Having seen his beloved children's book War Horse turned into a smash hit play on both sides of the Atlantic, author Michael Morpurgo tells Orange Film about his delight at Steven Spielberg's film adaptation. He also discusses the terrible suffering of horses in war and the universal appeal of the story.
How did it feel to see your story up on the big screen?
Michael Morpurgo: As you can imagine with something like this, you're full of expectation and anticipation and I didn't sleep a wink the night before. Not because I had myself invested in it but because it's a story I love and you always want to see something like that treated in a way that's in tune with what you initially thought of. Well, I needn't have worried! After the opening two minutes, I suddenly realised I was in the hands of someone who was pacing this story in a way I really loved. Where we've got in movies at the moment is that we've persuaded audiences they must have 'wham-bam' every moment. Spielberg has the confidence and the courage to tell a story and do it in a way that's respectful to the people in it and to the audience. It doesn't pander to that expectation of immediacy. It's a slow-burn because he has to establish this growing love and affection between the boy and his horse.
Were you happy with the changes made between page and screen?
Michael Morpurgo: It likes my book more than the play does. The play changes things quite a bit, particularly on the German side and also it changes the ending. But I noticed on the set that Steven Spielberg had a copy of my book beside him. And I noticed he used my best line in the whole book! It's when the German soldier looks down at the coin [he's tossed in No Man's Land] and says 'I think that's my Kaiser's face looking up at me and he does not look pleased'. He's taken the very best ideas from the play, the ingenuity of the National Theatre, the feel of my story and brought his storytelling genius to it all.
Are there sections of the film you were particularly pleased with?
Michael Morpurgo: I loved the acting - there wasn't a character in it with whom I didn't believe who they were. And the transition of moving from the paradise of Devon to the horror of the war was done in a way that was completely surprising. And from the cavalry charge the scene, the pace of the film was like a horse going from a walk to a trot to a canter and into a gallop and it began to move unbelievably fast. The war scenes were some of the best I've ever seen in cinema. Yet he managed to inject humour into it! At the most sensitive moment of the film, the meeting of the British Tommy and German soldiers in No Man's Land, suddenly [the audience] is laughing, because of the soldiers whistling and clicking to get Joey's attention. I thought the psychology of it was terrific. I also thought the ending was sensational. I know there was a debate about ending the film with words but the way he ended it was lovely I thought.
What do you hope audiences take from it?
Michael Morpurgo: I came away glowing and thinking this man has integrity and cared about everything in the film. He's made this little slim volume of mine into this great, beautiful film. All I can say is 'thank you Mr Spielberg'. Some people will call it old-fashioned and I don't care. I think we all grew up with movies that had such an impact that you don't forget them in terms of their beauty and the way they seized you - this film seizes you.
Did you feel it captured the feel of the pre-war era?
Michael Morpurgo: Before the first world war, this country was a different world. It was the end of hundreds of years of people living on the land in small communities and that war finished it and changed dramatically how this country and indeed the world behaves. And I think [Spielberg] identified that very strongly with the moment when a horse charges into a machine gun.
What interests you about animals in war?
Michael Morpurgo: I think everyone understands that in any war, and the Great War in particular, everyone is complicit. All the nations have conspired, somehow, to make this thing happen. Some people are more responsible than others. The common soldier, the Tommy, was not, nor was his German counterpart; they were sent there. The politicians and the generals are the people that created this war. Nonetheless, the soldiers killed people; shot, bayoneted, put up barbed wire, all the things you had to do. But the horses had been made to do whatever they did so they were complete victims. You couldn't accept that a horse had a motive to kill someone. These are exploited creatures that were used by us and by them, by everyone, for their war effort. If you focus on their innocence, your heart goes out to it because it is what we all yearn for and we know that war is destroying that. What is good about the story is that there can also be hope that goes with it.
Did you always feel that War Horse was a universal story?
Michael Morpurgo: What's been interesting for me is to see how the play has worked in London - most people who go to see it there don't know the front of a horse from the back-end. In New York, policemen ride horses up and down the street but that's all people there really know of horses. But what's lovely about it is that the story does seem to cross continents and I wasn't sure that it would.
You must have had your own idea of what Albert the boy and Joey his horse should look like - did the film meet your expectations?
Michael Morpurgo: I thought Joey would look a little rougher and I thought Albert was far too handsome to come from a Devon village like ours! (laughs) But it's a movie and the horse has to be beautiful, I understand that. The great thing about the book - not just this book but any book - is that you can make of the horse and the boy what you like; it's up to the reader. Films do tell you more than a book does.
Do you think the film is going to affect your writing and your career?
Michael Morpurgo: I don't know and, I have to say, I don't care. When you get to 68, I just consider myself a lucky man to have had the National Theatre come to it and make that extraordinary play and then to have Spielberg come along with his magic wand. If it makes my other books sell better, which I suspect it might, then I'm pleased. There is a downside to all of this, though. I think writers are essentially people who have to be at home and write and it has put obligations onto me - which I'm very happy about, but it does jostle your life a bit.
Is War Horse your favourite of your books, or would that be like picking the favourite of your children?
Michael Morpurgo: It's my wife's favourite of my books, which is deeply irritating actually, because I wrote this 80 books ago! (laughs) Every time I present her with a new book and ask her what she thinks of it, she says things like 'It's good - but it's not as good as War Horse'. She loves it because it's set in Devon, where she grew up, because of the horses and I think she's always known that it's a book that's a bit special.
Interview: Lewis Bazley