"War Horse" Gallops Onto the Big Screen

As War Horse continues its popular London and Broadway runs (with Toronto and national touring productions at the starting gate), a new Steven Spielberg film version of Michael Morpurgo's World War I youth novel hits movie theatres. Playbill talks to its creative team.

Jeremy Irvine in
Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse." (Photo by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP)

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When word got out that Richard Curtis was at work writing the screen adaptation of Nick Stafford's play, War Horse, quite a few of Curtis' friends who had seen the play approached him and, with genteel but genuine concern, asked him the same question: "Well, how are you going to do the horses?"

The magic of the stage production is so pronounced that people forget there are other options for other mediums. Tom Morris of London's National Theatre and his co-director, Marianne Elliott, had Stafford create — and tailor — a play that showcased a group they were keen to work with, Cape Town's 30-year-old Handspring Puppet Company, which created life-size and lifelike cane-and-plywood horse puppets. For a likely source subject, Morris' own mother — as opposed to a theatrical agent — suggested Michael Morpurgo's 1982 boy-and-his-horse yarn, "War Horse." The boy is a Devon country teen named Albert, and the horse is a spirited steed his father bought at auction named Joey. They are separated by World War I.

It's an unreasonably unwieldy epic for stage containment — but miraculously do-able: A team of puppeteers mimics the horse movements with such amazing accuracy that they disappear from view, and one is left mesmerized by the dramatized hoops that the horses are put through — the "Lassie Come Home"-level of plotting.

Seth Numrich in the Broadway production
photo by Paul Kolnik

In the massive cast of 37 that populates Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont stage on Broadway, the 12 "horse handlers" are the first to take a bow and get a thunderous reception regularly. A Special Tony was awarded the puppet company, seconded by more traditional competitive wins that completed their picture — scenic design, lighting design and sound design — plus the cherries on top of the sundae: Best Direction and Best Play. "The answer is with horses," scripter Curtis, replied in response to his friends' question in the first paragraph. "We are going to use horses — real horses!"

Director Steven Spielberg had his work cut out for him, equaling or improving such an intrinsic and acclaimed stage property. "The greatest challenge for me was realizing why I even wanted to make it in the first place," he admitted.

"So many people came out of the play talking about the brilliant puppetry of the horses. I came out of the play affected not because they were puppets playing horses and great puppeteers creating a reality, but I came out of the play admiring a very strong story that had been told to me — a very strong narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was very, very struck emotionally by the storytelling of those who adapted Michael Morpurgo's book into a play. I didn't think I needed puppets."

Steven Spielberg on set
© 2011 - DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

The first to detect a Spielberg vision under all that cane-and-plywood obstruction was his longtime executive producer, Kathleen Kennedy, who caught the play on vacation in London with her kids. "Oftentimes, I am frankly looking for things that might be something we'd want to collaborate with," she said, "but I didn't go with that in mind. I just wanted a chance to see it, and I was stunned how emotional people were in the audience. It really stayed with me, and, when I got back, Steven and I were doing some early scoring on 'Tintin,' and I said, 'I just saw this remarkable play,' and I started to tell him what it was about, and it was pretty instantaneously that he said, 'Oh, my God! That sounds like a great story for a film.'"

The idea of filming Stafford's play never occurred to either. "Anytime you're adapting material," said Kennedy, "you always know you're going to go through some kind of evolution in creating the screenplay so we knew that there was work to do beyond the play. The play worked beautifully in the context of a stage play.

"The next thing we did was to get Michael Morpurgo's book. For anyone who hasn't read the book, that story is told completely from the point of view of the horse, so it's quite different from the stage play — and, consequently, the film is quite different from the play, but they somehow all manage to complement one another."

Peter Mullan and Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse."
© 2011 - DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.

Spielberg made a point of keeping the book around to read the horse's mind: "When I wanted to assume or guess what Joey was thinking, I went back to the book. It was kind of a handbook of Joey's thoughts. It was very useful during the production."

Very early in the screenwriting process, Curtis read the book aloud to his daughter, who was ailing at the time, "and paid attention to the rhythms of that reading, which, in a funny way, was a bit like us watching the film together in our minds. "There were certain things in the book that hadn't been in the play, which were dramatically different. I never bothered to think why they made the decisions that they made on the play, but I decided that a lot of what was in the book is what I wanted to focus back on. The main thing — for reasons that, I suppose, are obvious — they've woven the story of the boy all the way through the play so that you had the boy going up and being recruited and his experiences in the war and all of that. Well, that obviously can't happen in the book because Joey's telling the story there and doesn't know where Albert has gone. So we took out the Albert story in the play — he completely disappears in the film. The punch at the end was so strong when he suddenly reenters the tale we decided that's the version we'd really go for. Basically, I went to Steven with ten things I'd change, and he accepted about seven."

David Kross and Leonhard Carow in "War Horse."
photo by David Appleby – © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved

The author of lovely lightweights like "Love, Actually," "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" might seem an unlikely choice for the grit and grimness of "War Horse" realities, but Curtis came uniquely qualified for this assignment, having written a World War I sitcom called "Blackout." "We did four series," he said, "all set in different eras in British history, and the same characters moved through as though they were descendants. The First World War was the fourth series, and it had in England a very famous final episode where all the leading characters died when they at last went over the top. That was our condition for doing the series."

Spielberg hired Curtis for his humor to help move the story across "no man's land" and other starkly chilly terrain. "When Steven first asked me to do it," the writer recalled, "he just said, 'Make each bit as rich as you can make it.' We had to sort out how the story ran. He did realize it was episodic, but, if you absolutely commit to each story, that was the way it would work rather than if you thought all the way through it and go like a train. We tried to write a sort of Thomas Hardy tragedy for the first 40 minutes, give that absolutely our full attention, then suddenly you realize when that's over, and 'Wow! There's a lot more film to go.'

"What it was, was looking at each scene, thinking 'Is there anything delightful or funny I can do here?' Then, the horse made the whole thing come together."

Joey is certainly a well-traveled horse on the Western front, making three nationality stops in the book and film. The British lose him in a cavalry charge to Germans, who harness him for cannon-lugging. Omitted from the play are the two German brothers who ride him to neutral turf where an elderly French farmer and his granddaughter kept him out of harm's way until the British troops arrive.

Lee Hall
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, contributed a couple of early screenplay drafts of "War Horse" and shares the screen credit but didn't co-write the piece with Curtis as the credit implies. "There's a strange rhythm, clearly, in the writing of films where you get to a point where you've done the bit that you want to do, and it's a great pleasure to get someone else to take it," explained Curtis. "The interesting thing was that I had three different sources: There was Michael's book, there was Lee's original screenplay, and there was the stage play — and so, after Steven asked me to do it, I went back and saw the play, I read the book, I read Lee's thing and then I came up with what I do." Hall did not participate in the press junket for the film but did attend its world premiere at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall earlier this month. "I met the author of the book about four or five years ago, so it has been a long project for me," he said, "and then, when Steven saw the play, luckily we had a script so it has happened incredibly quickly for us all. Richard worked on it through the production. He's a good friend of mine so it's totally okay. I'm very glad and privileged to have him."

Both writers are busy with screenplays. Hall's is for a small British movie called "Down and Out in Paris and London," based on George Orwell's first book about his hard times during Great Depression in Europe when he was a very young tramp.

Curtis, who has turned director as well in recent years, is "in pre-pre-preproduction for another movie" he has written about time travel. He doubts if he will ever get back to Broadway, having authored Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson, which ran for seven previews and seven performances at the Atkinson in October 1986 "so I've had my experience, and I wouldn't want to risk a second one" — but darned if he just might: "It's a funny thing, I feel as though I'm running out of time now, and there was a play that I wanted to write ages ago. I wrote half of it, and I never finished it so I'm now starting to worry that I'm not going to get around to doing that."

(Harry Haun is a longtime staff writer for Playbill magazine whose work often appears in the pages of Playbill.com.)

View highlights from the film:

Based on the 1982 young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo and later adapted into a Tony-winning play featuring lifelike equine puppets, "War Horse" is the tale of Albert, a young man searching for his beloved horse Joey, who was taken into the service of the British Army during World War I. Steven Spielberg directs the DreamWorks Pictures flick featuring a screenplay by Lee Hall ( Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis ("Bridget Jones's Diary"). In theatres Christmas Day. To see highlights from the play War Horse, currently on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, click here.