I knew that the book would be different from the stage play because halfway through the film of the stage play the organizers showed a short “making of” documentary describing the development of the play and its puppets. Just how different, I could only imagine.
Now I know. It’s hugely different.
See below for more on the book’s characters, settings, plot, style, but you might want to read the book first, because it’s short and this post has SPOILERS. You might also want to read my post on War Horse (the film of the stage play).
Plot Summary (Synopsis) of War Horse the children’s novel
There’s an Author’s Note that suggests that the book is based on an actual horse in an actual painting. That’s fiction. It’s part of the novel. Sorry. Novelists use stories that are not true to express things that are important and real, and that’s what Morpurgo has done.
A colt is separated from his mother, auctioned off, and taken to a farm where he shares a barn with an old horse named Zoey. The colt meets a thirteen-year-old boy named Albert who promises his mother he will take care of him. Albert’s drunk father was supposed to buy a calf, but bought the colt instead because he wanted to prove a point to a neighbor.
Time passes and Joey and Albert grow up together. Albert calls him using a special whistling noise. Albert’s father bets the neighbor that Joey can be taught to plow in a week. After trying to put a collar on him, and getting kicked for his pains, he almost shoots him, but relents and allows Albert to train him instead. Zoey helps. Joey wins the bet and is allowed to stay with Albert and his family and work on the farm. When Albert is fifteen, news of the war on the continent reaches the village, and Albert seems eager to hypothetically join up with his horse to fight the Germans. Then England declares war.
Albert, sometimes riding Joey, continues working on the farm, but relations between Albert and his parents are tense because money is tight and Albert’s father is often drunk and behaves unreasonably. Albert’s mother defends his father, saying he’s only drunk because he’s taken on a lot of responsibility for the family. Then Albert’s father sends him off on an errand and sneaks Joey away to sell him to the army.
Albert’s father sadly hands over Joey because he needs the money to pay for the mortgage on the farm, but makes Captain Nicholls promise to take care of him on behalf of his son. Albert realizes what his father has done in time to meet the captain and say goodbye to Joey.
Joey and the soldiers train for war before leaving the country. Joey doesn’t like the head trainer, Corporal Perkins, who is a bit mean and rough, but he behaves a bit less mean and rough after the captain tells him to ease up a bit. The captain, meanwhile, sketches Joey and paints the portrait that supposedly inspired the novel, mulling over the nasty fighting that surely lies in their future. The captain fears machine guns and artillery, but others do not seem to realize their power. They think the fight will be won by brave men on horseback. The captain tells Joey he’s scared, so Joey will have to be brave for two. In a mock battle at the end of training, Joey meets Topthorn, a black thoroughbred stallion equal to him in strength and spirit, ridden by Captain Stewart.
A ship takes the horses and men to the continent where horribly tired, wounded soldiers are waiting to board to return home. The soldiers’ enthusiasm for war is temporarily dampened. Life in army camp is harsher, but Topthorn’s friendly presence calms Joey. The kind captain is shot dead off Joey’s back in the first engagement with the enemy, but Joey continues forward, charging all the way into the enemy camp. After the victorious battle, Joey is reclaimed and thanked for his bravery and leadership.
Joey’s new rider is a kind former blacksmith named Trooper Warren who is not very good at riding and just wants to go home to his family and his childhood sweetheart.
Joey’s next battle results in a ridiculous number of horses killed by machine guns and tangled in barbed wire, but Joey and Topthorn jump the wire and land in the enemy’s camp, where they and their riders are taken prisoner.
A wounded German officer, Herr Hauptmann, reluctantly agrees to let the two fine British warhorses pull the ambulance wagons to save wounded German soldiers. Since no one among the medical staff knows how to take care of them, he goes along with them. He expresses amazement when he sees that Joey already knows how to pull a cart and realizes that Joey, despite his fine breeding and build, has been used by the crazy British as a workhorse. Resting at the farm being used as a medical compound, Joey is discovered by thirteen-year-old Emilie and her grandfather, who live at the farm.
Joey saves so many lives that eventually he is awarded a medal by one extremely grateful wounded German in spite of his British origins. Around Christmas, Emilie’s grandfather brings Joey news that she is sick, but she recovers.
When the war moves on, Joey and Topthorn are allowed to stay on with the fragile Emilie and her grandfather. They work on the farm until they are called away together by the Germans to pull heavy guns in a mismatched team of six.
Working conditions are now terrible. The horses are overworked, underfed, and constantly wet, muddy, and cold, but there’s not much anyone can do about it. At least Joey and Topthorn have some new horse friends: a big strong farmhorse named Heinie, a pair of ponies, and a kind of nasty little horse named Coco. The big horse and the little horse don’t last long, and even Topthorn’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of strength starts to give out.
Joey and Topthorn survive until spring and begin to regain a bit of health in better conditions. Their new friend, Crazy Old Friedrich, who hates war and wants to go back to being a butcher, tries to prevent them from being overworked, with little success.
As Friedrich prepares to ride Topthorn in the next battle, many admire the horse’s qualities. However, Topthorn suddenly drops dead of exhaustion. Unwilling to leave the horse in time to escape, Friedrich dies in the enemy onslaught. Joey, standing guard over his dead friends, is left behind by the fleeing German soldiers.
Joey is frightened into motion by his first ever glimpse of a tank, and then more and more tanks. Running at random, unable to see or hear properly, he gets lost between enemy lines and snags his leg on some barbed wire. He gets it free again, but has nowhere safe to go and no one to guide him, and the leg doesn’t work like it should. He wanders, tired, hungry, and injured, until he’s spotted by soldiers in trenches on both sides of no-man’s land.
A Welshman and a German, waving white flags, emerge from the trenches and converse in English, agreeing that whoever wins a coin flip will claim the horse. They shake hands and part as friends after the Welshman wins the horse.
Joey’s rescuers, pleased as punch to have rescued such a noble creature. Seargeant Thunder says the vet will have to look at him to see whether he’s salvageable, so the men should clean him up. Joey instantly realizes that the Veterinary Corps soldier who takes him away to be cleaned is none other than Albert, but Albert doesn’t recognize Joey. As Albert he talks to his friend David, it’s clear that he’s still hoping to find his own horse, though no one else thinks it’s remotely likely. As Albert and David wash the horse, they realize that his markings match Joey’s. Just to be sure, Albert calls him with his special whistling sound, and Joey responds.
Joey’s wound is treated and he starts to heal. Albert fills him in on his parents’ attitudes towards his decision to pursue the “fool’s errand” of searching for Joey in Europe after he was sold to the army. Albert’s father is depicted as a man who’d had to choose between two bad alternatives, and thought maybe he’d picked the wrong one. Unfortunately, suddenly it seems Joey might not live much longer: he’s got tetanus and his whole body is going stiff. Soon he will not be able to eat. After Albert insists that horses are inherently pure and innocent, and that this particular horse deserves 110% of the army’s best effort to heal him, his superiors reluctantly agree to try to treat the sick animal. With the help of all Joey’s fans, Albert and the vet manage to cure Joey.
Joey and Albert again work together as a team, first around the camp and then traveling to the front lines and back. Albert is looking forward to returning home, where he has a girlfriend he intends to marry. The war eventually winds down with a whimper, but Albert’s friend David doesn’t live to see the end. The surviving soldiers don’t get to return home right away; they go on living in the camps, waiting. Then the Major shares some sad news: when the soldiers do finally leave, the horses will be left behind. And when they are, they’ll be sold. And then they’ll be butchered.
A collection is taken up so that the soldiers, who see Joey as a kind of mascot, can perhaps—with God’s help—succeed in buying Joey back at the army auction. It turns out that an evil-looking butcher is willing to pay more than the army guys have scraped together, but it doesn’t matter because Emilie’s stubborn, dignified grandfather shows up and makes him back off.
Emilie’s grandfather says he made a solemn promise to Emilie, dead at fifteen, to find Joey and Topthorn, who she had cared for, and save them if he could, in her name. He then sells Joey back to Albert for a penny and a promise. He wants Emilie to be remembered, so Albert must tell her story: there is no one else to do it. Thus it is that Albert is allowed to take Joey back home, where he marries his girlfriend Maisie, who never learns to love Joey the way Albert—and Albert’s contrite father—have done.
War Horse the play vs. War Horse the book
There are many differences. Below, I’ve highlighted some differences in the details, settings, characters, plot, style, and themes.
The colt’s sale price is different: 3 guineas in the book, 40 in the play. I don’t know which price is more realistic. Joey’s later price, when Albert’s father sells him to the army, is 40 pounds in the book, 100 in the play.
In the book, Joey has distinctive markings: four white socks and a white cross on his nose. These markings are important because Albert recognises them later. In the play, Joey is just red/brown all over, and no mention is made of any markings.
In the book, Albert names the colt Joey because it rhymes with “Zoey”, the name of the family’s other horse, afterwards deciding it seems to suit him. In the play, he playfully tries out several names until the horse responds, which makes the name seem more meaningful, even if the idea of a horse helping choose his own name is a little silly.
In the book, on the day of the bet, when Joey plows satisfactorily, he only finds out after the fact that he has done so. The parties to the bet have been watching from a distant hillside. The drama of the scene is more intense in the play, which in any case had no way of representing hills. In fact…
One thing I imagine the movie does better than the play is represent settings. When the stage is flat and empty, you can’t have hills or nasty, water-filled holes in the ground, or very many kinds of realistic weather or even buildings. You can only suggest day and night, cold and warmth, land and sea, house and field, stable and camp, trench and wasteland. The book, of course, has no technical difficulty depicting any place or thing that the characters might encounter.
Although the book is short, there were still more characters in it than there were in the play, which made the plot of the book feel more natural and balanced. The book, like Black Beauty, is a natural sequence of events in which a hapless horse passes from one set of circumstances to another, without getting bogged down in any one human story. As I mentioned, the play spends a lot of time on one German guy who took care of Joey, whereas the book has two different nice German guys.
Still, the play has interesting characters that the book lacks—and I’m not just talking about the comic relief goose! In the play, Albert’s uncle and cousin are important members of the family. Albert’s father bids on the useless colt to spite his brother, who wants to buy the colt for his son, Albert’s cousin. Albert’s cousin, who’s older, enlists as a soldier. His father gives him a family heirloom, a knife that has already kept two relatives safe. After Captain Nicholls dies, Albert’s cousin is the one who rides Joey into battle. Then, when he refuses to give up the knife to his German captors, a sadistic German kills him with it.
In the book, the bidding war for the colt is with a neighbor, not Albert’s uncle and cousin. The soldier who rides Joey into the German camp and gets captured is a random blacksmith, and he isn’t killed, as far as we know from Joey. Without the uncle and cousin, there’s less coincidence in the plot, which is a good thing, but there’s also less human drama in Albert’s family. Since the book is less about Albert and more about Joey, I suppose the “missing” family dynamics are somewhat beside the point.
In that case, though, why does the book end by talking about the relationship between Albert’s horse and Albert’s girl? In the book, Albert tells Joey he has a girlfriend he wants to return to, and in fact when he returns home, he marries her. In the stage play, he has no romantic interest.
The play does an okay job handling the complex relationship between Albert and his father, though Albert’s father comes out looking worse in the play. In the book, when Albert’s father sells Joey to the army, he does it thoughtfully and sadly, knowing it will hurt Albert’s feelings but deciding that the family’s farm is more important than Albert’s horse. In the end, he changes his mind about his decision, and even gives up drinking. In the play, he sells Joey rather spontaneously, seemingly out of greed, and never seems to feel the significance of what he has done.
In the book, the conversation between Albert and his friend David as they clean Joey serves as an effective lampshade, highlighting and then effectively dismissing the absurdity of the idea that a particular soldier could, by luck alone, find a particular horse in the middle of a deadly war. This phenomenal consequence is not well handled at the end of the play.
In fact, the play omits all the obstacles placed in the path of the boy and his horse after they are reunited. A sizeable chunk of the book is completely missing at the end, which goes a long way towards explaining why the end of the play felt abrupt. Although, like the play, the book ends in a pie-in-the-sky kind of happy place, the difficulties that Joey must first pass through make the book’s ending feel earned and not arranged.
In the book, because we see the story from Joey’s point of view, we don’t see Albert’s story until Joey and Albert are reunited. In the play, we see several scenes involving Albert but not Joey: we see the moment Albert—indifferent to the lifeless, spindly bicycle he’s been given for Christmas—decides to leave home and enlist in the army, we see him join a troop and get laughed at by his commander, we see him chat with and buoy up a friend in the trenches, we see him meet Emilie and kill a dying horse. Some of the material is in the book but moved around in sequence and some is invented.
The target audience of the play is totally different from the target audience of the book: the play has to appeal to adults as well as children. In the play, there’s a soldier who’s meant to be cursing but uses the word “effing” instead, which seemed lame to me. In the book, which similarly avoids curse words, there’s a sergeant, known Sergeant Thunder, who uses “thundering” as an expletive. That works better, in my opinion: the word “thundering” is a personal quirk of the character that enriches the story, whereas “effing” is too obviously a constraint on the author that detracts from the story.
I suppose theatre-going, largely adult audiences are expected to be able to cope with a multilingual script, whereas readers—to say nothing of child readers—cannot be expected to swallow whole scenes in languages not their own. In the book, there is perhaps no mention of any language barrier, or any mention of what language the characters speak, until the scene of the coin toss. That makes the novel a lot more accessible than the play, but less realistic. Since I read the book after seeing the play, though, the book felt a bit shallow in that regard.
War is bad.
The book and the play both have strong anti-war messages, though the book was able to spread the editorializing around more than the play did, since the book was longer and consisted mostly of narration, whereas the play consisted entirely of spoken exchanges.
Why is war bad?
Overconfident, uninformed, stubborn, or unimaginative leaders cause needless deaths. Horses and swords can’t beat guns. Guns are deadly. Technology keeps getting more and more deadly. War causes humans to treat animals badly. Nobody should ever treat animals badly, especially horses, especially well-bred horses. War causes humans to forget how to treat other humans. War is crazy. War makes the future uncertain. Soldiers are all victims of war. Non-soldiers are all victims of war. It is senseless to send soldiers to fight when they don’t even know what they’re fighting for. Enemies can find common ground and learn to get along. There is no joy in victory. Everybody just wants to go home. Any end to war is better than continuing.
Always do your best.
Promises, or assurances that the best effort will be made, were another strong theme in the play and the book. In the book, Captain Nicholls, who takes Joey to what he knows will be a messy war, does not promise anyone’s safety, he promises to do what he can, which is all anyone can promise. In the play, his promise, though I don’t remember how it was worded, struck me as overconfident and unreasonable. In the book, Sergeant Thunder explicitly refuses to promise to save Joey, knowing that maybe (probably!) he can’t. This honest appraisal of circumstances is never demonstrated in the play.
Caring for and supporting one another is also a big theme. Yes, Albert risks his life to find Joey, but that’s not the only way the theme is expressed. Joey takes care of all his people, and they take care of him. Moreover, Joey and Topthorn take care of each other. Mutual support is a powerful idea related to the virtue of loyalty—not to a race or nation or other default group, but to an important chosen individual. Such enduring ties of love are often the only reason people are able to survive the ordeals of war, and they deserve to be celebrated.
When and Why I Read War Horse
I recently saw a film of the stage play. I wanted to compare the story as it is told in the book.
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction / Animals
Date started / date finished: 31-Jul-19 to 31-Jul-19
Length: 188 pages
ISBN: ASIN B00457WZEI
Originally published in: 1982/2010
Amazon link: War Horse