War of the War Horses: Spielberg vs National Theatre Live

war horse national theatre live spielbergSteven 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.

war horse national theatre live spielbergThe 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.

Dawn Oshiro is an English composition lecturer and “aspiring novelist” whose two passions are film and literature. One day, she hopes to remove the air quotes and the word “aspiring” and actually publish something. You can check out her (non) progress at her blog: http://www.dawnoshiro.com

10 thoughts on “War of the War Horses: Spielberg vs National Theatre Live

  1. Dawn wrote:
    “When you see a play……….your eyes allowed to linger anywhere you choose.’
    With a good director, this ain’t neccessarily so. The job of both theatre and cinema director is to guide the eye of the viewer. it is easier in film, as each shot is extrapolated from the entire playing area, giving the viewer no choice of selection. Although the theatrical audience has the entire proscenium in their view, it is the director’s job to guide their eye to what he wants them to observe at any given moment. So on the ocassions when the audience’s eye lingers on any chosen spot, it is a sign the director has lost control.

  2. Dawn, This is an excellent article. Your thinking is clear, your writing elegant and precise, and your comparisons well drawn. I read it twice. First, for the content. Secondly, for the style. And thank you for giving us, in a few concise paragraphs, a vivid idea of the Spielberg movie so we can understand your references without having to suffer through 146 minutes of Spielberg-directed tripe.

    • Thanks, Bill. I have to admit that I didn’t really enjoy Spielberg’s “War Horse” the first time I watched it, but I think I understand why he made the changes he did after watching the stage version. ^^

  3. Very fine comparison, Dawn. I often like Spielberg as a director–especially his earlier films–but frequently his later films have offered less suggestion than statement. With the theatrical version of War Horse, I’m reminded of Japanese bunraku puppet theater, where the puppeteers are out in the open while making their puppets “act,” yet they are hardly noticed because of the power of the performances. I think in this case, Spielberg probably should’ve left this project alone–the impact of the puppeteering is hard to replicate.

    • I completely agree with you about Spielberg’s early films. The main problem I had with his “War Horse” is that he did similar things in some of his previous films, with far superior results. There’s one shot in “War Horse” that is almost exactly like one from “Empire of the Sun” (the massed army gathered just under the lip of a hill, discovered by a child).

  4. I’ve always enjoyed considering the differences between stage and screen versions of the same story, as well as comparing print and screen versions. Thanks for raising the issue, Dawn. Never having seen the stage production of War Horse, I can’t comment on that, though your description seems to make sense. For me, Spielberg is very much hit or miss. I greatly enjoy Jaws and Empire of the Sun. In War Horse, as in a lot of Spielberg’s movies, the key is that smoothing over of the rough edges that you note. It seems to make it more palatable and less incisive, occupying that rather wide swath of territory between Au Hasard Balthazar and Mr. Ed. And I have a very hard time forgiving what he does to John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Seeing this egotist, whose hubris has wreaked such havoc and destruction, fly off whistling at the end, really bothered me. It’s as if Henry Frankenstein, instead of going mad, decided to host a Halloween party in which everyone dressed up as their favorite monster.

    • I have mixed feelings about that Hammond scene. I agree that it takes the edge off the novel but I rather liked the sad idealist with his tubs of melting ice cream. Or maybe Richard Attenborough was just too charming. ^^

  5. I have to say that I really disliked the film version of ‘War Horse’. I found it overly sentimental, and full of caricatures, rather than characters. The best things in that film were the ‘real’ horses’ who at least managed some dignity. I have never had the chance to see the stage production, but I am told by many respected friends who have seen it, that it is far superior to the film.
    I think that your fine review of both confirms their assertions. Best wishes, Pete.

    • I agree with you about the sentimentality and the fact that the characters are not as strong as other Spielberg films. I think part of that is due to the “big picture” message he wanted to convey. A lot of those characters weren’t in the play and were put in the movie mostly to emphasize the message.

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