War Horse the play is NOT War Horse the book, and the Steven Spielberg movie is neither the book nor the play.
by Dave Ross
On January 6, 2013, the Toronto production of War Horse will be closing, having had a run of 368 performances. This is a record setting run for any professional drama in Canadian theatrical history, and is not surprising – I had the opportunity to review it on opening night, and was absolutely “gobsmacked” when I left the theatre. It was (and still is) one of the most compelling pieces of theatre I have seen, and I delight in hearing other people talk about their experiences with the play.
However, while leaving Toronto, War Horse will live on in numerous productions and a U.S. National Tour that embarked this summer. It will also live on as a film. War Horse is a prime example of a cross-media production. Originally a young adult novel, War Horse was written by Michael Morpurgo in 1982, and by his own admission, it didn’t perform well. It was only after the National Theatre in Britain decided to develop a story based on Morpurgo’s book that the War Horse phenomenon began. The phenomenon was such a success that Steven Spielberg decided to make a film, released in the Winter of 2011. The result is a cross-media cultural franchise that exists across three separate media platforms.
None of these is like the other. They are distinct.
There are complications with this. War Horse the play is NOT War Horse the book, and the Steven Spielberg movie is neither the book nor the play. What we have are three distinct products existing under one banner: War Horse, a children’s novel, told entirely from the perspective of Joey, the horse; from there, we have War Horse, the theatrical adaptation that does a remarkable job of translating an animal narrative onto the stage; further from this, we have Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, which is based both on the original book and the play.
None of these is like the other. They are distinct. I won’t launch into a review of any of them here, but will express some concern at how some products are adapted into cross-media products. The National Theatre has spent a lot of money on promoting War Horse, and word of mouth has been fiercely successful for them, as well as publicity on YouTube. This is primarily achieved through the popularity of the puppets used in the production. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, on the other hand, is riding on the coat-tails of the National Theatre’s investment, but delivers a vastly inferior product. The magic of War Horse, the essence of the relationship between Joey and Albert just does not translate to film very well. Unfortunately, there are bound to be people who have heard of War Horse, but will settle for seeing the film, and will likely whole-heartedly believe that they have seen and taken part in the War Horse phenomenon. And perhaps in their own way they will have, but they will have missed the humanity of the theatrical production. This is one of the dangers of cross-media products – sometimes, the mediums are not suited to carry the weight of the story. This is the case with War Horse; it’s an enjoyable book, an amazing piece of theatre, but a mediocre film.
Indeed, the film has closed, and new productions of War Horse continue to open and tour.
Cross-media adaptations are nothing new. Mary Poppins is a film loosely based on a series of books, which was then adapted into the wildly successful stage musical of the same name. Once again, none of these is like the other; the musical is actually a hybrid of the movie and the original books. There are two differences between these two cross-media phenomena: the span of time between adaptations, and the order in which the adaptations occurred. Both started as books, Mary Poppins in 1934, and War Horse in 1982. 30 years later, Disney released their film, whereas War Horse waited only 25 years to be adapted for the stage first in 2007. Finally, 40 years after the film, Disney opened their musical Mary Poppins in 2004. War Horse was still on stage and a wet-behind-the-ears four years old when Steven Spielberg’s film opened in 2011. Indeed, the film has closed, and new productions of War Horse continue to open and tour. There is simultaneity present in War Horse that did not exist for Mary Poppins. It is this simultaneity that is of greatest risk to the story.
It is my fondest hope that consumers of stage and screen are aware of the differences that occur between these two mediums, especially so when there a simultaneity of media products present, as is the case with War Horse. I am not against cross-media productions. I’ve enjoyed Mary Poppins in all her incarnations, and the fresh touch that the musical gave the story by returning to the books for inspiration. I’ve made clear my love for War Horse on the stage, and I genuinely enjoyed the book. The movie reeked of pastiche and cliché, and sorely lacks in comparison as a result. Productions like War Horse and Mary Poppins offer a level of cultural saturation that has the potential to be wonderful, but also fraught with danger.
A friend of mine wants to read Cloud Atlas, based on the recommendation that people will perceive her as reading only what Hollywood tells her to. I don’t agree. The next time you see someone reading a book that is currently in theatres, I think you should applaud them, rather than judge them. They’re becoming more educated consumers of cultural products. We know the film is NEVER as good as the book, it’s common understanding. And while this holds true for the play-to-film adaptation of War Horse, it doesn’t ALWAYS hold true. That person reading the latest Hollywood blockbuster is actually becoming a better-informed audience, an audience that can engage critically with a work on more than one front.
It goes without saying that we will be seeing more cross-media products in the coming years. It behooves us to be aware of what drives these adaptations and what their source material is. Otherwise, we become blind consumers of sometimes-bland products, and nothing could be more damaging.