Spoiler Alert: this blog post discusses the end of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse.


Horses have been a mode of transport since at least 2000 BC but the horse that’s the focus of this blog post is much more recent than that: Joey from Michael Morpurgo’s WWI novel War Horse.  The book has become internationally well-known thanks, in part, to a stage production by the National Theatre (featuring spectacular horse-sized puppets) and to the Stephen Spielberg adaptation that came out in 2011. 

Seven Stories' own interpretation of Joey in our Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories exhibition. Photograph © Seven Stories The National Centre for Children's Books. 


The Seven Stories exhibition, Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories, opened on 2nd July and, of course, it features Morpurgo’s most famous book.  If you visit you’ll find Joey not only as he was first written down (in Morpurgo’s tiny handwriting) but also as he’s been imagined in film, for the stage, and in painting.

Early manuscript draft of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse.  Photograph © Seven Stories The National Centre for Children's Books.

The novel is narrated by Joey and opens with him being sold at auction:

I was not yet six months old, a gangling, leggy colt who had never been further away than a few feet from his mother.  We parted that day in the terrible hubbub of the auction ring and I was never to see her again. (Page 3)


From here Joey meets Albert, the farmer’s son and they become best friends, until Joey is bought by the British Army and sent to the battlefields of the First World War.  Distraught, Albert joins up and promises to bring him home but it’s not until the end of the war that they’re finally reunited and return home to Devon together.


The Seven Stories archive contains a variety of material about War Horse: there’s the very first manuscript for the book, handwritten on lined paper; the shooting script for the Spielberg film, with its codename Dartmoor written at the top; and letters about the stage production’s transfer to Broadway and the changes the American team had made to the story. 


Various War Horse items from our Morpurgo collection on display at Seven Stories until 2nd July 2017. Photograph © Seven Stories The National Centre for Children's Books. 


But that’s not what this blog post is about.  I want to tell you about a version of War Horse that has an alternate ending – one that doesn’t end quite so happily ever after.

In the late eighties and early nineties Morpurgo collaborated with a producer, Simon Channing Williams, who made his name working with Mike Leigh on films such as Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies.  Channing Williams produced the adaptation of Why the Whales Came, starring Helen Mirren and Paul Scofield and, following this, worked with Morpurgo to get funding for an adaptation of War Horse

Papers in the archive show that the funders were initially sceptical of its appeal to children and wanted instead to go for the adult market.  In a report on one of the submitted scripts, Mary Davies, who was a reader for the European Script Fund (ESF), commented:


The writer has seems to have taken heed of comments on the earlier script that it appeared to be aimed at a young rather than an adult audience.  The happy ending and slight sentimentality of the earlier version, together with a greater emphasis on Joey the horse as a character, gave the script this slant.


From this feedback it seems that the ESF wanted a harsher or more realistic script without a happy ending and they encouraged the focus on Joey.

The next version of the script is still recognisable from the book, with an addition of a love story between Emilie and a German soldier (she is somewhat older in this version).  It continues along much the same lines until, that is, the final few pages. 


Just as in the novel, Joey is being sold at auction and, as in the book, the soldiers club together to buy Joey – but they don’t have enough money.  Not to worry, Emilie’s grandpere is also there, with a sack full of silverware to buy back Joey so he can live out his days resting on the farm.  Except the auctioneer won’t accept the silver, only cash.


Enter Monsieur Lamballe of Cambrai, who makes his bid, wins Joey and pays in cash.  In the next scene, the third to last in the film, Emilie’s grandpere gives Albert an enamel horse pin to remember Joey by.  Then, as the soldiers leave, a van passes Grandpere.  On the side of it reads ‘Jean Lamballe.  Horse Butcher.  Cambrai’.  Joey has been sold for horse meat. 

Extracts from annotated typescript of War Horse by Simon Channing Williams MMo/06/06/03. Photograph © Seven Stories The National Centre for Children's Books. 

This is a more historically accurate ending (the British Army retained some horses after the end of the war but most that were still fit were sold locally to farmers and slaughterhouses) but it’s a big departure from the rural idyll ending of the novel.


The change raises the question about what’s at stake in Albert and Joey’s glorious return to Devon.  In the novel they’re celebrated and it’s a chance to reflect on the people and horses that died in the war:


And so I came home from the war that Christmas-time with my Albert riding me up into the village, and there to greet us was the Silver Band from Hatherleigh and the rapturous peeling of the church bells.  We were received like conquering heroes, but we both knew that the real heroes had not come home, that they were lying out in France alongside Captain Nicholls, Topthorn, Friedrich, David and little Emilie. (page 141)


The ending cements the comradeship between Albert and Joey: they were received equally, ‘like conquering heroes’, and they shared the knowledge that they weren’t the real heroes. 


But when it’s only Albert that returns the ending is bleaker and he doesn’t feel at home anymore: the script says ‘He seems bewildered by the welcome, detached’.  

Extracts from annotated typescript of War Horse by Simon Channing Williams (MMo/06/06/03). Photograph © Seven Stories The National Centre for Children's Books. 

And a summary of the script submitted to the ESF is even less hopeful: ‘Maisie seems like a stranger to [Albert] and it’s a while before he is able to embrace his mother with any real feeling.'


The homecoming of Joey with Albert at the end of the novel returns things to how they were for everyone else, even if the implication is that Joey and Albert know there’s a difference compared to their lives before the war.  The 1990s script makes the difference much greater. 


Although this film wasn’t eventually financed its inclusion in the Morpurgo archive provides researchers and readers with another version of War Horse that not only helps in learning about the process of adapting a book but also changes the way we think about the novel and raises questions that may not be obvious in the published version.


               - Dr Jessica Medhurst

                 KTP Research Associate


If you want to know more about horses in our collection take a look at All About: Horses.  You can also learn more about the Michael Morpurgo collection here.