From page to stage, and now to screen, it’s been a long, storied journey for British author Michael Morpurgo and his epic novel, War Horse. First published in 1982 by Kaye & Ward (and later published in the U.S. by Scholastic in 2007), the novel takes place during WWI and is narrated from the perspective of Joey, a farm horse, who is sold to the British Calvary and separated from his 15-year-old owner, Albert. Though Albert is too young to enlist, he travels to the Western Front in an effort to find and rescue Joey.
Though War Horse was critically praised, it received a quiet reception from the public. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Morpurgo describes the book’s initial publication as "a huge nonevent.... If sales ever reached 1,500 copies a year, I’d be surprised." All told, Morpurgo has written more than 120 books, many of which center on animals during wartime (most recently, An Elephant in the Garden), and served as the U.K.’s Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005. But he never anticipated that War Horse would evolve into a phenomenon 30 years after its publication.
'War Horse' on Stage
Nick Stafford’s 2007 stage adaptation of War Horse would lead to the book’s unprecedented, dramatic rebirth. Since its opening at London’s National Theatre in November 2007, the play has been a thundering success in Britain; it transferred to the West End in 2009, and broke the record for a play’s highest weekly gross during its (still current) run at the New London Theatre. In April 2011, an American production of War Horse opened at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, and won five Tony Awards, including Best Play. It was initially slated to close in June, but its run is now open-ended, and according to Playbill, the play has grossed more than $35 million to date. Internationally, audiences and critics have lauded the play’s dramatic sets and highly emotional content. But perhaps most remarkable is the stage rendering of the horses: life-size, moving puppets created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which convey the warm-blooded dynamism of real horses.
A Big Holiday Premiere
Now a film version of War Horse gallops into movie theaters on Christmas Day, and has just been nominated for a Golden Globe in the best motion picture (drama) category. From DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment, the film is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson. Spielberg says he was inspired to make the movie after reading the book and also viewing the play. "From the moment I read Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse, I knew this was a film I wanted DreamWorks to make," the director told the Hollywood Reporter. "Its heart and its message provide a story that can be felt in every country."
Spielberg’s film features live animal actors, with 14 different horses playing Joey throughout the course of production, up to 280 different horses were sometimes used in a single scene. For the dramatic adaptation, on both the stage and screen, the story is told from Albert’s, not Joey’s, perspective, though Joey remains an integral character. Fans eager for a sneak peek at the film can view the trailer at the War Horse movie site .
On the Publishing Front... and Beyond
With the release of new War Horse editions, what Morpurgo has described as his "little story" may become a big seller this Christmas. Sheila Marie Everett, senior publicist at Scholastic, reports that "War Horse has been a steady backlist seller for us, but the play and film have definitely increased sales."
Last month Scholastic released a movie tie-in edition of War Horse, which includes a tie-in cover and an essay from Morpurgo. The War Horse e-book, featuring extra materials like movie stills and storyboard sketches, will also be available from Scholastic in January.
In November, Scholastic also published Morpurgo’s sequel to War Horse, Farm Boy, which was originally published in the U.K. in 1997 by Pavilion Children’s Books. It is currently available through Scholastic exclusively as an e-book, with a print edition arriving in April 2012. The story, which takes place 50 years after the events of War Horse, features a grown Albert recounting his life story to his grandson, while also revealing a secret that he has kept hidden his whole life. A stage production of Farm Boy is currently running in New York’s 59E59 Theaters, as part of the "Brits Off Broadway" festival.
Real Life Horses Receive Honor and Aid
Even before the movie’s holiday premiere, the growing popularity of the novel and stage play has meant good news for a charity. The Brooke organization was first established in Egypt by Dorothy "Dodo" Brooke 80 years ago, with the purpose of rescuing and rehabilitating war horses. It has since evolved into a global animal welfare group that helped 900,000 work horses, mules, and donkeys last year. A recent exhibition at the National Army Museum in London, "War Horse: Fact & Fiction," commemorates war horses throughout history, and even has a "Remembrance Wall" where visitors can decorate their own paper horses to honor their services. Brooke trustee Kristy Whitelock told the Observer that since the National Theatre’s production, "We’ve had more inquiries, especially from the public, who are moved by the story of the real war horses. The book and show have already opened the Brooke up to new audiences."
In his introduction to War Horse, Morpurgo includes a reference to a "small dusty painting of a horse," which hangs in the village hall of a Devon town called Iddesleigh. While Morpurgo has confessed that the painting is fictional, the Guardian recently reported that Morpurgo has commissioned a painting of Joey from artist Ali Bannister, who specializes in images of animals. The painting now hangs in the spot that Morpurgo initially described, where so many fans of War Horse have come looking for it. "People can go to the hall and walk away happy," Morpurgo said.