Posts Tagged ‘Steven Spielberg’


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A War Horse of a Different Color: Stage Vanquishes Screen

By Jennifer Epps

If anyone else has refused to watch Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse until they could attend the puppet version from Britain’s National Theatre, the fact that the Tony Award-winning theatrical hit has embarked on a 20-city tour of the U.S. may be welcome news. The equestrian extravaganza is currently strutting the stage in San Francisco, (while simultaneously continuing its long runs in London, New York, and Toronto) and has visits scheduled for Portland, Spokane, Dallas, Chicago, Des Moines, St. Louis, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, and more over the next 11 months – as well as tours of Britain and Australia in 2013. Fortunately, the tour kicked off with a run in Los Angeles, and I’ve kept my own vow by seeing War Horse live on stage first, then followed it with Spielberg’s movie on DVD. The contrast is striking and deep-seated.

Knowing that Spielberg has a tendency to, if not glamorize, at least fetishize, warriors and military heroism (i.e. his executive-produced series Band of Brothers, his opus Saving Private Ryan, most likely his upcoming Civil War ode Lincoln, and even a 40-min war film he made at age 14) it is hardly surprising that historian Jacques R. Pauwels wrote on Political Film Blog that Spielberg’s War Horse is “militarist” and fails to question the First World War. And it turns out I agree with Pauwels. But those who haven’t seen the National Theatre show that motivated the making of this movie epic of a horse and his boy ought to take note that the stage version is A Very Different Animal.

There’s the obvious difference that Spielberg and his producer Kathleen Kennedy relied on the usual animal wranglers and flesh-and-blood horses whereas the National Theatre hired South African-based Handspring Puppet Co. to bring jointed cane-sculptures to life, which they do remarkably realistically despite the puppets’ skeletal, see-through designs revealing the puppeteers inside. The film chose not to use animatronic puppets, CG animation, or other representational art to try to re-create the mystery and magic of the puppeteers; as it so happens, those qualities are scarce in it. At the same time, the horse on the silver screen is, ironically, less believable, even though he’s played by 14 real equine actors; it’s partly because the film is less sure it can manipulate the animal’s slightest response on cue and so leaves out much of the war horse’s characterization, and it’s partly because the screenplay calls on the horse to do more anthropomorphic things than his theatrical predecessor.

Differences in aesthetics, style, and content between the War Horse rivals quickly add up to major differences in theme as well. Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 30-year-old novel of the same name is a strong example of animal advocacy, not unlike the Anna Sewell classic Black Beauty, which helped to build the RSPCA when the novel was published in the 19th century (and has itself been repeatedly adapted for animation, film, and TV series). And this animal advocacy goes together with and aids the other important theme: War Horse on-stage is also a plangent anti-war fable, low on gore but high in often-symbolic shorthand for battlefield horror — a risky stance for a story that parents want to bring their kids to see. (For a long time, the show piles on the misery, probably pushing the audience as far as we can go in a general-audience entertainment before redemption rewards our patience.) Though I have not read Morpurgo’s novel, Stafford’s dramatization seems true to the author’s original purpose, as espoused in the play’s program notes. Morpurgo is quoted for wanting to “write a story of the first World War that wasn’t told from one side or the other.” He hit on the construct of a hoofed protagonist not as a staple of the genre (though he does generally write children’s fiction), but as the articulation of his theme. Morpurgo had speculated: “Wouldn’t it be an interesting notion to tell the story about the universal suffering in that war due to the 10 million who died on all sides – German, American, English, Scottish, French, Russians – telling it how it was, but through the eyes of a horse.”

(Battle scene as depicted on-stage with the Handspring Puppet Co. creations)

Though Spielberg saw the show, somehow he didn’t get the same program notes.

First of all, his film is not really a horse’s eye view. British screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis introduce the title character, Joey, literally through the eyes of the farm boy Albert (played by Jeremy Irvine), who watches his birth. By contrast, Joey’s puppet predecessor in the play trots nervously out alone towards the footlights at the play’s opening — we only meet 16-year-old Albert (Andrew Veenstra in the U.S. tour) a bit later; in other words, in the theater, we essentially see Albert through Joey’s eyes. On-stage, Joey is surrounded as a colt by jeering, hostile humans, hemming him in with long poles that double as fence rails, and he’s terrified – our sympathy is with him. Yet in the film, Joey has grown from helpless colt to strong stallion before he ever has to leave the verdant pastures of his foalhood. He is therefore much less vulnerable during his auction, and this allows the focus to slip off of him from an early point.

Though the play had some Jack London-style moments revealing the harshness of life for a domesticated animal, the film cuts out the whippings, mines for comedy in the plough-pulling test, omits the fight with a rival horse, and emphasizes throughout Joey’s courage and special nature. (Like many other fiction films about horses do.) In the play, we were urgently aware of Joey’s suffering and the extreme peril he faces when he goes to war; in the film, however, Hall (Billy Elliot scribe) and Curtis (known for comedic writing) keep most of that low-key until the harrowing climax. (At least they didn’t mess with the visceral effect of that.)

The screenwriters seem to use more dialogue than Stafford’s adaptation did, crafting numerous scenes beyond Joey’s earshot or understanding. In contrast, the stage production was more devoted to the visual than the verbal – an aspect that L.A. Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris scorned in two different responses to the production.

But there’s nothing hierarchical about literary art over visual art; that’s why we have both libraries and galleries. The National Theater production had good reason to exploit the inherent fascination of the Handspring puppets and their deft manipulators. It also did very well to include black-and-white animated backgrounds in a jagged swath across the upstage scrim (we justify them, unconsciously, as drawings ripped from an officer’s sketchbook). The show’s excellent animation, designed by the late Peter Stenhouse of 59 Productions, morphs during the course of the play from representational rural landscapes (with clouds wafting gently by) to swirling, nightmarish, wartime abstractions – as befits an epoch that inspired new paradigms in art like Dada and Surrealism. This emphasis on the visual is also extremely appropriate for a horse’s tale because, if the autistic and renowned animal expert Temple Grandin is to be believed, animals think in images.

(Video montage of the animation used in War Horse stage show)

But when it’s Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s turn, they fill the frame with resplendent panoramas — carefully composed, luxuriantly lit. For the most part, Dreamworks’ War Horse is a series of inexplicably beautiful postcards. When the story slows down in the film (as it does teeth-grittingly often) for banal palaver between friends or family, the sun usually comes through a window and reflects off the dust motes. Even the muddied black spikes of No Man’s Land are bathed in a blue glow. It’s pretty hard to absorb the horrors of war when it’s so self-consciously pretty.