“War Horse” by Michael Morpurgo versus “War Horse” directed by Steven Spielberg
When Spielberg and his team adapted the Morpurgo novel for the screen, they made some changes, as they do. As a rule I read the book before I see the film, as the book is generally “better”. In this case I think they were fairly evenly matched.
The film benefited from some stunning locations. The village in Devon that Albert is from was “Castle Combe” in Wiltshire. Villages don’t come any cuter! The representations of France were idyllic and hellish in equal measure. The mud at the trenches and the weather seemed more vivid in the movie than in the book. I don’t remember snow in the book, but there was snow in the movie.
There was also sound in the movie – the thundering of hooves, the rattle of machine guns and the roar of tanks – all of which were in the novel but more effective in the movie – in particular on the idyllic French farm with the sound of war in the distance. It helped to create the sense of impending doom. One notable use of sound was the muted slow motion section when Captain Nicholls charges into battle. Very effective.
Beyond the addition of sound and vision, I don’t think the other changes improved the story. I always find changes irritating and insulting to the writer. Sometimes you can see the filmmaker’s point, at other times it seems unnecessary and pointless – and why annoy the members of the audience who have come to see an adaptation of a novel?
The most striking addition was a back-story for Albert’s father. In the novel he is presented as a drunk, bitter man who is cruel when drunk and tolerable when sober. In the movie, Albert’s mum explained that he had been injured in the Boer War, had been decorated for participating and for bravery, but the moment he was home he threw out the medals and the regimental pennant. She gives the pennant to Albert.
This episode introduced two new threads to the movie. One was the fate of the pennant that had survived one war and was sent through another. When Joey was sold, Albert tied the pennant to his bridle – and we follow the pennant through the war as a symbol of bravery and survival. I don’t think this motif should have been added. The father’s character was fundamentally changed by the production of a back-story and a symbol introduced that just was not there.
The second thread this introduced was a discussion of bravery. Albert’s mother took pride in the fact that her husband took no pride in his war deeds. His silence and coping strategies she took as a sign of courage, that he drank to ease the pain of his war wound and he had not given up on them or the farm. The bravery theme comes up again in the French farm, where the old man argues with Emilie about bravery, arguing that it comes in different forms. The bravery thread, although present, did not really go anywhere or conclude anything, so seemed a bit tacked on.
One interesting addition was the two young German soldiers shot for desertion. This was a deviation from Morporgo’s text, so I wasn’t expecting them to get shot. I was expecting them to hitch up the horses to rescue the wounded while boarding the horses at the farm, which is how it worked out in the novel. The ambulance role was large in the novel, but non-existent in the movie. The boys were shot because the elder brother had promised his parents that his younger brother would be safe. So when the young brother went to go to the frontline, his older brother took him away and they hid until they were captured and shot. By adding this plot twist, we perhaps gain more of a sense of the brutality of war. There was another scene added much later when Albert’s friend is commanded to shoot deserters and he can’t bring himself to do it.
Actually, maybe it was to be a less sympathetic portrayal of the Germans. In the novel, the horses are stabled by the German army at the farm and are well treated by the Germans. When the war moves on the soldiers give the farmer the horses for his grand-daughter. In the movie, the only two ‘nice’ Germans are shot, at this point, although there is a horse-loving German later who tries to look after Joey and Topthorn. But that whole the-germans-are-just-as-nice-as-the-brits section was missing.
In the novel, Albert joins the war and works in a veterinarian hospital with the sole purpose of finding Joey. And in walks Joey. He washes him and recognises his and they are reunited. In the movie, Albert is an infantryman at the Somme – in the thick of it. Was this change to give the filmmakers more battle-field action? Joey had plenty of that in his dash through no man’s land. I think that they decided to make Albert a foot soldier so that he could be blinded by gas so that the reunion scene would be more striking. He was blindfolded, but belived Joey to be there, so called him and he came. Others then had to wash off the mud to see the markings Albert knew were there. That was an effective change to make.
But then they completely cut a huge section from near the end of the book when it turns out that Joey has tetanus and needs to be shot. Of course, he isn’t – but the recovery is skipped and the rebuilding of the relationship is also skipped.
One random addition was a kind of long-term rival for Albert. They introduced the son of the landowner to whom Albert’s father was in debt. He and Albert had a gentle rivalry and were together in the trenches. Albert saved the other guy and then he helped with the soldiers’ plan to buy Joey for Albert near the end. They added him, but they missed out Albert’s girlfriend. Why would that be? In the book he goes on to marry her and Joey enjoys the bread she makes despite a tortured horse-in-law relationship. I think this was a miss. Albert and Joey just trotted back to his parents to presumably try again at the turnip idea.
But the main feature of the novel, that was necessarily lost through the medium of film, was the fact that the novel was narrated by the horse. In the movie, Joey didn’t get a word in. They must have considered giving him a voice or a voice-over role, but decided against it. So saying the “acting” the horses did was great and I think that we missed out on less than I thought we would in this respect.
So, book or film?
The film had great locations, beautiful horses and schmaltzy sunsets.
The book was better balanced, eloquently expressed and straight from the horse’s mouth.