The movie “War Horse” is based on a young adult novel by Michael Murpago. It was first published in Great Britain in 1982. This review will highlight the differences between the book and the movie. Spoiler alert: plot points will be brought up.
In the book, Albert first meets the horse after his father buys him at an auction for 3 guineas (not 30 as in the movie and there is no bidding war with an evil landlord). “Joey” is meant to be a second work horse as the family already has an elderly horse named “Zoey”. The father is more of a mean drunk than in the movie. There is no trouble training Joey to plow. There is no evil landlord who is threatening to take the farm. (It goes without saying that there is no landlord’s son to be a rival to Albert.) There is a field plowing incident but it involves a simple bet between the father and another farmer. There is no devastating storm that destroys the turnip crop.
Mr. Narracott sells the horse to Capt. Nicholls, much to the anguish of Albert. At the military camp, Joey meets a large black stallion named Topthorn, but unlike the movie, the two horses become friends and are never rivals. Nicholls and Topthorn’s owner, Capt. Stewart, are actually best friends. The movie omits the tempestuous crossing of the English Channel. The first combat is when the cavalry unit ambushes an infantry unit on the march. Nicholls is killed and Joey is given to a private named Warren. After a rough winter, the unit makes an attack across no man’s land that is disastrous. Joey and Topthorn make it all the way, but Stewart and Warren are captured. At this point, Joey and Topthorn become ambulance horses. The movie adds the subplot of the two deserting German brothers. Joey and Topthorn are stabled at the farm of Emilie and her grandfather. Each day, after transporting the wounded, they come home. They are treated well by the Germans and develop a relationship with the little girl. When the hospital moves on, they are left behind. Later, they are conscripted as artillery horses. They are part of a six horse team. It is not easy, but there is no villain and they are treated as well as could be expected. However, Topthorn does die of exhaustion. Immediately after this scene, there is a British attack involving tanks that creates panic and Joey is left behind. He ends up in no man’s land, injured but not tangled in barbed wire. Both sides are sympathetic and want the horse. A soldier from each side comes and the Brit wins the coin toss.
Joey is taken to a veterinary hospital where it turns out Albert is stationed. He had entered the army and insisted on being assigned to a vet unit. He recognizes Joey after cleaning off all the dirt and grime. The book has a scene where Joey almost dies of tetanus. When the war ends (as in the book), the horses are to be auctioned off. All of the vet unit chip in to buy him for Albert. Emilie’s grandfather buys him, but then gives him to Albert when he sees how much Albert cares about him and for the promise to keep Emilie’s memory alive.
As you can see, the movie added quite a bit of melodrama to the story. This is most likely because the movie was aimed at a mass audience whereas the novel was aimed at young adults. Also, you have to factor in the fact that the movie was directed by Steven Spielberg. It is a typical Spielberg emotion-tugger. He throws in a comical goose as a sop to the kiddies, but adds a few villains to make the movie more serious than the book. The book is strangely free of any villains. Even the Germans are uniformly sympathetic characters. Everyone loves Joey. The biggest difference between the book and the movie is the book is told from the horse’s point of view. This makes the novel unique and noteworthy. Understandably, the movie does not take this perspective. It is more cookie-cutting by Spielberg.
Which one is better? It is a bit hard to compare them because of who their target audiences are. Each is effective entertainment. Each is flawed for a war movie and war novel lover. The book is definitely juvenile. The dialogue is hard to read without grimacing. Murpago writes too sincerely. But the book does not have as many laughable scenes as the movie. Spielberg throws in ridiculous scenarios. The book is not as predictable, but it is more simplistic.
BOOK = C
MOVIE = C