March 27, 2012

War Horse - book vs. play

by Michael Morpurgo

Joey is a young farm horse who forms a strong bond with Albert, a farmer's son. When Albert's father sells Joey to the army, Albert vows to find Joey as soon as he's old enough to enlist. Albert then disappears from the story for a time, as Joey describes his war experiences. As expected, these experiences are horrific. For comfort, Joey is grateful to have the company of Topthorn, a tall black stallion, and different caring owners. But war horses are worked to the death, and Morpurgo does not spare us the details. The Germans use Joey and Topthorn to pull heavy guns from battle to battle, despite rain and sticking mud. The hard labour is too much for Topthorn, and Joey is left alone in no man's land. Rescued by the English, Joey is reunited with Albert, and they make the journey home.

While the novel is good at depicting the cruelties of war, I didn't find it emotionally involving. Perhaps it's because I had trouble visualizing myself as a horse. So I decided to see the play, in hopes of a more visceral experience. I was not disappointed. 

The puppeteers imbue the horses with personality and life, forming a bond with the audience that makes for a more moving story. The play fleshes out scenes, creates more background for the human characters, and provides glimpses into Albert's war experience, which was not in the book. There are some deviations in characters and situations, but it works pretty well, although I thought it odd that Emilie meets Albert on the battlefields.

Albert is not so optimistic in the play; instead, he is very traumatized. In a disturbing scene, he euthanizes a horse by stabbing it in the head. While this may have occurred in reality, it's not a nice thing to see.

I felt that Albert took far too long in recognizing Joey at the end of the book. Joey knew Albert immediately, but Albert, who was cleaning Joey off at the time, was oblivious. In the play (if you haven't seen the play, you should stop reading now) they meet after Joey's rescue from no man's land. Both are injured; Joey from barbed wire, Albert nearly blinded from tear gas. Joey is almost shot, but is saved when he responds to Albert's inadvertent whistle. It is a much more emotional scene.

In summary, readers who love Black Beauty, would enjoy War Horse. For those who, like me, found Anna Sewell's novel to be too didactic, you may want to skip Morpurgo's book and see the play instead.

By the way, there is a story of a war horse in Louisa May Alcott's Little Men.In the second last chapter, called Round the Fire, the boys are listening to stories told by the staff. A character named Silas tells a touching tale about his brave horse, Major.

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