Wednesday, November 30, 2011

War Horse Review: book, play and movie soon

Horse in Port Meadow, England

I usually prefer the original book to the adaption, but War Horse by Michael Morpurgo improved on stage. The novel follows a horse and his boy from a farm in Devon, England to the battlefields of World War I France. In reality, the cavalry was pitted against machine guns, barbed wire, trenches and tanks. Over 15 million people and 8 million horses died. War Horse does not glorify war but remembers the bravery and sacrifices of those who served, both human and equine.

Although the book was very good, it was absurd to have a horse narrate a story of war brutality in which many sympathetic characters suffer and die.  Animal narrators belong in innocent books for young children.  Furthermore, the voice wasn’t believably equine, and there was no explanation for how a farm horse could understand three languages. We also lose track of the boy’s story when they part. An omniscient third person narrator would have worked better. Still, what a great story!

Oddly enough, moving the story to the stage with horse puppets created more realism. The puppets didn’t speak, and they acted like true horses: snorting, galloping and even breathing. It was hard to see them abused because you believed they were alive. There was nothing childish or cutesy about these puppets, and the war scenes were horrific and loud. In fact, I would not recommend this play to families with young children or sensitive teenagers because it was terrifyingly real.

War Horse is a must see for a mature audience. Not only were the puppetry, acting and singing fabulous, the staging was gorgeously artistic. A cloud-like backdrop became an animated sketchbook. As the actor rode the puppet horse, an ink drawing of them galloped across the rolling fields. Later the screen projected battle scenes as the stage spun or broke into trenches. The play was true to the spirit of the book, but the secondary characters and the plot were condensed and modified for more poignancy and greater realism.

War Horse at Lincoln Center, NYC

War Horse is currently playing in London and in New York City. It won 5 Tonys, including best play in 2011 and extended its run. In 2012 War Horse is due to open in Toronto and will simultaneously tour American cities. My parents (thank you!) took my teenaged children and me to the New York production over Thanksgiving. I purchased the ebook and read it before seeing the play. Thank you, Bee, for the recommendation.

Steven Spielberg’s film adaption of War Horse will open on Christmas Day, 2011.

Update Movie Review: my husband (who's family comes from Devon) and I were disappointed by the film version of War Horse. The movie was overly sentimental with too many characters, and the film looked obviously photoshopped (ie a tropical red sunset in Devon). The best part was the first half set in England, even if the actors didn't get the Devonian accents right. The later war scenes felt contrived, and the farm in France was absurdly bucolic. Go see the play (best) or read the book instead.

Theater Watch: on a lighter note, we also saw and loved Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway. Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall were superb.


Anonymous said...

What a great review. I saw The Nation by the same author on stage a couple of Christmas ago and was enthralled throughout.

I've yet to read the novel, but I've heard nothing but good review of War Horse, the play. All the points you addressed are and will be relvant for years to come. Morpurgo never glorifies war but he doesn't preach either, which I think it's fundamental when trying to make sense of an armed conflict.

Thanks. I hope to see the play one day.

Greetings from London.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I tried to leave a comment as A Cuban In London but for some reason the system wouldn't let me, so I had to sign as anonymous, which I never like doing.

Greetings from London.

A Cuban In London said...

Hi, Sarah, to answer your question, I think the problem only arises when I change computers. If I try to leave a comment using a laptop (and it's a very old laptop) the system doesn't let me log on as me. But if I use my PC at home, like now, I have no problem. I don't think that you changing the comments format should make a difference.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, helpful to hear this as I prefer the look of the embedded comment. I hadn't realized that another of Morpurgo's books was dramatized. I think you'd love the dance like choreography of the puppets. You were right about it not being preachy.

If anyone else is having problems commenting, please email me.

troutbirder said...

How unusual. Apparently, having lived all these years in the hinterland, leaves me quite unaware of the latest happenings on the stages of London and New York. Still, as you said, horses narrating the story of the follies of the Great War seems a little out of place....

Donna said...

For some reason whenever I've been seeing the previews for this movie, it brings tears to my eyes. I think it's because I know the very real and special connection that animals can have with humans, and then when a war is brought into it, the tears will start to flow for me. I don't think I'd be able to see the play because I'm probably not tough enough. I am interested in seeing the move, though.

walk2write said...

I saw the movie trailer on YouTube yesterday when I was browsing for something else. The upcoming movie certainly looks interesting. How strange that the theatrical production was better than the book. What a special holiday treat that was to see the play! Sure beats pumpkin pie hands down.

Amanda Summer said...

what a lovely gift from your parents to enjoy a broadway show over the holidays. i too wondered about the premise of this movie and am intrigued by the equine narrator. i probably won't see it on broadway, but may take in the film.

tina said...

It looks like a moving story and one I'd like to see. The storyline is very unique. When reading All Quiet on the Western Front the scene about the horses sticks in my mind even after thirty years. You might know the one but I won't go into detail. This is a movie I really hope to see but bet it is a tear jerker.

☆sapphire said...

War Horse reminds me of the statue of a horse in Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Beside the horse, there are dog statues. Many horses and many dogs(for dog sleds)were taken to battlefields and never returned. I remember the day when I saw them for the first time there. I could not see them without tears.

It looks like a great film! I saw its trailer and found the colors and nature in it were beautiful. In our country, it will be released next spring. Thank you Sarah for your nice reviews!

Carol said...

Sarah, I can always count on being touched deeply when I visit your blog. With wet cheeks I thank you for introducing me to 'War Horse' . . . I am so out of touch these days. Very moving and from the videos the play does look extraordinary. The horses seem so lifelike in movement. The movie looks to be incredible too. Very beautiful and so tragic how humans waging war on themselves . . . the earth and other creatures that have no say in the matter. Wonderful review.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Fun to catch up with you. Love all the different aspects of this posts--words, photos, video.

Bee said...

The film has been getting really good reviews. I can't wait to see it!
Although I "bought" the horse's voice in the novel, I do think you make good points about the stage production. It is truly unforgettable and a unique piece of stagecraft.