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February 2, 2012 / magickittenblogs

Book vs Film part 1: War Horse

A couple of weeks ago, BF and I squeezed into a packed showing of Spielberg’s new film War Horse. Considering the last film of his that I saw was Tintin, I did wonder whether the great man is taking some time out to reconnect with his youth through reworking child’s fiction. If so, he’s done a great job by both books, in my opinion.

Tintin copped a lot of flack, mostly from middle-aged white male fanboys, unable to cope with a different vision of their boyhood idol and the combining of a number of different (albeit linked) story threads. My main experiences of Tintin come from a couple of battered copies from my primary school library many years ago, and the excellent animated series formerly shown at weekends on Channel 4, so I had none of these hang-ups and thoroughly enjoyed the film from start to end. The visuals were spectacular, including the use of 3D in the chase sequences, and it reminded me satisfyingly of Indiana Jones in its rough-and-tumble outlook.

War Horse was a completely different animal *bad pun klaxon*! Firstly, I would say that I really admire the writing of Michael Morpurgo; over the years, he has produced some incredibly insightful and moving books for children, including War Horse, but also Private Peaceful, similarly set around World War One, and Kensuke’s Kingdom. Such a well-loved book, in the UK at least, needs careful treatment to preserve the touchingly innocent outlook of Joey, the horse, who judges those on both sides of the conflict purely on their behaviour, not their country of origin. Spielberg does this masterfully, allowing us to look beyond the cliches to see the distasteful and foolish aspects of the British and the generous, kind aspects of the Germans.

The next challenge is how to portray the reality of the war itself, which was so appalling, an exercise in human degradation according to Captain Wraysford from ‘Birdsong’. Clearly, War Horse’s war scenes were never going to be Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, but certain aspects are portrayed very clearly and honestly – the rasacking of houses for provisions, the treatment of deserters, however young, and of course the way that horses were used, and abused, during the Great War. The film received its relatively low certificate due to the way that blood and wounds of humans are not shown on screen but the implications are very clear, and the unseen but known can be a very powerful tool (see Mark Kermode on the windmill scene). Plus, when it comes to Joey, there are some very powerful on-screen moments of pain and suffering (barbed wire caused BF to make a very sharp intake of breath at one point).

People have criticised the film for its episodic nature; this arises directly from the structure of the book itself. Michael Morpurgo took his cue from Black Beauty, but created an alternative version, a ‘reboot’ if you like – the time, setting, and the challenges for Joey, are different to that of the original, but the structure is very similar – it moves through the stages of the horses life, the different ‘owners’ and what the horse experiences whilst in their care. Some people said that this chapter-type structure meant there were not able to get as emotionally involved with the film, but I felt that each episode has its own emotional nuance, which built in pitch until the final climax of the tension at the end.
I was surprised by how moved I was by the film, in fact; I’m not a huge fan of horses, although I like them as much as most people, but I was really touched by the simple kindness and consideration shown by various characters at different points in the film. BF will tell you that I cry at (almost) anything and this is true, but five times in one film is pretty big, even for me!

So, sum up, yes the film is episodic, yes it’s not a realistic portrait of life in the trenches and yes it does deliberately tug your heart strings, BUT yes it was enjoyable, engaging and moving, and yes, I do think it’s a great film. This one does the book justice, and that’s no mean feat.

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