“War Horse” on screen and stage

"War Horse" was a novel before it was a play

The “War Horse” story was first told in 1981 by novelist Michael Morpurgo, whose tale was adapted for the stage by Nick Safford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, which earned a special Tony Award for its “War Horse” creations.

The National Theatre of Great Britian production premiered in London in 1997 and officially opened in the U.S. last April at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC’s Lincoln Center Theater — and went on to win five 2011 Tony Awards, including one for best play.

The “War Horse” movie directed by Steven Spielberg is based on a Lee Hall and Richard Curtis screenplay inspired by both book and play, was released in the U.S. just days ago, and is already being hailed as a 2011 Oscar contender.

I’ve seen both works with my college-age daughter, who shared my apprehension when learning that the story we so loved on stage was being adapted for big screen. The only saving grace for us at that point was knowing the story had made its way into the heart, and hands, of filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Though we both enjoyed the movie, we were fonder by far of the play for several reasons. First, because the actors who performed in the live theater production did such an exceptional job of conveying each character’s depth. The play makes abundantly clear the full measure of dysfunction in Albert’s family, something that makes his loss and reunification with the “War Horse” Joey feel more precious and profound.

The scenic, lighting and sound design for “War Horse” on stage at Lincoln Theater Center was exquisite. All three designers, as well as the play’s two directors, earned Tony Awards. Despite the visual feast of “War Horse” the movie, we still favor the symbolism these designs conveyed over the literal depiction of war featured in the film.

"War Horse" was a play before it was a movie

We appreciated the fact that several elements of the play, like the bothersome duck who quacks up a storm while nipping at people’s heels, were included in the movie. The duck was funny on stage and screen, but it’s hardly fair to ask an on-screen duck to compare with a whimsical puppet creation operated by a puppeteer sporting a Scottish tam o’shanter cap.

Still, I found more humor in the screen version of “War Horse” — in which knitting needles and metal cutters get used in unexpected ways. The machismo of men is fraught with more comedy than angst in the movie, and plenty of light moments help to break up a story full of labors and loss.

Perhaps the greatest difference is found in the music. John Williams’ score for “War Horse” is no less magestic than those he’s composed for other works, but I found the simple violin and haunting vocals of “War Horse” on stage more moving — despite the fact that songmaker John Tams worked on both stage and screen versions of “War Horse.”

I remember “War Horse” on stage as a single strand of magnificent storytelling, with just a specific scene or two standing out from the rest — the glorious opening and the terrifying tank scene — so the play felt more consistent across scenes. But I’ll remember the movie for specific moments — some touching, others terrifying. The transition between farm fields and battle fields seemed more abrupt on screen, making me feel at times like I was watching two separate films.

In the end, I suppose, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Whether you tend to fancy stage or screen, the story at the heart of “War Horse” is gripping and gratifying. Get to London or NYC for the stage version if you can. It’s truly captivating, and something you’ll never forget. But see the movie, and read the book too. With each “War Horse” encounter, you’ll find something remarkable and new.

— Lynn

Note: Nominations for the 84th Annual Academy Awards will be announced on Jan. 24, 2012. I’ll be rooting for both “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin.” Updated 12/28/11.

Coming up: Valley theaters bring classic literature to life

Update: The touring production of “War Horse” comes to ASU Gammage in Tempe Feb. 5-10, 2013 as part of the 2012/13 “Broadway Across America” season — click here for details. 4/15/12

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