From page to stage: ‘War Horse’

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On paper, adapting Michael Morpurgo’s modern children’s classic War Horse into a stage play seems like a very tall order. Staging a much-beloved book as a play creates enough pressure – when the book in question involves a multitude of horses as the backbone of the story, the challenge rises to a whole new level. Even Morpurgo himself reportedly said that “they must be mad” to attempt a stage adaptation when the idea first came about.

War Horse is narrated by a horse called Joey as he goes through life in the 1910s, first as a farm horse and then on the front lines of the First World War, and the attempts of his first owner, Albert, to get him back. As a children’s book, the use of the horse as a narrator is a smart way of telling the stories of the frontline in a way that isn’t too traumatising for its target audience. However, as a play it’s a different matter entirely. Trying to bring to life a story that relies so heavily on animals is never an easy job. The theatre’s solution was smart, smooth and breathed new life into Morpurgo’s classic.

The theatre’s solution was smart, smooth, and breathed new life into Morpurgo’s classic.

The element that really brings the whole adaptation together are the horses: it’s fair to say that the success of the stage adaptation hinged on them. The original play, which debuted at the National Theatre in 2007, decided to use life-size wooden puppets to create the horses which would be moved by members of the crew on stage in what was called “horse choreography”. As you can imagine, this was met with scepticism. If you haven’t seen War Horse, it might sound like an amateurish attempt at bringing the beloved book to life – but think again. 

Almost anyone who has seen War Horse on the stage will probably tell you that they forgot the horses on stage were just wooden structures, and I can definitely back this claim up. The fluidity of the horses on stage is so seamless that it’s easy to overlook the people who bring them to life. If anything, the puppets bring the imagery of the book to life in a more vivid way than the novel itself. Toby Sedgwick, the man responsible for the horse choreography, received much-deserved critical acclaim for his work in War Horse’s stage adaptation. Watching these puppet-horses come to life on stage proves their success as a solution to the main obstacle of staging War Horse

The puppets bring the imagery of the book to life in a more vivid way than the novel itself.

The big debate naturally ends up asking this: is the play better than the book? It’s an age-old debate that crops up whenever a book is adapted, either for the stage or the silver screen. The advantage of the book is that Morpurgo can recount the events of Joey’s life with Joey as the narrator, meaning the reader can get a glimpse into the horses’ thoughts throughout Joey’s journey. This, obviously, is not present in the play. However, I would argue where the play excels is its visual effects and the balance between Joey and the soldiers. Although the audience misses out on Joey’s inner thoughts, Joey remains a main figure in the story and the importance of the relationship between Joey and the men is highlighted for the audience. Moreover, the play’s use of staging and sound effects recreates the horrors of war in a way that just isn’t possible in a book format. Based on this, the stage might be the more appropriate form to tell this story. Although both versions are definitely worth your time, the play may have just pipped the book to the post. 

Overall, the stage adaptation of War Horse managed to bring a classic children’s book to a whole new level in a way that you really have to see to believe. I am usually a firm believer in books always being better than their film or stage counterparts, but when it comes to War Horse, I think this really could be the exception to that rule. 

Image: Alison Day via Flickr

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