War Horse – Lost in Translation
Please note: this post will be hella full of plot spoilers toward the latter half of it. Clue is in the title. Also, I let loose on the profanity. I’m not sorry.
When reading a book, and then watching the film adaptation, or watching the film and then going back to read the book, it can become easy to spot differences, and these can oftentimes divide opinion. You can watch the film for what it is: a film. By itself, it may be successful as a stand-alone piece. The humour, the suspense, the music even, can all add or take away from the mood of a film. And when it is a film that has been adapted from a book, the mood created in the film can be different to the original intentions of the author.
Some film adaptations of novels can be very good. I believe that to do this, the film must do the following:
1. Stay true to the characters. If a character has been written a certain way made to be loved or to be hated, and then this is changed for the film, it can not only be confusing, but also really frustrating. There is nothing worse in a book to film translation than destroying the integrity of a crucial character. They may stand for something, be an asshole, love someone or something with their entire being … and these things all help to shape their character. They make them who they are. It creates the foundation for the way they will live their lives, the things that they will do, and the way they will handle certain situations. Altering the protagonists to a point where they become unrecognisable is both insulting to the story and the author, but also to the characters themselves. If they lived their life in one way in the novel, the film should show that. Sure, they may be altered slightly for the purpose of the screen, but only slightly. The essential characteristics must be there.
2. Not add anything unnecessary. Staying with the idea of character, don’t add extra characters that don’t enhance the plot. In fact, don’t even add them to enhance the plot. If they did not exist in the original story, they are not essential to the proceedings. And if they do become essential, then that means something wrong with the original story, in which case, perhaps it shouldn’t be considered for film. Similarly, don’t add events that will not enhance the story or advance the plot. This is a basic rule when writing a novel, so why should it be dismissed when adapting for the screen? Insignificant scenes which were not in the original story will not make a difference in the long run. As a stand-alone film, sure it may look important. But when adapting from an original text, you should only portray what the author has already portrayed. If they haven’t mentioned it, it probably didn’t need to be mentioned. Which brings us nicely on to the next point.
3. Not lie. In a similar way to adding unnecessary events, if it didn’t happen originally, it was probably not meant to happen. The author of a book is aware of every small detail. The little things matter. When adapting a novel to film, it is important to stick to the original like a fucking fish to water. As soon as you change something, or add something that wasn’t there, or take away something that was … you are in trouble. An author will write in certain events into a character’s history for a reason. If their parents were heavy drinkers in the past, this will ultimately affect the mindset of the protagonist. If this is then changed, or removed completely, this instantly takes away a significant part of their life. Maybe their parents drinking made them want to begin an anti-alcohol campaign. Maybe it made them start to drink themselves. Either way, their parents alcoholism became a significant part of who they are. Once things get added, or get taken away from a story simply for the purpose of film, it can mean the death of the character. Not a literal death (unless this happens to be deliberate on the film-maker’s part, in which case what the fuck, man?) but death of the character as the reader knew them. The original character is gone, because something has changed in their life which shaped an opinion, and in turn the character’s life.
I recently read Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. Telling the story from the perspective of the horse, yet never giving the horse – or any of the horses for that matter – a voice was truly remarkable. Morpurgo got us to care about Joey and Topthorn, even without the use of speech. This in itself is quite the achievement. The story is told in two ways – the humans giving the speech, and the animals driving the plot. Joey never stops to tell us what he’s thinking for longer than a few sentences. 97% of the narrative is plot based. When there isn’t someone speaking, the narrative is more of a literal commentary on events: doing military drills, ploughing a field, running for their life. The dialog serves to give us the information that the horses just simply can’t: this is what is happening in the war, this is what we think of the horses, we will be going this way for this reason. The people speak, and the horses don’t. This is why the narrative and the actions dominate the book. Because it is being told from the perspective of the horse. In a sense, it is almost as though Morpurgo only introduced as many human interactions as he did so that the reader knew what was happening outside of the literal bubble of Joey the red-bay.
I am now watching the film. Below is a list of all the things Spielberg did wrong in his translation from paper to screen, as made during my first viewing. Note the special guest, the WAR FLAG. Let’s see how many guest appearances it makes, bearing in mind it was never even mentioned in the book:
1. We begin by watching Albert witness Joey’s birth, and watching him grow from baby to mostly grown. In the original text, the opening scene is the auction. Albert doesn’t meet Joey until his father buys him at said auction. It is upon seeing him in his father’s stable that he falls in love with him. According to the film, Albert had already met Joey – how this was supposed to have happened I’m not entirely sure.
2. Where is Zoey? The entire reason Joey is called Joey, is because it rhymed with Zoey (this is almost a direct quote from the book). Albert even tells him that. With his own mouth. Zoey was like the big sister/mum figure that Joey never had (because of his early separation from his own mother, though Spielberg decided having no mother figure wasn’t important to Joey’s character. Blergh, whatever). So where is she? Zoey becomes Joey’s rock. When he feels threatened, she comforts him. When he is struggling with work, she encourages him. He looks up to her, and yet there is no sign of her in the film. What made Spielberg decide she wasn’t an integral figure in Joey’s life?
3. Albert’s dad isn’t a prick. While this may seem like a good thing, it really isn’t. In the original book, Albert’s dad got drunk every Tuesday, bought Joey just so his rival couldn’t, and on a number of occasions threatened violence against Joey. In the film, yes he drinks, and true he did buy Joey to stop his rival. But the only threat of violence was a brief, and rather unexpected, moment of insanity in which he turned a shotgun on him, only for Albert to jump in the way and ensure he didn’t pull the trigger. The point of the character is that he is a complete and utter, Grade A, dick. Yet according to the film, he is a poor woe-is-me type farmer who only drinks because he’s so sad. We’re meant to feel sorry for him. But wait, didn’t we hate him in the novel? Yes, yes we did. Morpurgo created a character that we all despised. He was mean to Joey, a terrible father to Albert, and a general all-round bastard with no redeeming quality to his name. And what’s more, as if completely flipping the fucking tables round to make us not hate the guy wasn’t enough, Spielberg even went so far us to make him a war hero so that we even kinda like him. ENTER THE WAR FLAG. What? Why? What?
4. 40 minutes in and we are still on the fucking farm. In the book, Joey is being led away from the farm by the end of Chapter 3. In the film, we have hit the 40 minute marker and there is no sign of Albert’s dad sneaking into the stables at midnight to sell him on. Maybe if they spend enough time on the farm, the war will be over before they even consider sending Joey to it. Hooray for no war! Oh wait, the film is called War Horse. You see the problem we have here, Spielberg?
5. We have spent no time with Joey. Again, with my DVD paused at 40 minutes in, I am noticing another big problem. We’ve spent more time with Albert’s fucking goody-two-shoes dad than we have the horse that the book is about. This goes back to my very first point on this post – stay true to the characters. If it’s a story about a horse at war, show us a horse at war, not some drunken farmer crying about his bloody drowned turnips (this actually happens by the way. I know, humanity is doomed).
6. Who the hell is this guy? Now I like David Thewlis as much as the next Harry Potter fangirl, but seriously man, what are you even doing here? Thewlis plays the part of The Rival that leads Albert’s dad to purchase Joey. He also makes a bet he can’t turn him into a farmhorse in a week. That is his only actual involvement. Not according to Spielberg. Thewlis is now somehow Mr Knowledge. He is Mr Money. He makes housecalls to struggling farmers to take away their money, and suddenly is a fountain of wisdom and random facts that we actually don’t give a damn about because the film is called War Horse. Not Man in a Tweed Jacket. Word of advice? Go back to Hogwarts, Thewlis. I liked you better as a werewolf.
7. All the country folk sound like Samwise Gamgee had a lovechild with every Fable character ever.
8. A goose. Yes, there is a goose which thus far has made four appearances in the film. That’s an average of once every ten minutes. Michael, I am sorry. It would appear this (failed) humour-inducing, personality-deficient goose is the replacement for your beloved Zoey. It’s okay, Michael, some of us still remember her.
9. The music. I understand that when in the country, it’s nice to have a bit of fitting music. John Williams, I am sorry to have to say this, but you took it too far. We can see they’re in the countryside. We didn’t need the stereotypical country bumpkin tunes to remind us. Sadly, John Williams never managed to pull it back. I’ve never been so disappointed in you, man.
10. Captain Nicholls contemplates death. The Captain Nicholls that I know and love was a true hero. A strong, courageous man. He held no fear in his heart, only bravery. He was young, yes, but he showed no fear of death. While this is not a significant change as all soldiers must get scared, Captain Nicholls made a point to never let it show. This is a character trait that Morpurgo makes abundantly clear during his time in the novel. In the film however, he lets his weakness show. ENTER THE WAR FLAG. He uses the war flag for courage. As the Captain, the men should be able to look up to him. The readers should be able to look up to him. He is the epitome of bravery, and in appealing to the viewers’ emotions, Spielberg defiles his character.
11. Sie Germans sprechen sie English. Okay, so it’s an English film, directed at an English audience, with mostly English actors. But still, I doubt every German soldier in the war could speak perfect, albeit mildly accented, English. Yes, it was written in English in the book, but Morpurgo wasn’t exactly going to put a translation under every sentence, was he? If you have to use subtitles, do it. Most people won’t mind if it’s historically accurate. The Germans would have spoken German in 1914, so make them speak German when representing that. So what if we have to read a little? Some of us read Morpurgo’s War Horse and that didn’t harm us. Oh wait, this is War Horse? Oh, I hadn’t noticed. My bad, Spielberg … or I suppose, technically your bad.
12. Trooper Warren is missing, and so is a massive chunk of plot. Morpurgo’s novel is not a long one. My copy in fact has a mere 182 of them. Hardly a long novel by some standards. And yet Spielberg still managed to skip over the recovery of Joey after the first failed ambush – in which Captain Nicholls dies (Tom Hiddleston’s sad eyes being the only convincing moment of it) – and in turn, an entire section where Trooper Warren is introduced to Joey and becomes his new rider. Instead of establishing this connection and keeping the second ambush – where they run into barbed wire and are forced into German territory – the first ambush takes us straight to using Topthorn and Joey to pull the guns. This does not happen until Chapter 12. After they are used to pull the ambulances, and not at the same time as the film suggests, and after they spend a year or so as farmhorses for little Emilie and her grandfather. The thought of them pulling guns does not even come up until this point in the novel.
12. There are suddenly two brothers handling the horses whilst under German possession. This is not a major thing, just an unnecessary change from the original story. The handler of the horses is meant to be the older gent with the limp and the bad eye, He’s nowhere to be seen, and instead we have two young, barely German, Germans. We hear them talking about life at home. How his father signed him up even though he was only 14, and how his mother taught them how to fold a shirt. It bears no importance on the story whatsoever. As I said at the start, a good adaptation doesn’t make pointless alterations. ENTER THE WAR FLAG. The older brother, who stole it from Joey earlier in the film (thieving fuck) gives it to the younger when he is sent out to the frontline. Again, an unimportant, unrelated gesture. And then the older brother makes a mad dash on Topthorn to the marching Germans, swoops his brother onto Joey’s back, and gallops off into the distance. Then they get found. And murdered. Are you sure you read the same book I did, Spielberg? Because I’m confused. Why are you trying to make us care about these people? That’s easily 20 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. I don’t even know who they are. I’m not sure I even remember who I am anymore.
13. The French Emilie and her Granpapa are .. wait, they’re English too? Can none of the foreign people in this film speak their native language? Emilie spouts off random facts that do nothing for the film, and tried to teach Joey how to showjump. Oh, and she names the horses Francios and Claude. Stereotypical French names. Then the Germans come for the horses. ENTER THE WAR FLAG – Grandpapa stashes it in his pocket to “hide the evidence”. I would like to make it crystal clear that these did not happen in the novel. Michael, I deeply apologise.
14. Albert ends up on the frontline. He should never have been on the frontline. We do not see him until the final few chapters of the book. He was employed in the role of a vet. He looked after the injures horses brought to the recovery stables. He was never a part of the main battle. Personally I believe this goes against everything Morpurgo created in his character. Albert was never a fighter. He loved horses. He was kind and gentle. He only volunteered to go to war so he could stay with Joey but as he was denied entry he joins later in a veterinary role. Furthermore, the book is told from Joey’s perspective. We do not find out Albert has joined up until the end of the novel when he is brought, injured, to the area where Albert is working. How do we know what he was up to at this point? And why is it even important? The point is, Albert survived, Joey survived, and they met each other at the end. Spielberg has essentially destroyed and rewritten Albert’s character, and in doing so, only served to move further away from the original story. Let us not forget, this is not War Soldier, this is War Horse.
15. No fuss over Topthorn’s death. Quite a big deal was made about this in the novel. Joey’s best friend, mentor, fellow soldier dies and Joey stays with him all night whilst he is sick, and again when he passes. He flees in terror, but the image if Topthorn’s body next to the much loved Friederich was so emotionally stirring that his reaction is acceptable. He has to choose between life or death and so must leave him behind. I cried like a little bitch when I read this. Spielberg chooses not to dwell on it. This upsets me. Not only has a dearly loved character died, but it has once again detracted from Joey’s character. By not letting him stay with him as in the book, the bond is not shown. We are not able to see his loyalty. Spielberg did not stay true to the characters.
16. There was no way the barbed wire scene was meant to be that horrific. In the book, Joey catches his foot and ends up with a bad limp. I’ve just come across the equivalent scene in the film. My blood is actually curdling watching this barbarism. Headfirst through two sets of barbed wire, it wraps around his body, and then on impact with the third his entire body somersaults. He is then entangles in three layers of barbed wire and his whole body is covered. Morpurgo never wrote this scene to be so visually repulsive. Yes, war is terrifying, bloody, and grotesque. But it’s one thing to see a man shot down as has happened in countless films, and will continue to happen. It’s another to see an animal hurt. We may not admit it but it’s so much more horrifying to us as humans to see animals get hurt. Maybe this wasn’t Morpurgo’s intention, but it’s how I interpret it. Joey, the hero of the piece, was never meant to suffer such violence. There’s just something nauseatingly wrong about watching Spielberg’s adaptation of this scene.
17. The incredibly cheesy *facepalm* moment in which the title of the film is said in the film. I had to force myself not to punch myself in the neck as soon as he said it. Well, I suppose at least one guy read the script.
I must apologise as this next section has bundled up as one big paragraph and I can’t work out how to separate it again. My bad.
18. The wrong man fights for Joey to be saved. While I don’t deny I love that he fought Joey’s case, it was not his place. The man who wins Joey in no man’s land was supposed to send Joey to the veterinary station where Albert worked. Instead, Spielberg temporarily blinded Albert from a gas attack (you prick) and sent the winner of the no man’s land barter to plead his case. The entire point of this scene is that Albert finally finds his beloved Joey and begs for the head vet to save his life. Good Ol’ Bertie was finally reunited with his best friend, and worked his arse off to make sure he came out the other side alive. I love you man, but it shouldn’t have been you.19. No David. This makes me sad. Albert’s best friend at the veterinary station, David, was the one that gave the happy news to Albert that it was, in fact, Joey. I grew to love him in the short time he was in my life. Morpurgo was fantastic at that: making you react to a character (love, hate etc) even if they were only around for a chapter or two. Some I loathed, some I adored. David was one of the nicest men in the novel. He died a few days before the war ended. I was heartbroken at his death, and so was Albert. It was his bond with Joey that got him through. I loved this idea, as it showed once again what a magnificent creature he was. So much depth of character and not a single word spoken aloud to anyone, and yet Spielberg glosses over it like it’s nothing.
19. ENTER THE WAR FLAG … of lies! It was not your father’s. It was never a part of the army. Because it never. ever. even. existed.20. Corny-silhouetted-in-the-setting-sun-homecoming-with-lead-character-staring-wistfully-into-the-distance-scene. Does what it says on the proverbial tin. Oh, and in case we’d forgotten about it, ENTER THE WAR FLAG.
Things Spielberg got right:
1. Joey and Topthorn. As the main character you would hope Joey was the most endearing, charming, loveable character. And indeed, the horse chosen to act the part of Joey is quite magnificent. He is the only convincing character aside from Topthorn and Captain Nicholls. The relationship between Joey and Topthorn in the book is important. Topthorn becomes the best friend/older brother/role model for Joey, and this is represented well in my opinion. Perhaps because there is no spoken communication between them in the book, and also none in the film, this translation works better than characters with a speaking role. Joey always looks so proud. This is one of the only things the film got right. At least they stayed true to some of the characters.
2. Tom Hiddleston. Because you can never go wrong with Tom Hiddleston.
3. The irony:
Englishman to German: “You speak good English”. German to Englishman: “I speak English well”.
This is directed at the only German in the entire book who Morpurgo intentionally gives the gift of the English language to: the German half of the treaty to barter over Joey. After the horrendous scene as described above, this scene has had to be adapted too. It is no longer a simple choice of who gets the horse. It’s about saving Joey’s life from the thousand of poisonous barbs on him. This in itself is enough to make me slap myself in the face and sigh. But I have to admit, the irony of the above conversation was almost worth it. Almost. Well, not really, but it made me smile for a second. The German’s shouldn’t be able to speak English, and if done properly, they should all have been speaking German with subtitles. The only English speaking German should have been this man. The irony of “You speak good English” was hilarious. It’s a shame that I doubt it was intentional.
In summary then, and I know this has been a long journey, so I shall try and keep it brief. I hope you can stay with me a little longer.
Appearances of the WAR FLAG during my complaining (because unfortunately it shows up at times I didn’t mention too) : 6
Number of times I wept for Spielberg: 17
Number of times I plan to watch this film from now on: 0
Spielberg digressed hugely from several key plot moments, omitted existing characters with no flaws in place of his own, the point of which I’m still unsure of even having now finished watching it. Characters were almost always stereotypical, badly acted, badly portrayed and unrelatable. Michael Morpurgo managed to make me fall in love with every single nice character and want to violently murder every bad one, even if they only appeared on a single page. The entire film was not enough for me to really get behind anyone. I agree, the portrayal of Joey and Topthorn were the best in the film, but the constant diversions, alterations and downright ignorance made even this hard to enjoy.
So, on behalf of readers everywhere, Michael Morpurgo, I am sorry. War Horse was a true masterpiece and it was not done justice. Not even close. Spielberg, I think maybe it’s time for you to retire. A book of such absolute quality as this deserves better.
P.s. I started this post at 11.30pm. It is now 5:22am. The things I do for you, eh?