The long-awaited Steven Spielberg movie adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's powerful children's story War Horse opens in New Zealand cinemas on Thursday 12 January. Here, the British author of War Horse - and its newly released sequel Farm Boy - talks about working with animals and children, gives his recommendations for reluctant young readers, and tells us what he thinks of the movie.
Q: What do you think of the new Spielberg movie of War Horse?
A: I saw the film for the first time at a vast cinema in Leicester Square, London, and I was at once deeply engaged, in turns moved by the tale of loyalty between Albert and his horse Joey, by the serene beauty of the landscape of Devon, and horrified by the hellish vision of the trenches, of the suffering of soldiers and horses alike. The film has the pace it should have, first the walk, as Joey and Albert grow up together in the countryside, and come to trust each other, then the trot and canter off to war, and finally into a gallop, a gallop through the carnage and terror as the war engulfs them.
There are sublime moments, wonderfully funny moments, but Spielberg never shrinks for a moment from the horror of that war. We live with Joey and Albert, willing them to survive, to find one another again. Spielberg has kept faith with the book. We are left with hope, hope for peace.
Q: Why did you write Farm Boy?
A: Farm Boy is a "sequel" to War Horse in that it continues the story of Joey the horse after World War I when he returns to the farm in Devon. I'm not usually a fan of sequels but I was persuaded to revisit Joey's story by my great friend the illustrator Michael Foreman - who suggested a story about how tractors changed the face of farming. I'd also had quite a few letters from fans asking about what happened to Joey after he came back from the war and how had he managed on the farm. I'm in the wonderfully privileged position of witnessing the enthusiasm that urban people seem to have when they see the countryside for the first time, because of the charity that my wife and I founded called Farms for City Children. It enables children from inner cities to live on a farm with their class and teachers for a week. It's an amazing experience. A lot of the inspiration for Farm Boy is from this.
Q: Why are so many of your books are about war?
A: I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. I lived next to a bombsite, played in it because we weren't supposed to, and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable. But I soon learned that much more than buildings was destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my uncle Pieter, killed in 1940, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him, through the grief my mother, his sister, lived every day of her life. I missed him and I'd never known him. All I knew was what I'd been told, that he'd given his life for our freedom. I thought the world of him for that. I still do. War continues to divide people, to change them forever, and I write about it both because I want people to understand the absolute futility of war, the "pity of war" as Wilfred Owen called it.
Q: If you had to choose only one book to recommend to a reluctant young reader which title would you choose?
A: For a boy perhaps it would be Cool and for a girl The Butterfly Lion or Why the Whales Came. I was a reluctant reader myself. And then I taught a lot of reluctant readers, so when I wrote stories, I knew they had to work for me and them, as well as those who take to reading more easily.
Q: What was your favourite story as a child?
A: I loved Treasure Island by RL Stevenson. I was not an avid reader at all. I liked comics and being read to, and listening to stories. This was the first real book I read for myself. Jim Hawkins was the first character I identified with totally. I lived this book as I read it.