Film or Stage – what to see first?

Planning to chill out on the sofa for a few hours last night, I went in search of a DVD to watch and settled on War Horse. This is somewhat of a bigger deal than it may at first seem as I’ve had the film ready to watch here for a while now, but have always ended up skipping past it when deciding what to watch. Why? Because I haven’t seen it on stage yet either.

I’d reached something of an impasse when it comes to War Horse, with a game of theatrical Chicken being played between the film and stage version. Having still not seen the stage production at the time when the film adaption was released, I found myself bound in chains of my own indecision. I simply didn’t know which one to see first. I have this same issue when it comes to seeing the film versions of books I haven’t read yet. I just don’t know if there’s a right and wrong way to do it. I suppose it’s a personal choice. Films can bring to life a world that previously only existed inside your head, although the danger therein lies in living up to your imagination of course.

Seeing a film before reading the book can help you to visualise the people and places that feature within its pages though. Also, books tend to give the reader so much more detail about the story and its characters than most films do, and I’ve often been left disappointed by a film that is missing information and minimises certain scenes/events that were given such attention in the book, sometimes skipping over them altogether. The same troubles occur when trying to decide whether to first watch a story on stage or on film. This was the trouble I had with War Horse. Seeing as it first appeared at the National in 2007, and has since had a second run there between September 2008 and March 2009 before transferring into the West End, where it is still currently playing at the New London Theatre, there has been ample opportunity to see the play performed on stage. I know this.

For numerous reasons though I never did, despite a strong desire to do so. Living outside of London, I don’t get into town to see shows as often as I’d like, so a lot of careful pick-and-choose goes into what is seen and when. War Horse has won a number of awards, including 2 Olivier Awards, and is one of the most successful plays in the West End, so I always assume it’s not going to be taking off any time soon and that there’s plenty of time to see it. Also, my daughter is my usual theatre companion and being a highly enthusiastic horse lover (almost to the point of obsession), she would not take seeing the death of any horse too well. She’s cried at Les Miserables and Love Never Dies, but the sad events involving the horses of War Horse would most likely be more than she could handle I suspect. She fell to pieces when the Swamp of Sadness claimed the life of the horse Artax in The NeverEnding Story and refuses to watch that scene to the day. The theatre experience is supposed to be enjoyable, even when tinged with tragedy, but I don’t think this particular experience would bring her any joy, hence why we have avoided it thus far. When the film adaption opened in cinemas in 2011, I wanted to see it. I didn’t though, so I bought the DVD when that was released.

It has been sitting on the shelf with the rest of my DVDs ever since, still unwatched – until last night that is. I finally caved in and watched it, and while I’m glad to have finally seen it, I don’t know if I should have waited to see it on stage first. War Horse is a constant stream of emotional moments, involving separation, war and death, and director Stephen Spielberg knows how to use them all to tug hard on the heart strings. Moved by the film, I can’t help but wonder however if the intimate setting of the theatre and a live performance would have had more of an impact?

The show has been highly praised for the magnificent puppetry that brings Joey and the rest of the horses to life, and speaking to those who have seen it on stage, Michael Morpurgo’s original story is recreated with such exquisite skill that it just has to be seen. Watching the film has just made me want to go and see it on stage even more, and I intend to do just that. I do have concerns however, that seeing it on the big screen with the accompaniment of real-life settings, special effects and so forth will impede my enjoyment of it when faced with the limitations of theatre.

Perhaps I should have delayed watching the film until afterwards, or perhaps it won’t make any difference. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Thursday 27th March 2014

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