~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, January 13th 2012

It was a damp morning last November when I went with Michael Morpurgo to the cast-and-crew screening of “War Horse” at London’s Odeon Leicester Square. I’d been invited to come, with his wife, Clare, and his eldest granddaughters, Léa and Eloise, because we’ve been working together on a book about his life. 

In “Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse”, to be published in May, I’ve written seven biographical chapters to which Michael has responded with seven stories. (Michael has also visited In Flanders Fields Museum for our series Authors on Museums). “War Horse”, now 30 years old, has always had a special place in Michael’s heart. It was the first of his books to get wide media coverage, when it was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, and it’s his wife’s favourite. But it got pretty mixed reviews, and it has never sold as well as either “Kensuke’s Kingdom” or “Private Peaceful” (Michael’s own favourite). 

It was languishing on his backlist when Tom Morris came up with the idea of adapting it for the National Theatre, with puppets—an idea that seemed so far-fetched to Michael that he thought, at first, it was a joke. “War Horse” features in the fourth chapter of my book, at a point in Michael’s life when he was working from dawn till dusk establishing his charity, Farms for City Children, as well as struggling to be a writer. He’s responded to my chapter with a story about finding a little boy with a crippling stammer chatting fluently to a horse over a stable door. This really happened: it was what gave Michael the confidence to write a story told by a horse, Joey. 

Michael’s own story is one of light and shade, the light very bright, the shade complex, and sometimes painful. The man you see in public, in his red suit, beret and stripey scarf, is knockabout, bumptious, seemingly, he admits, "rather over-confident". But the private man is uncertain of his gifts, haunted by regret and prone to melancholy. It didn’t surprise me, as the film ended, and John Williams’s soundtrack swept through the cinema like waves on a big sea, that Michael slipped out of his seat and went to find somewhere to be alone. 

Had he thought the film too sentimental, I wondered. Had the animal make-up artists made Joey just a tad too perfect? Or had he disapproved of the new ending? There have been plenty of authors who have disliked the screen adaptations of their work. (Two months later the critics would be sharply divided: from “spectacular, tear-jerking, uplifting” in the Daily Mail to “baffling, soulless, artificial” in the Guardian.)

It wasn’t until an hour later, over Dover sole in Sheekey’s, that our small group learned what Michael thought. "It's a triumph," he said, "Spielberg’s mined the best of the book and the best of the play, and then brought his own genius to it." 

"War Horse" opens in Britain today 

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life