A Book Review of War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
In honor of the opening of the movie War Horse on Christmas Day, we are adapting and re-posting this review of the middle grade novel War Horse which I reviewed in 2010 after seeing the stage play in London and buying a copy of the novel during intermission.
I was fortunate to nab tickets to War Horse at the New London Theatre in the West End of London in March of 2010 when I traveled with a group of Arcadia University students [see my April 2010 blog]. The play is based on a 1982 children’s novel of the same name by English writer Michael Morpurgo. Along with human actors, the amazing play uses life-size puppets to represent horses, vividly recreating the fearsome battlefields of France during World War I.
So intrigued was I by the first act of the play, I couldn’t resist buying a copy of the novel at the intermission – an English version with evocative illustrations by Francois Place. Within weeks, my daughter, her veterinarian-student boyfriend, and my sister, a long-time horse owner, had all devoured the book and pronounced it a winner, true to both the period and to equine sensibilities.
The play came to New York the following year and the, until then, little-noticed novel became the basis for Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse set to open on Christmas Day – exactly one week from today. The story of how this previously little-known novel, first published nearly 30 years ago, hit the big time is an intriguing one for any aspiring children’s writer.
As I’m sure Spielberg would be the first to say, everything starts with a good story, and Morpurgo’s novel hits the mark. The middle grade novel is told in first person fashion – a la Black Beauty – by the main character, Joey, a red-bay horse with a fine white cross down his nose and four perfectly matched white socks. It’s a war story, of course, but also a tale of friendship and loyalty between the horse and his thirteen-year-old master, Albert, who grows into young manhood by novel’s end.
Joey starts life as an auctioned farm horse, albeit with thoroughbred bloodlines, who is sold away from his mother as a colt to a bitter, alcoholic farmer trying to scratch a living from a poor farmstead in the Devon countryside. Lucky for him, Albert is a natural horseman and has learned to ignore his father’s counsel when it comes to most things, including horses. When his father sells Joey to the army at the outbreak of the Great War, Albert tries to join up but is turned away as too young. Chapter 4 concludes with a promise to Joey from Albert, but by novel’s end, Albert has learned not to promise what he can’t be sure of delivering. The ending may be too predictable and sappy for some, but not for this reader. Joey’s journey as a cavalry horse illustrates what the best historical fiction always does: intrigues with “story” but teaches the reader more about history then the best lesson plan.
Morpurgo’s inspiration for War Horse? In an article in the London Evening Standard, he explains it this way: “[a] chance conversation in the local pub nearly 30 years ago with an old soldier who had been to the First World War as a 17 year old ‘with ‘orses’…” A bit of digging, including at London’s Imperial War Museum and Morpurgo learned that eight million horses had died in the war, including a million from Britain. For those horses that survived, there was a final betrayal at the war’s close when the battle-weary equine war veterans were auctioned off in France, often to butchers. The horses were worth too little to transport home to England.
“In the writing of it,” says Morpurgo, “I knew I had to tell the story of the soldiers of both sides at the front, and of the families, and people in France and Belgium, whose villages and farms were turned into battlefields. My horse would witness it all, the pity and the futility and the huge senselessness, and the hope, too.”
Though it is a tear-jerker for sure, Morpurgo manages to make the happy ending just about believable, and never is the reader driven away by the violence or cruelty of Joey’s situation. Everywhere, Joey encounters kindness along with the inhumanities of that loathsome war and that kindness knows no national bounderies. No wonder Spielberg saw the merit of the story.
Morpurgo reports that the “book nearly won the Whitbread Prize but didn’t, and then languished, rarely read thereafter for 25 years but kept in print by kind publishers all this time.” Then, by chance, the mother of Tom Morris (a man of importance at London’s National Theatre) read the novel. She knew her son was looking for a story with an animal lead to showcase the work of Handspring Puppets, the South African puppeteers. Morpurgo heard the news that War Horse was being considered for such a production “out of the blue.” That was in 2005. The play was a critical and commercial success both in London where it opened in 20007 and in New York where it won the five Tony awards this year, including “Best Play.” It’s currently on stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center. http://www.lct.org/showMain.htm?id=199
The film was produced by DreamWorks in association with Reliance and Disney. The London Evening Standard quoted Spielberg as saying, “Its heart and its message provide a story that can be felt in every country.”
I plan to be in line to see the movie on December 26. Funny how a little middle grade novel can make such a mark both in the theatre world and at the movies. In the end, it all comes down to a good story, though as Morpurgo himself admits, it never did well, often selling only a few thousand copies a year. But it really IS an excellent story and it just took a lot of luck to make folks sit up and take notice. Do you have a good story to write?
For more about books by Michael Morpurgo: