Steven Spielberg adaptations tend to take on a life and message all their own. They stray from their sources in surprising (and often effective) ways. For example, if you watched the original Jurassic Park (1993), you would find Hammond transformed from the villain of Michael Crichton’s novel into a sympathetic grandfather. His original fate (an agonising death by tiny dinosaurs) is averted by Spielberg, and the character is repurposed in a remarkably touching scene that involves a heartfelt conversation and ice cream.
This same kind of reimagining happens in Spielberg’s 2011 film War Horse. Those who have seen it may not know that it was originally a novel and then a successful stage play. National Theatre Live has brought “War Horse” back to cinemas, but as a filmed version of the play, which, for obvious reasons, uses puppets instead of actual horses. Though the essential storyline remains the same, each version is profoundly different and reflects the vision of their respective artistic teams.
The Spielberg version takes full advantage of the power of film – it transports audiences from the quaint, picturesque English countryside to the battlefields of Europe during World War I, complete with miles of desolate trenches and a landscape clouded in poisonous vapour. Spielberg goes to great lengths to depict the violence and brutality of war that is merely suggested on stage. The scope of the play itself is widened and the action elevated to an epic scale. Joey (the titular horse) becomes largely symbolic – Spielberg emphasises the human relationships around him to convey messages about love, kindness and basic humanity, all of which are threatened by warfare. While the stage play focuses primarily on the bond between Joey and his original owner, Spielberg greatly develops the minor characters (and adds others that are not found in the play) in order to convey his larger theme. Thus, many of the main characters in Spielberg’s War Horse do not resemble their stage counterparts. Motivations and personalities are altered, and certain scenes are given greater dramatic weight. Albert Narracott is infinitely patient in the film version, his rougher edges and family problems smoothed over. The personal story of a boy and his horse is subordinated to the overall, universal message.
The National Theatre Live production is remarkable for its sparseness. A single strip of white paper runs across the top of the stage, where shadowy trails of ink suggest a change of scenery or the ominous trickle of blood. Even the horses themselves are fleshless – the creatures seem to be made up of ribs and air. It takes three actors to manipulate each adult horse (in the credits they are billed as “head”, “heart” and “hind”). Though the colour of their clothes matches the “skin” of the horse, they are always in plain sight. A flick of the wrist sends a horse’s tail flying; the churning of muscles in the legs is suggested by an actor’s posture and gait. Their visibility and presence are crucial to the play. The death of a horse onstage becomes lyrical and symbolic, beautiful as well as tragic. Watching the puppeteers retreat into the shadows is like witnessing the soul escape the cage of the body. Everything that gave life to that frame of wood and wire has fled and the loss is palpable.
In Spielberg’s film, the Narracott family owns an ill-tempered goose that pecks at the heels of its owners and visitors alike. I thought it was mildly amusing, nothing more. In fact, this is a nod to the stage version, in which the same bird is played by a single operator. The charm and quirkiness of this goose is amplified on the stage, its humour a well needed pause from some of the darker moments of the play.
In the age of spectacular CG set pieces and astonishing visuals, we can now “see” almost anything: great battles, volcanic eruptions – an endless parade of monsters, aliens and zombies. Yet there is one thing that visuals alone cannot provide: soul. That comes from the quality of the performance and our belief in its world. The technical shortcomings of the theatre can also be its greatest assets. William Shakespeare famously urged the audience to use their imagination to fill in the elements missing from the stage: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts…Think when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth.” When you see a play, you become an essential part of the performance. Your emotions are allowed free rein, your eyes allowed to linger anywhere you choose. The meaning you take away from a play is always personal, because you have helped to create it. See Spielberg’s War Horse for his vision of war and the redeeming power of human kindness. Then see the National Theatre Live version and forge your own.