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Michael Morpurgo on 'War Horse': From Book, to Play, to Movie

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Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo at Sandown Races

Photo courtesy ATTPAC

Michael Morpurgo is the award-winning author of more than 100 children’s books including War Horse, the renowned book that met it's deserved acclaim when the play War Horse, which is based on the book, amazed audiences in London. The play expanded to other cities, and Steven Spielberg subsequently brought the poignant story to the big screen with War Horse the movie.

We had the chance to sit down with Michael at ManeGait Theraputic Horsemanship, where he was in the Dallas area promoting the U.S. tour of the play and the upcoming presentation of War Horse at the Dallas Winspear Opera House. He told us a little about how he came up with the inspiring story, and what it's like to see the fruits of his labors some 25 years after writing the book.

On WWI and why War Horse is told from a horse's point of view...

I heard the story of the First World War from an old veteran who'd been to the war when he was a 17-year-old boy -- we're talking now thirty years ago. Now all these veterans are gone. And, he sat down and told me about his experiences in the war. And then I did a lot of reading about it, and I discovered that in that war something like -- no one can really be sure -- but something like 10 million men died from all sides...the slaughter was unimaginable. The horror of the war is unimaginable.

I wanted to write a story about the war, but I thought what you mustn't do is write a story from one side or the other, because the suffering was universal. It was also, as the great politic Ted Hughes said once, a huge, senseless war. Now some wars, we have our views about these things but, if you are attacked, then you think, okay, well you have to defend yourself. I can see the rationale behind that, of course I can. So the second world war, we're being attacked by someone as evil as Hitler, a regime like that, well you have to defend yourself. The first war was simply big powers trying to fight it out, slug it out -- a huge waste of life.

So, I thought don't get involved in one side or the other, because frankly right was not on any side. So the only way to do it was to have a horse in the middle of the conflict, seeing the war through British eyes, British tongues. Being captured by the German side, seeing the war from the other side. But then, wintering on a French farm, seeing it from the point of view of the people over whose land it was all being fought. That would be a way of getting under the skin of this war, and trying to emphasize that it was everyone who suffered. And the point of that really, I suppose, is that at heart, I'm a pacifist.

On the meaning of War Horse...

I wanted to write a book, I suppose, that was about a longing for peace. Someone said when they came out of the play, "This is the greatest anthem to peace I have ever seen." That's what I want the horse to be telling.

There's a moment [in the play] when the horse is caught in the wire, and it's the scream that horse gives which is the scream of humanity when it confronts the suffering that we cause each other. So it's at heart a positive story. The story is about reconciliation and peace, and that's why I had to tell it through the horse's eyes. Because in fact, on either side, it would have been the wrong sort of a story.

On coming up with names for the people and horses in War Horse...

I pinched them. I usually meet someone, out of the blue... and time and time again I've pinched someone's name.

Joey, in fact, was a horse on my farm. He was born on my farm and we called him Joey. I don't know why. I think my daughter at some point looked at this newborn foal and said it looks like Joey to me. Topthorn is the name on the bottom of a picture I have at home of a horse. I'm doing that all the time. I'm a terrible name thief.

On the connection between us and animals...

It's difficult because, all I know is that it happens. A connection between these creatures, whether they're horses or chickens or sheep, the connection between us and our fellow creatures is profound. I do believe we are all of the same creation. I also don't believe, as we're told sometimes, that we are supposed to rule the roost. I fell that we live in this world all together with these creatures and the only responsibility we have is to look after this world and those creatures. Because I feel this way, I feel an empathy with all other creatures myself.

On the success of War Horse...

I'm very glad this has happened when I'm older. Because, for me, it's just a pleasure and a joy and a huge surprise every day that I wake up and think that a little story of mine that started in Devon, in the middle of nowhere, is going to be in Dallas [talking of the play].

To be honest, it's the play that started it. The book was hardly read by anyone. I don't think it ever sold more than one or two thousand copies a year for 25 years. And then a producer at a national theater, by accident, was handed the book by his mom who said, "You should read this, Tom it's really good."

And he happened to be working with handspring puppets...and he thought well I could make the most amazing show with horses as the central stars of the show and I could do it with handspring puppets. Wouldn't it be wonderful. And he and these other genius people at the national theater and Handspring puppets got together, created the show, made it this huge hit in London and on Broadway.

...And in the middle of all this, who walks up the street by accident? A lady called Kathy Kennedy, who's Steven Spielberg's producer on E.T. and several other movies they've made together. Does she come because she's looking for a film? No. She comes because she's with her daughter, who is horse mad, and they see War Horse and she walks out and says Steven you've got to come and see this.

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