't very appealing to me.

Ha, it's so annoying when people think that's actually scriptural. Good grief. I don't suppose it could have been ironic?

Oh yes, Hiddleston and Cumberbatch definitely need to do another movie together! :D

Hamlette said...

I saw the first half of the movie. It got too sad and I had to turn it off. I love horse books and horse movies and actual horses, but I just couldn't take more of the movie.

And yes, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch in another movie, stat! We NEED this!

Hannah said...

Sarah - The National Theatre did a live recording of War Horse not too long ago and have screened it into movie theaters. Even if you missed it they do encore screenings every now and again. It's worth checking their website out. I know it's not the same as seeing the stage production in the flesh but I'm sure it would still be a great experience!

Sadly, I don't think that quote was supposed to be ironic :(

Hamlette - Fair enough. I can't take the movie Old Yeller :( I was only a child when I watched it and I was distraught!

I know, they have to do another movie! Even if it's an animated movie it would still be amazing! We NEED this in our lives! :D