Author Michael Mor­purgo on the Spiel­berg block­buster War Horse,

Author Michael Mor­purgo is more than happy with Spiel­berg’s screen ver­sion of his chil­dren’s novel War Horse. ‘I think peo­ple are go­ing to be very moved, very con­vinced, hor­ri­fied, and touched,’ he tells Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

IN THE EVENT of a hos­tile alien in­va­sion we nom­i­nate nov­el­ist Michael Mor­purgo to do the talk­ing for earth­lings: he is a su­perb and end­lessly cu­ri­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tor. We are strolling through the im­pos­si­bly pretty Wilt­shire vil­lage of Cas­tle Combe – lately a lo­ca­tion for Steven Spiel­berg’s tremen­dous adap­ta­tion of Mor­purgo’s War Horse – and in all of five min­utes he’s as­cer­tained Brady ca­su­al­ties dur­ing the Great War and cov­ered ev­ery­one from Sea­mus Heaney to Mary Mcaleese.

“I think she was great for Ire­land,” he says. “I think she worked qui­etly in small, sym­bolic ways. But it was im­por­tant work. And then we get the Queen stand­ing in front of an IRA mon­u­ment in Dublin. Won­der­ful. Who could have thought such a thing could hap­pen?”

It was his mo­ment of the year, he says, but its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance gets him won­der­ing about the Ir­ish and the first World War.

What do they think about it now? How is it re­mem­bered? And how might the Ir­ish ap­proach some­thing like War Horse when it opens in Jan­uary? We sus­pect the Ir­ish will ap­proach it like the rest of the planet: through snivels and smelling salts. Spiel­berg snapped up the rights to the work two years ago when he found him­self weep­ing through the National The­atre’s award-win­ning pup­pet-driven adap­ta­tion of Mor­purgo’s chil­dren’s novel in Lon­don. And just wait un­til you see what Spiel­berg’s done with it since.

“When it was first mooted as a play and they said there were go­ing to be pup­pets play­ing the horses I was very con­cerned,” ad­mits Mor­purgo. “I thought it sounded ridicu­lous and had this vi­sion of pan­tomime horses fall­ing about. But it was the National The­atre ask­ing the ques­tion. So I called up an­other writer, Philip Pull­man, know­ing he’d had ex­pe­ri­ence with them and he gave me very good ad­vice: trust the peo­ple who are worth trust­ing; they’re the National The­atre.” The 2007 pro­duc­tion con­tin­ues to pack houses out across the West End and opened on Broad­way ear­lier this year to rave no­tices and five Tony Awards.

It’s an un­ex­pected fate for a book that has stayed qui­etly on li­brary shelves since 1982. “It wasn’t any kind of sen­sa­tion,” re­calls the author. “How it stayed in print I’ll never un­der­stand.” Mean­while, Spiel­berg’s ver­sion – re­plete with real horses – hits US cine­mas on Christ­mas Day, just ahead of the Os­car dead­line. An­i­mal lovers should note that the film’s rig­or­ous equine wel­fare pro­gramme and checks make for sur­pris­ingly lit­tle com­fort when lead­ing mam­malian play­ers Joey and Topthorn are marched off as pris­on­ers of war in the wake of a dis­as­trously out­moded cavalry charge.

“I think peo­ple are go­ing to be very moved, very con­vinced, hor­ri­fied, touched, all these things, but if they’re com­ing from the play the emo­tions are the same but ar­rived at in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way.

“Spiel­berg re­ally is a ge­nius sto­ry­teller and he’s brought in all these dif­fer­ent el­e­ments. The goose in the film comes from the play. Some of the lines come from the play and some come from the book and some come from Richard Cur­tis and Lee Hall’s screen­play. And on top of all that, Spiel­berg has taken all these things and made them his own. I’ve some­times waved away my work a lit­tle too read­ily. But I’ve been very lucky this time out.”

He says it’s luck but Mor­purgo’s source novel is a re­mark­able book. The story of Joey the Devon­shire horse and Al­bert, the farm boy who fol­lows the an­i­mal out to the front line, is told from the horse’s per­spec­tive as he car­ries cavalry and civil­ians, weaponry and the wounded for Bri­tish, then Ger­man soldiers. If Spiel­berg’s tear-jerk­ing fam­i­lyfriendly war film works, it’s be­cause Mor­purgo had al­ready done the hard part: War Horse the book is never less than a re­al­is­tic, af­fect­ing war fic­tion yet never more than a PG rat­ing.

The ma­te­rial makes for vin­tage Spiel­berg. Imag­ine ET with a horse but with Eliot’s friends dy­ing in the trenches. Did the author blub of­ten when he watched it? “Oh. I’m not sure there was much time be­tween the dif­fer­ent bursts re­ally. I was touched by the Devon land­scape. It’s my home and I’ve al­ways been struck by the con­trast be­tween the lives men lived al­most folded into the Devon land­scape and the hellish place they were sent to fight in. Spiel­berg makes that dis­tinc­tion won­der­fully well. And the mu­sic had me al­most con­stantly. That mo­ment when the horse is caught in barbed wire on no man’s land and one side are click­ing to call him over and the other side are whistling and then they all de­cide whistling is the bet­ter op­tion and all join in to­gether – the tears were pour­ing down my face. That scene was made with great love.”

The third Bri­tish Chil­dren’s Lau­re­ate reck­ons that War Horse has al­ways been sub­ject to strange and for­tu­nate twists of fate: “It’s brought an in­cred­i­ble amount of very beau­ti­ful con­nec­tions,” he says. “And it con­tin­ues to sur­prise me.”

In this spirit, not long af­ter he dis­cov­ered a burn­ing love of sto­ry­telling in the class­room, the former teacher ran into a first World War vet­eran in his lo­cal pub. The el­derly vet-


Al­bert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey (main); Lyons (David Thewlis), the land­lord of the Nar­ra­cott farm, and Rosie Nar­ra­cott (Emily Wat­son) and author Michael Mor­purgo (right)

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