The mane event
Author Michael Morpurgo is more than happy with Spielberg’s screen version of his children’s novel War Horse. ‘I think people are going to be very moved, very convinced, horrified, and touched,’ he tells TARA BRADY
IN THE EVENT of a hostile alien invasion we nominate novelist Michael Morpurgo to do the talking for earthlings: he is a superb and endlessly curious communicator. We are strolling through the impossibly pretty Wiltshire village of Castle Combe – lately a location for Steven Spielberg’s tremendous adaptation of Morpurgo’s War Horse– and in all of five minutes he’s ascertained Brady casualties during the Great War and covered everyone from Seamus Heaney to Mary McAleese.
“I think she was great for Ireland,” he says. “I think she worked quietly in small, symbolic ways. But it was important work. And then we get the Queen standing in front of an IRA monument in Dublin. Wonderful. Who could have thought such a thing could happen?”
It was his moment of the year, he says, but its historical significance gets him wondering about the Irish and the first World War.
What do they think about it now? How is it remembered? And how might the Irish approach something like War Horse when it opens in January? We suspect the Irish will approach it like the rest of the planet: through snivels and smelling salts. Spielberg snapped up the rights to the work two years ago when he found himself weeping through the National Theatre’s award-winning puppet-driven adaptation of Morpurgo’s children’s novel in London. And just wait until you see what Spielberg’s done with it since.
“When it was first mooted as a play and they said there were going to be puppets playing the horses I was very concerned,” admits Morpurgo. “I thought it sounded ridiculous and had this vision of pantomime horses falling about. But it was the National Theatre asking the question. So I called up another writer, Philip Pullman, knowing he’d had experience with them and he gave me very good advice: trust the people who are worth trusting; they’re the National Theatre.” The 2007 production continues to pack houses out across the West End and opened on Broadway earlier this year to rave notices and five Tony Awards.
It’s an unexpected fate for a book that has stayed quietly on library shelves since 1982. “It wasn’t any kind of sensation,” recalls the author. “How it stayed in print I’ll never understand.” Meanwhile, Spielberg’s version – replete with real horses – hits US cinemas on Christmas Day, just ahead of the Oscar deadline. Animal lovers should note that the film’s rigorous equine welfare programme and checks make for surprisingly little comfort when leading mammalian players Joey and Topthorn are marched off as prisoners of war in the wake of a disastrously outmoded cavalry charge.
“I think people are going to be very moved, very convinced, horrified, touched, all these things, but if they’re coming from the play the emotions are the same but arrived at in a totally different way.
“Spielberg really is a genius storyteller and he’s brought in all these different elements. The goose in the film comes from the play. Some of the lines come from the play and some come from the book and some come from Richard Curtis and Lee Hall’s screenplay. And on top of all that, Spielberg has taken all these things and made them his own. I’ve sometimes waved away my work a little too readily. But I’ve been very lucky this time out.”
He says it’s luck but Morpurgo’s source novel is a remarkable book. The story of Joey the Devonshire horse and Albert, the farm boy who follows the animal out to the front line, is told from the horse’s perspective as he carries cavalry and civilians, weaponry and the wounded for British, then German soldiers. If Spielberg’s tear-jerking family-friendly war film works, it’s because Morpurgo had already done the hard part: War Horse the book is never less than a realistic, affecting war fiction yet never more than a PG rating.
The material makes for vintage Spielberg. Imagine ET with a horse but with Eliot’s friends dying in the trenches. Did the author blub often when he watched it? “Oh. I’m not sure there was much time between the different bursts really. I was touched by the Devon landscape. It’s my home and I’ve always been struck by the contrast between the lives men lived almost folded into the Devon landscape and the hellish place they were sent to fight in. Spielberg makes that distinction wonderfully well. And the music had me almost constantly. That moment when the horse is caught in barbed wire on no man’s land and one side are clicking to call him over and the other side are whistling and then they all decide whistling is the better option and all join in together – the tears were pouring down my face. That scene was made with great love.”
The third British Children’s Laureate reckons that War Horse has always been subject to strange and fortunate twists of fate: “It’s brought an incredible amount of very beautiful connections,” he says. “And it continues to surprise me.”
In this spirit, not long after he discovered a burning love of storytelling in the classroom, the former teacher ran into a first World War veteran in his local pub. The elderly veteran had worked with war horses as part of his duties with the Devon Yeomanry during the Great War. “Then I also met Captain Budgett who had been in the cavalry,” recalls Morpurgo. “He remembered feeding his horse and stroking his horse and talking to his horse, partly to comfort the horse and partly to comfort himself.”
Morpurgo’s subsequent research uncovered the horrible fate of millions of animals: eight million died on the British side alone. He determined to write a book from the horse’s point of view but was unsure how to go about it “I knew if I wanted to tell a story using the voice of a horse I was asking the reader to make a massive leap.” Black Beautyhad been a hugely important book for his wife, Claire, growing up. But Michael was a Robert Louis Stevenson kid and was wary of the notion of talking horses.
“I knew Black Beautywas out there of course,” says Morpurgo. “And I knew using the horse as narrator would draw comparisons. In fact the reviews of the book were initially very mixed for that reason. I was waiting for ‘poor man’s Black Beauty’ and I got it. But in the end I couldn’t think of any other way to tell this story.” A young visitor to Farms for City Children, a charity founded by Michael and Claire Morpurgo, served to finally cement the idea.
“He was a little boy who was very troubled,” says Morpurgo “He had not spoken in school for two years. And he was standing by this horse one night, just letting the words flow and telling the horse all about his day. I don’t know where that comes from. It’s something to do with trust. It’s something to do with love. It’s something to do with threat and mockery and judgement being taken away. It’s just something about horses.”
Spielberg’s film understandably ditches Joey’s narration and opts for passive pony suffering in the style of Au Hasard Balthazar. Morpurgo is delighted by the changes even if it isn’t precisely his Joey.
“It’s true. Joey wasn’t quite the way I pictured him. Devon stock has to be hardy so Joey would have been a little hairier, a little less smart looking in my mind. The horse in the film is very beautiful. I’m thrilled for him. And Albert in the film looks like a young Gregory Peck. We don’t have many of those in Devon either. But all told I think we’re pleased with this Spielberg film. We won’t need him to do any reshoots.”
War Horseopens on January 13