For some time now, I had been wanting to share some thoughts about Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse. With the Academy Awards tomorrow evening, it seems appropriate to revisit the film, which I saw over my Winter Break, shortly after it had opened. At the time, there was some exigency to my desire to see the film. I had read the book to my students, and I, frankly, expected a few of them to go and see it in the theater close to my school site. I figured it wasn’t a bad idea to read them the novel.
As a teacher who makes it a point to do Read Alouds with my classroom throughout the school year, I first became intrigued by the film after having read bits and pieces about the Tony Award-winning stage play of the same name, in particular, it’s use of full-scale horse puppets in the production. (For whatever it’s worth, I am excited that the play is coming to Los Angeles and I hope to catch the production at the time. From what I’ve seen of the puppets involved, it’s definitely worth trying to convince the wife to go see it:)
Impressive. The puppetry blows me away on film. I can’t even imagine what it might be like on stage.
But last Autumn, when learning that Spielberg was planning to release the film over Winter Break, I learned that the source material for both the film and stage play was from a 1982 book by British author Michael Morpurgo. It was at that point, that I made plans to get the book and read it to my 6th graders before they went home for Winter Break. Having never heard of the book prior to that time, I was excited to possibly add it to the collection of memorable Read Alouds I have used in my classroom.
I wasn’t disappointed. It was not the best book I’ve ever read to my classroom by any means, but it was one of the few books I’ve read to my class about warfare in general, and it enabled me to introduce some background knowledge about the First World War that most students generally lack. It’s not taught at the elementary grades (although it could be taught by the end of a school year, if a conscientious 4th grade teacher decides to keep moving forward after the California Missions and Gold Rush era and not just stop after teaching both…) and what the students do know about World War is generally centered around the Second World War. Even then, I am beginning to get questions these days asking me “who is Adolf Hitler?”…
So War Horse offered me its share of teachable moments while I read it. I was also impressed that the book was able to suggest the intricacies of trench warfare and the historic shift from horses to mechanized combat without needing to be graphic, making this ideal for the tween audience for whom I must choose my Read Alouds. And after teaching the students the elements and importance of point-of-view, it offered an even more unique take on its story–it’s told from the perspective of the horse, who is the main character of the novel, Joey. The book tells of his travels from his birth, and the humans whose own lives interchange with his: from the pre-Great War English countryside, to the camp of the British Army cavalry to whom Joey’s sold, and then to 1914 France, to its green fields and a French farm, and then, as the tale reaches its climax through the remainder of the book, the setting becomes the muddy Armageddon of trench warfare. Through it all, as the characters interact with Joey, Joey’s internal thoughts process these words and drives the story forward, and we get the unique perspective of the horse as being inherently neutral, in that the war itself was not something the horse sought, only how Joey could try to survive what the humans around him were managing to do to each other.
Without giving away too much of the book’s storyline, what struck me the most was the manner in which Morpurgo created circumstances that while, in some respect, would normally appear far-fetched to a cynical cuss like myself, are situationally organic deriving from the manner in which the narrative unfolds. I enjoyed how it was able to create situations that had a plausibility about them in order to bring its story around to the full circle that Morpurgo intended. It made sense to me. The characters, from Joey, to his first owner, Albert, to Captain Nicholls, the German hospital orderlies and artillerymen who encounter Joey when he’s capture, a French girl and her grandfather who care for Joey, and Joey’s horse comrade Topthorn, and, finally, the British Tommys working at a veterinary hospital, all of them make those particular types of character choices that move the narrative forward, but also don’t appear to be logical stretches that can defy believability and ruin a plot’s outcome.
I thought to myself that I would definitely be curious about what Spielberg could do with this material. But in reading about the book was adapted for the stage play, there had to be some changes to the way the story was told. For starters, how do you present a play when the narrator’s internal monologue was from a horse? I wasn’t the only one.
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.
After the anticipation of reading the book to my students, when Winter Break arrived, and we had discharged the inevitable family obligations around Christmas, a family movie day meant a trip to a theater that was showing both Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked as well as War Horse. I was fortunate that day that my wife understood my desire to see the latter, so she excused me from the torture of the former, and I sat down to watch the film.
As with all Spielberg’s films, it is beautifully photographed. But I have to agree with film critic Andrew Pulver in The Guardian:
Spielberg is presumably attempting to infuse his film with a fairytale, fabular quality – but all he does is provide it with a directorial straitjacket, with the audience instructed (through insistent camera angles, nagging music, and strategised lighting) exactly what it’s supposed to be feeling at any given moment…[i]n the end, while you can’t doubt Spielberg’s commitment to telling a putatively heartwarming and emotion-wringing tale, War Horse is just too calculated to do what he wants to do.
He has the entire arsenal of film-making at his disposal, but can’t seem to snap out of a now-habitual mode of vitality-erasing, dewy-eyed affectation. There are flashes of the old genius there, but not enough. If only he would loosen up.
I actually could forgive the sins above, had Spielberg chosen to trust this original narrative. Understanding that the director went back to the book for the film’s story line, rather than the stage play, he nonetheless saw fit to add one sequence that wasn’t in the original story, about two young German deserters (but it works) and make specific changes to Albert’s (Joey’s original owner) wartime role in the story (from an orderly attached to a veterinary unit to a British infantryman who suffers from a poison gas attack), disrupting the organic plausibility that stretched the novel just a bit, but made sense in terms of the story’s outcome.
Realizing that this was Spielberg’s first film about the First World War, it seemed like he intended to add every component associated with that war into a single 2 1/2 hour time period. He needed to back off and trust his source material. He did not. This was one giant experience that I was being told that I was supposed to like, but as much as I tried to jettison my knowledge of the book in order to allow myself to go over to the film’s story, I couldn’t, for the very reasons I preferred about the book: the book’s storyline had a logical sense to the plot’s progression. The characters discover each other through situations that follow each other. While both the film and book find their denouement through a reunion, the film’s content to treat it miraculously, while the book is able to hint at the miracle but treat it matter-of-factly, even adding an element of suspense and pathos to the miracle that Spielberg’s film was only able to achieve in Captain Nicholl’s tragically ill-fated cavalry charge against a German bivouac guarded by machine guns.
While the film, in Roger Ebert’s words, was made with superb artistry, I have found it hard to give it the accolades that others have given it (Oscar nomination). I am left thinking that the film is being heralded because of who directed it, rather than the quality of the storytelling that the film actually brings to the screen. While a beautiful film, its effect is not unlike artificial sweetener. Sadly, while Morpurgo offered up source material from his book that hinted at Sugar-in-the-Raw, Spielberg chose to instead give us a Costco-sized box of Splenda.