Michael Morpurgo is the man behind the story War Horse that has since been adapted for the stage as well as the big screen.
War Horse is released on DVD & Blu-Ray this week and I caught up with the author to talk about the book and how he has found seeing his work adapted for different mediums.
- War Horse is a hugely successful book, stage play and now movie but for anyone doesn't know anything about the story can you tell me a little bit about it?
It’s set just before the First World War and begins on family farm in Devon where there is a young boy called Albert. A young horse called Joey comes to the farm and the pair of them form this very strong bond but Albert has got a father who is bad tempered and is often a little worse for wear from drinking and their relationship is a little difficult.
The father, because he is short of money, sells off the horse to the army because the army is souring the country because they need horses for the cavalry, pulling guns and ambulances. The father sells the horse over Albert’s head and off he goes to the army and when Albert finds out he wants to join up immediately to go and find his horse.
The horse goes off and is trained to be a cavalry horse and from then on you follow the journey of this horse Joey and we see the war through the eyes, ears and heart of this horse.
Soon after he gets to France he is captured by the German side and so you have seen the war from the British side and then you get to see it from the German side as he is pulling guns and ambulances.
He then winters on a French farm and so you also see the war through the point of view of the people over whose land the war was being fought. So it’s the First World War told through the eyes of this horse and it has an eye on the universal suffering of the war.
It doesn’t take sides and it’s just the story of this horse and the soldiers that he meets and the people that he meets. And then how Albert eventually joins off and goes off looking for him.
- The story is set during the First World War but it really is about this unbreakable friendship and bond between a young boy and his horse and I was wondering were the idea for the story came from?
It came from the people who came from the as I was lucky enough to move down to Devon with my wife to start this project call Farms For City Children, it gets kids from our big cities into the countryside and we have been doing it for about four years now.
When we moved down to Devon to get this project started we moved to this tiny little place called Iddesleigh and very few people live there, only about hundred people in the whole village.
I learnt that three of them had been alive during the First World War and two of them had been to fight in that war and I got talking to one of them in the pub one day and found out that he had been to war, as he put it, with ‘orses’.
I learnt that he had been in the cavalry and he started talking to be about the relationship and the bond between himself and his horse and all the horses and the men.
I did some research after that and I rang up the Imperial War Museum and I asked how many horses had been sent from these shores the First World War and they said ‘we don’t know exactly but we think a million’ and I said ‘well how many came back?’ And they said ‘sixty five thousand’ which gave me some idea that roughly the same number of horse were killed in that war as our soldiers, extrapolated out across the war over all sides roughly 10 million soldiers died in the First World War and so we think that 10 million horses died also.
So I decided then having met these soldiers, heard their stories and having researched it to set this story in my village and to follow one of the farm horses from my village. So it’s very much set in Devon and really, like most of the ideas for my stories, it comes from something that is true.
- So how did turning the book into a movie come about? And were there any concerns that you had right at the beginning of that process?
Interestingly it was a process that had several stages and the first stage was the book had been out there and had not been all that successful for twenty five years; it sold a bit and it was still in print but it never did all that well and it never won a prize or anything like this.
Then rather strangely the National Theatre in London rang up one day and said that they would like to play of this and I just thought ‘well how are you going to do that?’ And they said ‘with puppets’ and I though that that was ridiculous but it turned out to be the most extraordinary production which is still running in London six years later.
What happened is two or three years after the stage show began a producer called Kathleen Kennedy walked in off the street with her daughter in London to see the show and she loved it so much that she rang up her good friend Steven Spielberg, with whom she had made about twenty movies, and said ’you have got to come over here because this is just the best thing’.
A week or so later Steven Spielberg came over to see it and decided to make a movie about it. So honestly nothing was arranged it was all just good fortune.
- How much of a reassurance was it knowing that Steven Spielberg was going to be at the helm?
Well it was huge. As most people I had seen many of his movies and most of them were made with Kathleen Kennedy as producer and I thought someone who can make films as diverse as E.T. and Schindler’s List is likely to make a good job of War Horse.
He is man who can turn his hand to all kinds of story-telling on screen so I had a lot of confidence that he would do something fairly remarkable, and of course that is what he did.
- Had you had other approaches over the years to make this into a movie?
Yes I have and about fifteen years ago I tried to turn the book into a screenplay myself, but sadly that didn’t come off. I don’t know whether it was just not the right time or maybe the screenplay just wasn’t very good but it didn’t work at the time and we couldn’t get anyone interested in it.
I think at the time because it is a sad story, there is hope and there is redemption at the end but you have to live though a lot of pain and I think that people thought that it was a bit gloomy and they didn’t go for it.
All these years later the sad true is we have coffins coming home fro Iraq and Afghanistan and people are more aware that this war thing goes on and young people are still dying in war and I think that the First World War reminds us hugely of what happens when we go to war. I think for that reason the whole theme of War Horse didn’t become popular but it became relevant.
- Of course when a novel is being adapted not everything can be as it is written so what did you think of the changes that were made?
Well you have to adjust to them because of course you have it quite fixed in your head that this is your story, I am use to it really as I have had many books now adapted for stage and for screen.
They always make changes and I have to say that some of the best adaptations make the most changes, it’s to do with not the changes that they make but whether or not they do those changes well and are seamless.
The play, which is supremely successful and it has become an iconic production all over the place, changes the story a great deal, particularly in the second half, do I find it difficult? Yes I do a bit but it’s just been a wonderful experience to see the book brought to life on the stage.
It’s a different life and a play is a different thing and the people behind it have done that wonderfully well. Similarly Spielberg when he took the story obviously he couldn’t have the horse talking the story as that would have been absurd so he has to tell it differently and he did.
He invents one of two new stories and cuts out some bits of the book which didn’t quite fit on screen. So yes there are changes and I have to sit there and grind my teeth a bit to start with but that has never been anything different.
But at the end of the when the film finishes and when the play finishes I just think ’that is the most remarkable job as they have taken my story and turned it into something that is in many ways richer and certainly reaches a wider audience.
- The lead character of Albert rested on the shoulder of Jeremy Irvine who was an inexperienced actor so what did you think of his performance playing the character you created? And what about the rest of the cast?
The casting was wonderful as there are very few stars that are recognisable, Benedict Cumberbatch is probably the best known, but by and large these are not megastars - and that is what I loved about it. Frankly the star of this film is the horse and everyone else is incidental.
The most important character on the screen is most certainly Albert and Jeremy did a terrific job in his first major role. He was very tender he didn’t come at you all macho he was just a young lad in the countryside and I felt that his character developed throughout the film; he went from this innocent boy in the countryside to a trench as a fully grown man.
You know that he had already gone through hell in the trenches and it was a wonderful change of character I thought. So I thought he did a wonderful job.
- Did you go onto the set when they were filming and if so what was that experience like?
Oh yeas I went to four different sets and Steven Spielberg very kindly gave me and my wife a part; we are in the little crowd scene at the beginning of the film when the horses are being sold. You will see two incredibly handsome people in the crowd - the one that looks like Robert Redford is me.
It was a lot of fun actually. I have been on sets before but I have never been given a part before, I was rather sad at not to have got an Oscar for my part as an extra but there you are.
- So what did you think of the movie when you saw it in full for the very first time?
Oh it was amazing and I was just blown away. The sound and the music of it and the spectacle of it, for me it is a movie full of great moments.
The charge through No Man’s Land that Joey does before getting caught up in barbed wire and then the extraordinary meeting between the German soldier and the British soldier at the end of the film you just don’t forget those.
- How surprised are you that audiences have really taken to this story whether it be the book, on stage and now on screen?
Well I am very surprised and I suppose the truth is that I am the wrong side of sixty five that nothing really surprises me that much.
But what is really lovely is I didn’t expect anything like ever, I have written over hundred books and some of them have been moderately successful and some haven’t but I have enjoyed writing and meeting my readers.
I enjoy seeing them adapted on TV or into film but I never expected to hit the mark in terms of being out there; four weeks at the top of best seller list of people going to see it in this country and twenty five week at the top of the New York Best Seller List as a book, I never expected that sort of thing.
So I am delighted but I don’t lie awake at night thinking about it I lie awake thinking about the next story that I am going to write.
- Finally what's next for you?
I have got a book coming out which is called A Medal For Leroy and it spans the first and the Second World War. It’s the story of a family and a family secret where one member of the family served in the First World War and another served in the Second World War. So that comes out this autumn.
War Horse is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw
Click to buy: War Horse DVD
Click to buy: War Horse Blu-Ray