Our elder daughter, Addison, is a perceptive (and arguably precocious) child. However, as parents we often wonder if she is really listening to the wisdom we are passing on to her and her younger sister, Ashley. When we were children, our parents accused us of succumbing to a disorder they diagnosed as selective hearing. Perhaps such an affliction is more widespread than we think. The heart of this disorder is that the child seems to hear only what she deems most palatable. For example, instructions concerning eating vegetables or working on multiplication tables rarely register the first time. In contrast, she always seems completely capable of hearing an offer for dessert. As a result, we recently were pleased to hear her say that she would rather read a book than see a film based on the book because the book makes greater demands on her imagination. Apparently, the relentless brainwashing she has received at the hands of her Luddite parents regarding the virtues of the printed page over the silver screen has registered.
We must confess though that we had never included in our arguments the particular insight that Addison offered. Is the printed page, in fact, superior to the silver screen because it makes greater demands on our imaginations? In order to explore this insight, we decided to consider the variety of formats (book, play, and film) in which the highly acclaimed “War Horse” narrative now finds itself. Originally a children’s book written by Michael Morpurgo and published in 1982, War Horse was made into a play by directors Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott and then into a film by Steven Spielberg. A common element in many of Morpurgo’s works is to introduce children to a particular historical reality through the eyes of an animal and/or the relationship between a child and the animal. The Elephant in the Garden (2010) and The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (2005) portrayed the realities of World War II through the respective eyes of an elephant and a cat. One of Morpurgo’s most recent books, Shadow (2010), introduces children to the hardships in Afghanistan through the eyes of a dog.
War Horse has become the best known of Morpurgo’s works. It focuses on the experiences of a horse sold into service in the British army during World War I. Often forgotten under the weight of the more recent horrors associated with World War II, the “War to End All Wars” claimed the lives not only of vast numbers of civilians and service personnel, but of horses as well. The Oxford Companion to Military History (2001) notes that Britain alone lost nearly a half million horses during the war. Morpurgo’s book serves as a memorial to the sacrifices made by these animals. The horse in the novel, Joey, was originally bought at auction for the purpose of working on a farm. He becomes the prized friend of an only child, Albert Narracott, who trains Joey until financial hardships force Albert’s father to sell Joey to the British army during World War I. The majority of the story is then an account of Joey’s experiences during the war until he is reunited with Albert.
Like some of Morpurgo’s other works, part of what makes this book unique is Joey’s narration of the story. Children (and even adults) learn about the hardships of World War I, but they learn about these details through Joey, not Albert. For example, the story opens with Joey describing how he felt at the auction. “I was not yet six months old, a gangling, leggy colt who had never been farther than a few feet from his mother. We were parted that day in the terrible hubbub of the auction ring and I was never to see her again” (1). Bred to run and not to plow fields, Joey learns the ways of the farm because of Albert and Albert’s love for him. Although Joey is quickly sold into the British army, the love between Joey and Albert never dies. In the end, Albert makes good on his promise to find Joey amidst the perils of war and bring him back to England’s pastoral countryside.
The stage version of this narrative opened in London in 2007 and at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in 2011. The play immediately garnered critical acclaim and won five Tony Awards in 2011, including “Best Play.” The stage version obviously brings with it the advantages and disadvantages of sight and sound. Part of what has made the play a rousing success are the puppets that directors Morris and Elliott decided to include. Facing the reality that the story’s central character (and a few others) are horses, and the additional reality that they could not include live horses in a theater production running several times a week, directors Morris and Elliott turned to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of South Africa’s Hand Spring Puppet Company. Kohler and Jones came up with the idea of using life-sized puppets maneuvered by at least two people inside the puppet along with a third facilitating the motions of the head. They also recognized that, although the puppets are capable of an impressive range of motions, recreating a life-like visual impression of a horse would prove impossible. Rather than attempt this, they created a visual image that places the structural scaffold on the outside with the horse’s fur just inside. As a result, Joey’s brilliant brown color and his equine companion Topthorn’s luminescent black color are clearly evident beneath a structure that blurs the lines between what is real and what is simulated. Audience members are subsequently struck by how something that looks so mechanical can move so much like a real horse.
The directors also decided that in the play, unlike the book, Joey the horse would not speak. In fact, whole scenes in the play are carried not by words spoken by actors, but by lyrics sung by a chorus. With music by Adrian Sutton and lyrics by John Tams, the score beautifully conjures up voices from the past who beckon us to remember them in a manner worthy of their immeasurable sacrifices. The backdrop to the set is shrouded in a haunting darkness, which is matched by a morose refrain that sits at the center of the score. “Shall we at last be united in glory? Only remembered for what we have done.”
One of the realities that come with the shift from the book to the play is that the audience is no longer primarily children but adults. Any honest depiction of World War I will include portrayals of atrocities that are inappropriate for the target age of the book, but the violence in the play does not seem gratuitous. In fact, anything less than the horror reflected by the play would prove disrespectful to the individuals who faced these realities. On one level, the transition from the book to the play severs the narrative from its previously intended audience. On another level, this transition creates a whole new audience for this narrative. Adults who might not have originally thought to pick up the book may find themselves compelled by the play to do so.
Like the play, the film breaks with the book by not using Joey as its narrator. Over the course of the film, the narrators include British officers, their German adversaries, and even French civilians caught in the middle.
While the puppets provide the most striking visual quality for the play, the film is defined primarily by the grand nature of the backdrops Spielberg captures. These scenes range from the pastoral farmland the Narracotts work in Devonshire to the scarred battlefields of France. Spielberg also provides a worthy tribute to the sacrifices made by soldiers who served in World War I. At one point, Joey gets trapped in “No Man’s Land” between the trenches of the Germen and British soldiers. In the darkness of night, barbed wire and dead bodies of both humans and horses stretch as far as the eye can see. These images remind audience members of the horrors of a war too often forgotten, but they also prove difficult to process for younger viewers, even those who might have read the book.
The film’s score, composed by John Williams, matches the grand nature of its backdrops. Where the music for the play is haunting, the music for the film is hopeful and triumphant. Even when listening to the soundtrack apart from the visuals, the music conjures up images of Joey sprinting across the Devonshire countryside or leaping over the German barricades. However, the film’s score resides much more in the background than the music in the play. Whereas music for the film accents the backdrops, the backdrops for the play, if anything, accent the music.
So which of these genres do make the greatest demands on our imagination and has the greatest impact on its audience? Spielberg has created a beautiful and moving war epic; however, the film presents Spielberg’s own vision, based on his interpretation of what he saw in the book and the play. Film-goers are simply asked to sit back and take in this impressive story. Unlike the book, the film offers audience members overpowering visual and aural imagery. Through the scenery, Spielberg shows us what the trenches of France looked like. Through the music, he helps us feel a horse’s and a boy’s desire to be reunited.
The play makes demands of audience members not required of film-goers. While it presents a visual representation of the horses and the scenery, we are also required to use our imagination to appreciate what we are seeing. The puppets created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are life-sized and impressive. However, the audience must still decide whether or not to accept this representation, and we are not given the detailed visuals provided in the film, but are left to fill in many of the blanks hinted at by the scenery and characters. Our minds are still asked to recreate the horrors of the battlefields of France or the pristine farmland of Devonshire. On the other hand, the beautiful but haunting score created by Adrian Sutton and John Tams provides an emotional backdrop for the story, and invites audience members to engage with what they are hearing so as to understand the scenes before them.
The book places even greater demands on our imaginations. When reading the book, readers must first accept that a horse is the narrator and imagine the story as it is told by Joey, creating his or her own versions of the sights and sounds described in the text. Every reader will have a unique version of what World War I might have looked and sounded like, which, while it might fall short of the level of realism in the film, makes the book far more accessible to younger readers. Morpurgo’s written words demand more active forms of imaginative participation than the images encountered in theaters, and with this participation comes greater cognitive engagement and emotional attachment to the story as the images generated are, to a certain extent, products of our own creation.
As the veterans of World War I have almost all slipped from present company into the pages of history, tributes such as War Horse prove more critical than ever. While the play and the film allow their respective directors to cue the horse in ways Michael Morpurgo’s book cannot, the book makes a wider range of demands as the absence of sight and sound forces us to insert needed details. All three genres prove worthy of our time and reflection. In this case, however, the wisdom of a child concerning the virtues of the printed page holds true.
Todd C. Ream and Sara C. Ream live in Greentown, Indiana, where Todd is Associate Professor of Humanities and Senior Scholar for Faith and Scholarship in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University and Sara is the Recorder for the Eastern Elementary School’s PTO.