A year ago, I wrote about the inability of most audiences (and many theatre professionals) to distinguish between a play and its production, especially in the case of new works. A few weeks later, I used the two versions of the film True Grit as examples of how one might begin to understand this distinction, as they struck me as two significantly different versions of a text that was largely the same (and since theatrical revivals can rarely been viewed side by side). Now I can add another corollary to my original post.
Steven Spielberg’s film of War Horse opened over the long holiday weekend and, as I tweeted the moment it ended, it is as if some splendid family film from the early 1950s had been made and then disappeared, only to resurface last week in glorious Technicolor. I happened to see it at a theatre on 67th Street and Broadway, only two blocks from where I had seen the National Theatre/Lincoln Center production of the play War Horse about nine months ago.
There are, of course, significant commonalities in the stage and screen versions (Spielberg acknowledges that his film is adapted from both the original novel and the National’s theatrical adaptation); the overall shape of the story, its emotional core and its reliance on almost Dickensian coincidence at key moments are intact. Even the pesky goose steals moments in both. The film has a few more episodes in the life of Joey, the equine protagonist, than I remember from the play, but that’s not a huge point of differentiation.
The enormous difference between the two is that the animals in the film are in fact animals, while on stage they are embodied by the exquisite puppetry design and movement by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Every moment that the horses are on stage at Lincoln Center, even as we are swept up in the story, we marvel at the craft and technique that has made it possible for us to witness this story live. In the film, to borrow an unfortunate phrase, a horse is a horse, of course, and we marvel instead at the scale and beauty of the film making, even as the same story carries us along.
Having seen much advance skepticism that the film could measure up to the theatre version, I went to the film somewhat grudgingly, ever the advocate for theatre. My doubts were erased within perhaps 20 minutes and I found the film – even with its scenes of battle and loss – a joy to behold, as I was transported back to my childhood and teen years, when a book like Misty of Chincoteague or a film like The Black Stallion could endear horses to me in a way that they don’t manage to do in real life.
The War Horses serve as a lesson not only in play or production, or two versions of a common text; they show the magic and the limitations of the forms of film and theatre, each of which demand different yet equally valid creative solutions. Although many films are made of plays (and, nowadays, vice versa), the War Horse film bears not a hint of stage origins; it has not simply been “opened up,” but rather imagined anew, since it draws on two literary predecessors, both Michael Morpurgo’s book and Nick Stafford’s adaptation.
While not normally given to writing anything approaching a review, I would encourage people to see both, in order to grasp this difference between these two art forms, film and theatre; I particularly hope that the two versions are used by junior highs and high schools to illustrate and impart this understanding to any students who display interest in either, or both forms. Which to see first? I can’t truly say, because I happened to see the play first, so that seems best to me, but one cannot unsee what has already been glimpsed. Both stand on their own four feet (or eight, if you count both puppet and puppeteer on stage).
A final thought: I have not read the original 1982 Morpurgo book, though I plan to soon, but understand that it is told entirely from the point of view of Joey the horse. One can (I think) anthropomorphize an animal most believably in text than on film or stage, and it is telling that neither version of the story attempts to do so. Were it still a common form, or a remotely commercial one, I suspect the truest adaptation of War Horse could be achieved via radio play, where Joey could indeed speak directly to us, since he would be neither flesh nor fabric, but entirely a product of our own imagination.
Tuesday, December 27 at 7:30 p.m. I’m adding this about seven hours after my original post because, thanks to a Twitter follower, Daniel Bourque, I learned that the BBC produced a one-hour radio version of War Horse in 2008, after the play had opened at the National but before it was seen in the United States or on film. It starred Brenda Blethyn, Bob Hoskins…and Timothy Spall as Joey, who narrated the story. I regret I couldn’t find the broadcast available online, but perhaps some enterprising reader will figure out how to share it with us all one day.