Europe's finest join up for 'War Horse'

With Spielberg directing the film version, Michael Morpurgo's children's book has come a long way, reports Jerome Taylor

Steven Spielberg has pulled together an overwhelmingly European cast for his latest film, an adaptation of the children's book War Horse, shunning Hollywood A-list stars in favour of emerging British talent.

Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all announced yesterday as having key roles in the First World War drama, which tells the imaginary story of a young boy's desperate search for his horse in the killing fields of France.

Jeremy Irvine, an unknown outside of his rising star status within the National Youth Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, has landed the main part of Albert, a Devonshire farmhand who lies about his age to enlist in the hope of finding his colt Joey.

The film has become a personal pet project for Spielberg, who fell in love with the story after seeing the acclaimed stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel late last year. The Independent understands that the 63-year-old film-maker, who has often tackled the Second World War, has been visiting the Imperial War Museum in London to research the First World War, a subject that the director has yet to turn his attention to.

A number of locations in the UK have already been scouted and filming is expected to begin as soon as August. The screenplay has been worked on by both Lee Hall, who adapted Billy Elliot for the stage, and Richard Curtis, who is currently working on a second draft.

Adding to the film's distinctly European feel are a number of prominent French and German actors, including Rainer Brock and David Kross.

Dreamworks and their distribution partner Disney hope to have the film in cinemas by autumn 2011, meaning that War Horse will beat Spielberg's other current project – a 3D animation of Tintin with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson – to the silver screen.

The involvement of such a high profile director has led to unprecedented interest in Morpurgo's original book, which was only translated into a handful of languages when published 28 years ago. The author's publishers have been inundated with requests for translation rights over the past six months to coincide with the film's global release.

Morpurgo came up with his idea for an anthropomorphic children's novel after chatting to a First World War veteran in his local pub. The book is written from the viewpoint of Joey as he is sold to the Army and used as a pack horse on the trenches. The book nearly won the Whitbread prize and had modest sales, but it took an acclaimed adaptation by the National Theatre to bring it to Hollywood's attention.

Spielberg was alerted to War Horse after the Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy saw the National Theatre's highly acclaimed production late last year. The play has become one of the West End's most successful productions thanks to a remarkable puppetry system that brings life-size bamboo horses to life on stage. It recently opened on Broadway to rave reviews.

Kennedy has worked with Spielberg on films such as ET and Jurassic Park and is often described as being Hollywood's most successful producer in terms of box office receipts. She encouraged Spielberg to see the production, and he travelled to London, bought up the film rights and insisted on directing the film himself.

Speaking to The Independent yesterday, Morpurgo said he was astonished by how quickly Dreamworks and Spielberg have moved, with little more than six months between buying the film rights and announcing the cast. He also said he believed that the play was pivotal in piquing the director's interest.

"I think what they did was fall in love with the play and then the story," he said. "I have to be honest with myself, I think it was that order, but I'm just so pleased they fell in love with it," he said.

Nick Stafford, who adapted Morpurgo's work for the stage, said Spielberg was an ideal director for a story that blended the horrors of war with a family-friendly tale of loyalty between a young man and his horse. "I think he'll do a fantastic job and it's an amazing tribute 30 years after the book came out that a director like him wants to make a film," he said.

Stafford said he believed that Spielberg would almost certainly use CG effects to recreate the horses but he stressed that a film version of War Horse would inevitably be a very different experience from the stage version.

"I envy the way film is able to show an audience close-ups, to see right into people's eyes," he said. "That's an advantage that a film-maker should be able to use in a powerful way. But I think there's also a downside to film.

"When you watch a play, you watch the magic unfold in front of you. CG can be astonishingly impressive but I'm not convinced it has the same level of magic. There's something done and dusted about CG, like it's history that has already happened. Whereas stage plays unfold right in front of your eyes."