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."

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?