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War Horse
The story of a boy and his horse – a still from the film, War Horse, with actor Jeremy Irvine | DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see the stage or film version of War Horse, you may choose not to read this. While I don’t believe I’m giving away anything that would spoil the story for you, if you hate knowing absolutely anything about a story before you experience it, click elsewhere.

I had the opportunity to see the Broadway play version of War Horse the night before I saw Stephen Spielberg’s movie version of the novel by Michael Morpurgo. The book was written in an effort to explore war through the eyes of the horses that were forced to take part. It’s a period piece set during World War I, the first war to use machine guns and tanks, and it’s a very emotional story that I, surprisingly, found more effective on stage than on film.

War Horse film still
Still from the film, War Horse | DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

This is a very stylized play that uses puppets for horses with three puppeteers standing alongside each horse at all times, manipulating their movements. So, you’d think the realism of film would affect me more deeply, right? How can puppets compare to flesh and blood horses? Yet, the creations of The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa are so amazing that audiences have found it remarkably easy to forget they’re watching puppets.

The stage version of War Horse also includes an unusual screen background on which various images are projected during the play – unusual because it’s wide but narrow from top to bottom and also asymmetrical, as if it’s a slice of paper ripped out of a sketch pad. The projected images aren’t your average archival scenes from the period either. They’re often images that look exactly like they were drawn in that sketch pad, or they’re projections of large blood drops that splatter one by one onto the screen until it turns almost solid red.

So, while I can’t say exactly why a play with puppets moved me more than a film with real horses, I’ll venture a theory. I think perhaps since we’ve been inundated with so many films depicting war, it’s easy to become desensitized to some degree out of emotional protection. Seeing the blood drop by drop on the screen behind the actors made the truth of war more real for me than any hyper-authentic film scene, and the stylized nature of the play heightened the story beyond “mere” realism. This is a paradox, but it worked.

Background mood music is also used during the play – a technique used in film but not generally on stage. I was surprised to discover that this was very effective and could take the place of dialogue in some short sections.

As for the puppets, the movement achieved is truly spectacular. The emotions created through nothing more than this movement were so effective that the two horse puppets each received a curtain call … after the puppeteer teams for each horse ran on stage without their puppets to receive slightly softer cheers.

There are other inspired elements in the stage production. A large part of the stage floor becomes a movable circle that turns slowly to create the illusion of horses covering ground as they gallop. Let’s just say I’ve never seen anything like this production on a stage, and I flinched just as much when something painful happened to a horse puppet as I did while watching the real horses in the film. From the audible responses of the audience members around me, I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way. (The play was adapted by Nick Stafford from the book, directed by Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten, and originated at the National Theatre of Great Britain.)

War Horse film still
A still from the film, War Horse | DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting down the film. It’s well made, and I appreciate the fact that few name actors are used, allowing the horses to be the “stars” in a way. And there is one section of the film that surpasses the play for me from an emotional perspective. This is the scene where the horse runs alone through the war zone. I won’t say anything more in an effort not to spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen it, but the horror of what appears to be a real horse trotting through a battleground is stunning, especially when contrasted with the beauty of the animal itself. There is simply no way to create anything like that in a live theater, not even with a stage that turns.

I applaud writer Morpurgo for finally paying tribute to the animals sacrificed in war. The story is heart-wrenching and beautiful, whichever version you see. Apparently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) signed off on the film version of War Horse, and the most harrowing scenes were computer-generated. Still, if you find it excruciating to watch animals depicted in painful situations, you’re better off skipping this one – both on stage and on screen – despite the story’s predictably heartwarming ending.

19 COMMENTS

  1. What a fabulous write-up. I have not seen either, and I’ve been especially resistant to seeing the live production, although everyone raves about it. How could I not see it after reading this??

  2. Thanks for the comparison. I would love to see the stage version. As a person trained in theater, I have always felt that the part our imagination contributes to a play makes the emotional impact stronger than when we are presented with “reality” on screen.

  3. I had no idea there was a stage version. My husband went to see this film and his report made me regret having accompanied him. He’s a historian and said the battle scenes were fairly realistic.

  4. I’ve heard that the play was more effective. I don’t know, the idea of sitting through a long, war movie with the horse as your protagonist just doesn’t appeal to me. But the idea of seeing it portrayed creatively using puppetry does. There’s something about the experience of seeing something on stage. I was thinking of the film Carnage too that just didn’t translate well onto the screen either, from what I’ve heard. Les Miserables.

    • I agree that “Carnage” didn’t translate well to the screen, but “War Horse” actually does because it’s based primarily on the book, not the play. That makes a huge difference. Plus, the film really uses the boy as a the protagonist more than the horse, but there are scenes in which the horse is the central character. Those are my favorite scenes in the movie.

      • Yes, the thing about the film is how wonderfully Spielberg was able to tell both the story of the horse and the story of the humans who cared for him along the way. And how everything circled back around to where it began. Just a beautiful story.

    • I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen Les Miserables, even though I’ve had the DVD here for ages. I mean, I’m sure it won’t even compare to seeing it on stage, but at least I should know the story so I can talk about it intelligently! So many movies, so little time… Haven’t seen Carnage either.

      • I saw the original Broadway cast of Les Miserables many years ago from the nosebleed seats, and I’ve known the music for what feels like forever. I didn’t seen the stage version of Carnage and didn’t like the film. I just didn’t think this was a play that translated well to the screen.

        • I’ve heard a bit of the music over the years, but what really made me want to watch the film is hearing one of the famous numbers sung by our high school choir. I can’t remember the name of the song, but it was truly and heartbreakingly beautiful.

    • It’s truly an incredible story and an incredible film. I’d love to see the stage production sometime. I have a feeling there will a documentary or maybe some behind-the-scenes films about the making of the stage production. Maybe Melanie knows.

      • Hmmm… well, I don’t know. The play has been in existence for some time now since it originated in the UK. There has been an 18-minute TED talk about the making of the puppets, along with demonstrations. I doubt that this is a play that tours very easily, but there is, nevertheless, a tour. I suppose it can work when the venues can support the production.

        • What made me think of it was seeing Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Theater of War, the 2008 documentary about the making of The Public Theater’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. So interesting to see the behind-the-scenes production and thought processes that brought it all together. I think it’d be fascinating if someone made a documentary about the stage production of War Horse.

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