Why children should see Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Private Peaceful’

Katharine Quarmby

Private peaceful final 300x225 Why children should see Michael Morpurgos Private PeacefulMichael Morpurgo’s book Private Peaceful is one of his grimmest books for children. You don’t get much bleaker than a young soldier in World War One reflecting on his short life as he waits for military justice to be carried out.

It has now been made into a film and I took my children to the preview at the weekend. They have both been enthusiastic readers of Morpurgo’s work and we have also seen War Horse both on the stage and as a film. So I wanted to see their reaction to this bleak and yet beautiful story.

My ten-year-old son found the film moving but enjoyed it while my thirteen-year-old daughter found it too unrelenting in its vision. It is a harder watch than War Horse but probably truer to Morpurgo’s vision. Indeed this time, Morpurgo had input in the film as an executive producer. The film follows both the chronology and much of the internal thought and dialogue of the book.

But what I found most striking, after the contrast between bucolic rural life and the horror of the battlefield in War Horse, was the honesty in the lack of this contrast in Private Peaceful. Both rural life and war in Flanders are portrayed as emotionally desolated in many ways. I spent much of my childhood deep in rural East Anglia, not far from where the film was shot and although it’s meant to portray Devon, it’s faithful to the intimate life of the countryside.

From the grinding nature of rural poverty, children and young people sleeping top to toe in narrow single beds, backbreaking agricultural labour in the cow-shed and kennels to the casual bullying at the village school. The mockery of Big Joe, who has a learning difficulty and is portrayed as the ‘village idiot’, is also realistic. So too are the choices that their mother has to make after she is widowed. This is no Elysian vision of rural life. This is the real deal in which young lads go to the trenches to escape a life already hemmed in by lack of opportunity. They had little to lose and what they had, they lost – something that the film expresses beautifully.

So is the film suitable for children? The film has a category of 12A which feels about right. I think it’s not only suitable, it should be shown and read in book form in classrooms from upper primary onwards. Morpurgo’s great skill is to write hard stuff for children that they can accept as authentic and from which they can draw resilience. In some ways Morpurgo has led the way in doing this but I sense an increasing divergence in children’s literature between books for younger children, which I write myself, and books for older children.

In books for younger children it’s still all but impossible to address themes harder than ‘I’ve lost my teddy’ while in books for older children it’s now increasingly acceptable to write about themes that used to be reserved for young adults and beyond. For example, books touching on familial abuse (Julia Donaldson), children living with HIV (Lynda Waterhouse), children pitted against one another as modern gladiators (Suzanne Collins) and even human cloning (Alison Allen-Gray) have all been well received, as of course have so many of Morpurgo’s books, which often deal with deaths in the family and larger themes such as natural disasters.

So how does Morpurgo make the descent into darkness work? I think it comes down to the core of all good writing – the lessons stem from the story, they are not grafted on didactically. There’s no tub-thumping here about the bleakness of sending youngsters to wage a modern war with bayonets, the weapons of a bygone age, or indeed about the brutish rural poverty they think they are escaping. Those themes are woven into the warp and weft of the story. In Morpurgo’s writing, the pity stems from the poetry, something that also has been exceptionally well translated into film here. Take your children (and a box of tissues).

‘Private Peaceful’ is out on 12th October

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  • Adrian Fox

    Far far better to encourage her children to READ the book and not just SEE the film. The book can be read and re-read, remembered in adulthood and returned to, and contains the philosophy and thought which the film, by its very nature of being visual and an extreme summary of the book cannot portray.

  • katharine quarmby

    Er, that is exactly what I stress! Both are important – of course you get a different feel from a film compared to a book. I always persuade my children to read the books first…

  • Peter Clack

    I wish I’d been forced to face adulthood earlier, as now I am bereft, mourning for my lost childhood, instead of being able to cherish it.

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