War Horse

With the film coming out, I thought it was about time we read Michael’s Morpurgo‘s book, and even, if possible, went to see the play with its amazing horse puppets.

Naturally, you have to think, is it suitable for children? It’s a children’s book, and a children’s play, but for what age? It’s a book about World War I after all. There’s the trenches, there’s killing, death.

I downloaded the book from audible.co.uk in audio format – and we’re listening to it now in the car on the way to and from school. John Keating has an unusually slow and deliberate way of reading, but he does the accents very well.

As for the play, I’ve been looking at booking some seats in the spring. Checking the reviews, I thought the Guardian one was interesting:

 …it seems excessively fortuitous that Joey, captured by the enemy, falls into the caring hands of a German captain as horse-obsessed as Albert . And when the rescued Joey in 1918 is saved from slaughter only by a jammed pistol it seems providence is working overtime. But the narrative failings are overcome by the brilliant work of the Handspring Puppet Company…

Is it really excessively fortuitous? Is providence really working overtime? It is a children’s story after all. Aren’t children entitled to identify with the characters in their books, to want them to survive, succeed? Michael Morpurgo is taking his readers on a harrowing journey into the horror of the Great War. This is not a formula book; you don’t know where it’s going to take you. Before we started it I needed to check that the protagonist, Joey, doesn’t die in the end. (And he doesn’t in the play or the film.) The book is telling the story of a terrible time.
It’s interesting to listen to Michael Morpurgo talking about it. As he said in the Evening Standard:

I met a man in a pub. It was in my village, The Duke of York, in Iddesleigh in Devon. He was in his eighties and I knew he’d been to the First World War as a young man. For no good reason I happened to ask him what regiment he’d been in. “Devon ­Yeomanry,” he said, “I was there with ‘orses.” He told me things beside the fire in the pub that day that you don’t read in poems or books, that you didn’t see in films. It was as if he was taking me by the hand and showing me, ­passing it on; about living with fear and horror, about how the only person he could talk to was his horse, when he was feeding him at night, alone.

Then some weeks later I came across a picture by one FW Reed, painted in 1917, of British cavalry horses in the First World War charging up a hill towards the German positions, towards the wire. Some were already entangled in it. Like the private in the old song, they were “hanging on the old barbed wire”. I telephoned the Imperial War Museum and asked if they knew how many horses had been killed in the First World War. A million or more, they told me, and that was just in the British army; probably eight million horses died on all sides. With the real possibility now growing in my head that I might write a story about the First World War, not from one side or the other, but from the perspective of a horse that is used by both armies, so that it could be a story of the universal suffering of that war, or any war, I began my research.

And how will the film be? Blockbusters, family films, can be clichéd, sentimental. Trailers even more so:

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3 Comments »

  1. Isobel said

    I too don’t like sad endings and I didn’t want to read it either if the hero came to a gruesome end – however I felt compelled to as some of my class had done so, I have been fascinated by the stage puppets (Simon, you are so lucky to be going to see the show) and of course the block-buster of a movie that will be hard to ignore.
    I don’t think it is his best book – I enjoyed Kensuke’s Kingdom far more and there are lots of sentimental moments. It will be interesting to see how the film treats it – and how many times I have to reach for my pack of tissues! The trailer is enough (although I think the music adds to the emotion).
    Will the children be drawn to the warfare or the welfare for the horse?
    Interesting too it was written back in 1982. I had thought it was more recent.

  2. simonsterg said

    Hello Isobel. Nice to see you here!

    I’m funny in the bits that make me want to cry. When the two men, German and Welsh, are talking about who should take Joey the horse, which they’ve seen wandering in no man’s land. Suddenly, there’s a little flash of humanity, of generosity, of sacrifice.

    I haven’t actually booked the play yet. Best to make sure with the book first of all. I hope there’s still going to be seats…

  3. […] curious what fiction can do. A painting invented in War Horse had to be created for real. I’m copying this […]

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