Next time someone says to me, “The book is always better than the movie,” I can say: “Hah! You have not seen War Horse!”
Stories evolve. Later versions are not necessarily better, and stories told using different media have different strengths and different constraints. Nevertheless, though the movie owes much to both its predecessors—the children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo and the stage play that uses puppets by Handspring—the movie is hands down the best version.
The relationships between the characters have been tweaked to support the story better. The story itself has been tweaked to smooth the pacing and heighten the drama. Moreover, the settings shine. A book can describe a setting evocatively, but not every book does. Spielberg’s pictures are worth many more thousands of words than Morpurgo gave us. Meanwhile, the anti-war didacticism, which sometimes upstaged Handspring’s puppets in the play, is toned down to the point that it’s almost absent from the dialog of the movie. After all, on the big screen, the horror of war speaks for itself, and anyway, there are other stories that better show its terrible cost. This is not the story of the lives and deaths of human soldiers, nor even the story of a boy who loved his horse. This is the story of a horse that went to war.
It’s beautiful, and so absorbing that I didn’t realize until after I’d watched it twice that it’s two and a half hours long!
According to the reviews, not everyone likes the old-fashioned “honest, emotionally direct” storytelling, calling it overly sentimental, and some deride it as mere family-friendly entertainment, too clean to be serious about its ostensibly grim subject matter.
I refuse to dislike the movie on those grounds. Is it calculated to be emotionally satisfying? Maybe. But it satisfies, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies.
See below for a short summary, a very very detailed summary (with SPOILERS), a list of the changes I liked in the movie, a list of some of the movie reviews, and a few other thoughts.