When I was in primary school (a good few years ago now, but not that long ago) we went on a school trip to Devon where we learned all about agriculture life at Nevercott Farm. While mixing pig swill, scooping up cow pats and getting myself stuck in the mud were all memorable experiences (in their own way), one memory of that time which I do cherish was meeting author Michael Morpurgo. Sitting around a roaring fire whilst one of this country’s most celebrated writers of children’s fiction reads one of his own works to you is not something you forget lightly. I grew up reading Michael Morpurgo, but I had no idea that in 1982 – two years before I was even born – what has come to be probably his most famous work was published: War Horse.
Morpurgo originally thought it “mad” to adapt his novel into a play, but its subsequent premiere at the National Theatre on London’s Southbank on 17th October 2007 showed him just how mistaken he had been as the production quickly became a rip-roaring success. It enjoyed a completely sold-out run until 14th February 2008, but popular demand soon brought-about a second run, from 10th September 2008 – 18th March 2009. As that popularity continued to grow instead of diminishing, a West End-transfer was the next logical step and it officially opened at the New London Theatre on 3rd April 2009, where it still plays today.
War Horse is set against the background of World War One. A boy from Devon, Albert Narracott, is forced to say goodbye to his beloved Joey when the horse is sold to the cavalry and shipped off to France. Joey’s journey sees him serve on both sides and find a friend in fellow horse Topthorn before he ends up wandering alone in no man’s land, but his former young master, unable to forget him, sets out on a dangerous mission to find Joey and bring him home.
One of the most striking features of the London production is the puppetry created by the Handspring Puppet Company, who won themselves an Evening Standard Award (2007), a Critic’s Circle Theatre Award (2007) and an Olivier Award (2008) for its remarkable, life-size horse puppets. War Horse is still one of the hottest tickets in town, playing to packed houses on a regular basis. Its first UK tour was recently announced for 2013 and it also transferred to Broadway in spring of this year, setting up a second home at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Just as popular there as it is in London, War Horse earned itself five Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Play. A third production for Toronto, Ontario is due for February 2012, with a US tour beginning in June 2012.
So with a book and a theatrical production already in existence, what could be next for War Horse? Well, a film version of course. Written by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, this third edition of the story opened in America on 25th December 2011 and will shortly be appearing on cinema screens across the UK from 13th January 2012. Directed by Steven Spielberg, who also co-produced with Kathleen Kennedy, War Horse was filmed entirely in the British countryside and features Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott, in his debut film role. The rest of the cast includes Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and David Thewlis and Robert Emms, who played the lead role of Narracott in the West End production – based on both the book and the play, the film also uses real horses.
Having only opened a few days ago in America, the reviews are trickling in nonetheless. So far, they seem to be a little mixed in whether it gets the thumbs up or thumbs down. The ‘Toronto Star’ describes Spielberg’s battle scenes as, “a marvel of sight and sound — the latter literally shakes the theatres from the pop of rifles and the thunder of cannons.” ‘The Associated Press’ however, called it, “overlong, painfully earnest and sometimes even hokey.” Drew McWeeny of ‘HitFix’ may have the answer as to why it seems to be hitting with some people and missing with others, as he says of War Horse, “It is an episodic film, and how you feel about the movie as a whole will depend largely on whether or not you are moved by the various stops along the way.” One thing that most people appear to agree on though is the quality of the cast, which ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ declares to be, “exemplary down the line, with both names and newcomers delivering expansive, emotional and almost entirely sympathetic performances.”
With the theatrical production of War Horse being the success it is, everyone has had their fingers crossed that this film-adaption won’t disappoint. Until it comes to the UK, no-one here knows whether or not it will, but there is such a heart-felt story at the core of War Horse that I suspect it would be very difficult to bury that to the point where it doesn’t move you, even in some small way. Bill Goodykoontz of ‘The Arizona Republic’ perhaps sums up the film of War Horse the most fittingly:
“It’s a beautiful movie…Spielberg all but begs you to cry, and unless you’re a heartless cad, you probably will.”
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
27th December 2011