Fans of Michael Morpurgo's popular book War Horse, and the successful Broadway adaptation of the same name, have been wondering how (or whether) director Steven Spielberg would translate the unique prose of the book (it's narrated by a horse) and the vision of the play (the horses are played by puppets) into a film adaptation. John P. McCarthy, in an online Culture piece, looks at how, and how sucessfully, Mr. Spielberg has handled the transition and translation:
Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel “War Horse” is narrated by the title character, Joey, a comely and exuberant half-thoroughbred. In the award-winning play based on the book, puppets are used to represent equines—to striking effect. The challenge facing anyone adapting Morpurgo’s story for the screen is whether and how to capture Joey’s point of view and thus communicate the “inner life” of horses to a plausible and dramatically constructive degree.
A short list of filmmakers best able to clear this hurdle would include Steven Spielberg, a director who made his mark by getting millions of moviegoers to sympathize with a man-eating Great White shark and who many times since has shown he can bridge the epic and intimate sides of a narrative as effectively as anyone in the history of popular cinema.
With all due respect to Spielberg and the talents of the stallion portraying Joey—plus the entire equine ensemble—“War Horse” does not represent the animals’ point of view in any sort of memorable way. In fact, the problem is sidestepped.
Staying within the bounds of realism, Spielberg and company decline to adopt the horse’s vantage point or give Joey any kind of “voice” using technical wizardry (although, for safety’s sake, animatronics and computer-generated effects are employed during the most perilous sequences). Choosing not to “get inside” the animals does not doom the picture. The horses on screen are expressive. Moreover, anything “Mr. Ed”-like would seem ridiculous in this context.
No, the problem is structural. The absence of a guiding, unifying viewpoint contributes to the movie’s diffuseness. Lacking a full-blown protagonist and consequently a textured relationship between man and animal, “War Horse” feels lukewarm and abstract. The viewing experience is akin to being deposited in an immediately recognizable and yet unfamiliar landscape somewhere between sweeping wartime adventure and quiet interspecies drama.
Still, “War Horse” offers a relatively understated anti-war message, a historical lesson concerning the role of horses in World War I and an optimistic take on humankind. It’s salubrious enough to warrant a Christmas-day release aimed at a broad swathe of moviegoers.