“War Horse” and Hobby Horse

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Hosting “Saturday Night Live” Daniel Radcliffe thanked the young people whose enthusiasm made the Harry Potter series such a success, then he added  to the adults who have also loved the books:  “Those books were for children.  You were reading children’s’ books.”

We’d been discussing the differences between young adult (YA) fiction and adult (not XXX) fiction in my intern class, and we decided that genre can depend on such subtle facets as atmosphere, tone, range of allusion, as well as what the writer focuses on and what s/he fences out.  It can be a shifty threshold, and some who were quick to label the Twilight Series as YA were less certain about the Potter books, though no one wanted to suggest that stylistic originality is a regular feature in YA books.

On film, however, stylistic innovation often accompanies storylines whose emphases are likely to draw children like the Pied Piper, and who doesn’t know that Steven Spielberg is a master of such allure?  Since I knew that “War Horse” was based on a novel for the youngsters, why was I surprised at the kind of crowd-pleasing tactics that incline some to say “family fare,” while others say “candy”?  It’s an old hobby horse of mine.  When the star horse (not “Socks” or “Shadowfax,” but boyish “Joey”) presents himself  (these horses have no real gender beyond their names) to the evil teamster to pull the heavy murder machine and save his companion, I see the film’s not-so-sneaky anthropomorphism gone a little haywire.  More troubling is the imbalance of “meaningfulness” signifiers that attend the suffering of the horses, while the slaughter of soldiers is quickly glossed over.  Maybe this is a facet of any narrative: focal characters’ lives are the ones we’ve made the empathetic covenant with.  Still, when the doctors and nurses cease tending wounds to form a kind of parade gallery, the injured stop screaming and the dying, well, aren’t in evidence at all in the climactic reunion scene, I want to ask Spielberg to back off, quit shoveling the mucky sentiment on.  The GWTW backdrops and Gerald O’Hara channeling are already over the top.

But I’m not certain it’s the age of the target audience (which will accept without questioning that the interests, appetites and values of the boy hero haven’t altered as he matures and  the war progresses) at the center of my discontent.  Maybe it’s just the Age, or the State of the Union.  Perhaps we’ve seen so many cheesy date movies, talking animals, slashers, superhuman heroes from Asgaard and other extreme addresses that “War Horse” is as close to realism as a film can get and hope to attract a large audience.

All this aimless grousing again.  Maybe I should go and re-read Bob Olmstead’s Coal Black Horse (which ought to be moviefied, if Eastwood will direct it) or read a Wilfred Owen poem or two.  Maybe I just need a horse that cribs and has to be wormed and drops his apples in the road to help me feel that I’ve escaped to a world that resides within this wider one and will help me take it in without being taken in.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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One Response to “War Horse” and Hobby Horse

  1. Tim McAleenan says:

    Professor, I feel like there’s also an element of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey at play here in the sense that what you can get out of the book can relate to your own life at the time. One of my best friends in high school went to a competing school, and I remember reading The Screwtape Letters in 8th grade and thinking my school was better because the other school didn’t read it until 11th grade. Of course this is a terribly misguided way of looking at things. When I read Catcher In The Rye in 9th grade, it meant something different to me than if I read it now. Certainly this is true for the Harry Potter series, or any series aimed at a young adult audience, as well. I’m certain that if I read Harry Potter again in three years, it will mean something different to me than it did when I was fifteen.

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