I waited to see the movie before finally reviewing Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. I don't know why I chose to wait, though I think it's largely thanks to the movie that I ever heard of this book, which was apparently written three decades ago. There are some major differences between the two versions, and I found the book to be better because it has a more focused perspective, though the movie is pretty good, too. The book's main themes don't translate very well to the big screen, I find, as Morpurgo uses the universal love shown to the horse to question why we fight and kill one another.
The novel takes place in a small town in England and begins just before the start of World War I, as Joey is purchased by a drunk farmer. This man is the father of Albert, who names Joey and who Joey calls his true master. Albert does much of the training because his father has no patience with the horse and at one point even tries to shoot him dead. This scene is in the movie too, but Spielberg casts the father as a friendly drunk, a victim of the predatory actions of his landlord, and Albert's mother is the mean one. However, this isn't a fault in the movie. Since the book takes place from the very limited perspective of the horse, Spielberg had a lot of freedom to do whatever he wanted with the human characters in the movie.
Eventually Joey is sold to Captain Nicholls for use in the war, and Albert is so upset he wants to enlist, but he is too young. Captain Nicholls is a very nice man, and even draws sketches of Joey. Joey even makes a friend, Topthorn, the horse of one of Captain Nicholls's peers. The adventures of these two horses land them in German territory, pulling ambulances and eventually heavy artillery. They even spend some time on a French farm with a little girl named Emilie and her grandfather. Emilie is a stock character many of you may recognize. I knew exactly what would happen with her the moment she appeared.
As I said, the story is written from Joey's perspective, in the first person. This was a little awkward for me at first, but Morpurgo does a good job of making the point of view believable. Joey can't talk with other people or animals, though he shares his thoughts with the reader. His interactions with others are the same as you might expect from a horse, which adds to the believability.
Joey's limited knowledge of the world serves to add to the novel's themes. He doesn't understand boundaries, and as such there is no difference in his mind between England and France. He has no idea of nationality. He likes everybody all the same. The men around him, whether German or English or French, admire him as beautiful. Joey serves as a common thread between all people. If everyone can fall in love with a horse, then why can't they love one another, too? There's even a wonderful scene in No Man's Land where a Scotsman and a German wave a temporary truce to free Joey from barbed wire, converse about the tragedies of war, flip a coin for possession of the horse, and sadly reflect that in an hour they might be shooting at each other.
The novel's main weakness is that Joey, as a horse, can't do much to affect the story himself. He is guided along, as if on rails, and his destiny depends on where other men take him. However, Morpurgo writes the story in such a way that this isn't much of a problem. He is a horse, anyway.
This works well as Young Adult fiction, but even adults will find something to enjoy. While there is a lot of violence, much of it occurs outside of Joey's perspective. We know people die, but Joey rarely sees it happen. It's an easy read, and the perspective of horses in World War I is a unique topic. If you like horses and/or you're a war buff, you'll find something to enjoy here.