The Three Faces of Joey
Published on February 18th, 2012 | by Sheila Kogan1
The book was written by Michael Morpurgo, who conjured up Joey the War Horse and his special relationship with the farm boy Albert Narracott. Morpurgo, a prize-winning British children’s book writer, was inspired by the stories he had heard in the local pubs, told by elderly men who had fought in The Great War when there was an active cavalry. Morpurgo has written and sold many children’s books, but “War Horse,” although critically acclaimed, didn’t sell very well when it was originally published in the 1980s. Now that the play and the movie have brought it more attention, sales have greatly increased. (It is published by Scholastic in the U.S.)
The book was first adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford and the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa for the National Theatre of Great Britain and subsequently adapted for film by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall for Steven Spielberg to direct.
What is it about this material that would make anyone want to adapt it? I think the main reason is that there’s a rich, wonderful character at the center: Joey, the horse. And there is the universal story: the strong bond between two individuals who should be together despite the overwhelming reasons that separate them.
The singular thing about the book is that it’s written from Joey’s point of view. While reading, I found it easy to accept a horse’s comments on people and events. Joey’s personal and innocent perspective illuminates his affection for Albert, the interconnectedness of humans and animals, and the bigger story of the war. It also shows the unexpected realization at the time that even fine horses were no match for the new machines of war. Although a children’s story, it’s also an anti-war statement.
I can’t imagine how the horse’s voice could have been used on stage, but the movie version of “War Horse” might have copied the book by using a voiceover narration. However, animals who talk on film are essentially funny and usually used to comic effect―consider Mr. Ed from the old TV series or Cosmo, the subtitled dog in “Beginners.”
So adapting this serious-themed book for the stage or screen required telling the story in a different way. By doing this, the emphasis has shifted somewhat. It becomes more of Albert’s story, but the essential plot remains, and it still works. The character of Joey and his adventures are the stuff of drama, or to be more accurate, melodrama. You really care what happens to Joey, no matter how the story is told. He’s the poor, decent fellow who was put in harm’s way without having any understanding of what he was getting into or why. Circumstances dictated his participation, and he rose to the occasion, making him something of a heroic figure.
The brilliant, Tony-award-winning stage adaptation of “War Horse,” which I recently saw at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, is based on the British production. It makes astonishing use of stage craft and puppetry. Large-sized puppets, structurally resembling horses, are moved around by puppeteers who are in full view. The movements of the puppets are so life-like that you soon forget that they aren’t real horses, and curiously, even though you’re aware of the puppeteers, it doesn’t interfere with the sense that the horses are real. These horses seem to breathe. And when the young Joey looked into the audience and flicked his ear, I fell in love with him. Seriously. Then, in a great moment of theater, the grownup Joey gallops through the mists onto the stage for the first time, and I was overcome with admiration for the grand, majestic beast. Joey touched my heart from the beginning, and then I was thoroughly invested in the outcome of his adventures. This was melodrama in the best sense, and I almost fell to sobbing at the end.
The movie version might have used animation or CGI to create horse-like creatures, too, but Steven Spielberg chose to use real horses and real locations. Using fourteen horses to play Joey, he got a believable performance, and so you care about the film Joey, too. The real mud, the real barbed wire and the real tanks make the anti-war sentiment strong; the scene in which Joey is alone and faces the huge mechanized tank is a powerful one. But Spielberg saw the simple story and tried to make a grand epic out of it. There are breathtaking moments of pageantry, like the charge of the cavalry with horses galloping and soldiers courageously racing toward their possible doom. But by expanding the scope of the project, there is a loss of emotional intimacy. And that ending with its golden “Gone with the Wind” pose feels really corny. As they say, less is more.
The stage version raises the material to a higher level because of its exquisite use of artifice to create a very moving sense of reality. The minimal stage set, the evocative lighting, the atmospheric smoke, the incidental background music, and the expert staging all have dramatic purpose. The effects aren’t there to razzle-dazzle us. And yet the simplicity is dazzling because this production tells so much with so little.
A single door is all that’s needed to show that there’s a house there on the farm where Joey learns to plow in a field. A puppet goose attached to a stick evokes laughs because it is so, well, goose-like. The war-weary horses made of sheer greyish fabric are heartbreaking shadows, harbingers of what may happen to the strong and healthy Joey and his war horse buddy Topthorn. But verbal descriptions can hardly capture the imaginative magic of this stage production. If you can see it for yourself, you really ought to.
There are changes in the details of the story, but overall, the story remains the same in each medium. A strong basic story can withstand different kinds of telling, and it is always interesting to see the choices that creative artists make with the various adaptations.