Yesterday, my dad and I watched FX’s new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” And while I think Dickens would be less than thrilled with it, I found it an interesting take on a story that has been so overworked as to become stale. I’ll do a full review of it in another post. However, there is one motif from it that I want to delve into further. It’s something that has been on my mind for several years since I first saw the movie “War Horse.”
In “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer is shown as his typically cold, uncaring person. However, his one redeeming quality is shown over and over to be his love of animals, horses in particular. He is shown putting a fur over the backs of two horses waiting alone in the cold. As a mine is collapsing, he is more concerned about the ponies than the people. It’s supposed to show that his heart isn’t completely dead, there is still some caring in there.
But this phenomenon isn’t solely a characteristic of a modern retelling of Scrooge. It’s something I’ve noticed throughout my life. My mom used to talk about watching westerns with my dad, specifically one about the Alamo. She could watch it without feeling as men are shot dead, but when one of the horses goes down, that’s a bridge too far!
How many movies can you think of that use the death of an animal to elicit an emotional response from the audience? Or to motivate the main character? Marley & Me, John Wick, Old Yeller come immediately to mind for me. But none do so in the same way as War Horse.
If you haven’t seen it, War Horse was a 2011 film that essentially told the story of WWI from the perspective of one of the cavalry horses. As I recall, it won numerous awards and did well at the box office. But watching it with my mom was an infuriating experience. Because interlaced with scenes of the horse in mortal peril were quiet cutaways to very human tragedy. In one, a pair of young boys, early teens I would suggest, were forcibly drafted into the German army. And are subsequently killed very graphically.
My mom spent the majority of her career as an advocate for children, especially those in unfortunate circumstances. But while watching the movie, the plight of the horse far outweighed the tragedy of those two German boys.
What I’ve come to hypothesize is that we have a subconscious bias towards the plight of animals. And I believe that comes down to a sort of predestination. By that, I mean, we see the animals as not having had the choice to be in that circumstance. They were brought there by others, and their fate was not in their own hands. Meanwhile, the human characters have free will and thereby earned or deserved whatever they got.
Now, philosophers, politicians, theologians, and thinkers in many fields have argued for centuries about free will versus predestination. Nature versus nurture. And I don’t have a definitive answer on that for you. But what I’m describing is less a measure of absolute fact and more an ingrained way of seeing that world.
In my experience, there’s a way we react to the misfortunes of people differently based on preconceived notions of how much they “earned” that fate. For example, hearing that a resident of the South Side of Chicago was murdered in a drive-by shooting (that was not meant for them) elicits a different reaction to a lost tourist who ended up on the South Side being caught in the crossfire. Neither were the intended victim of the crime (not that this would excuse it) nor had any foreknowledge it. And yet, we assign the latter as more tragic than the former. Because, in some way, the resident “should have known” it was possible, and as they made a choice to continue to live there, they bear some of the responsibility.
This can also be seen prominently when it comes to blaming victims of sexual assault. If the (typically female) victim was intoxicated, wearing skimpy clothing, or walking alone after midnight, they are partially responsible for their own attack. If they hadn’t done any of that, they might not have been assaulted, or so the thinking goes.
It’s an entirely wrong way to think, of course. It simplifies the infinite variables of life into a false equation. And it shifts the responsibility of action from the perpetrator to the victim. It also distracts from what the real problem is.
But, I’ve digressed slightly. We get stuck in this idea that the human characters had free will, and therefore they could have chosen a different path that led to a different fate. Those German boys had made decisions that led them to be on that farm when the army came by and forcibly recruited them. So, their destiny is of their own making. But the horse made no such decisions and so it is his life that is to be eulogized.
The thing that makes this thinking all the more flawed is the nature of consciousness. It is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We understand what we are and have dominion over our thoughts and actions in a way that animals do not.
And it is that consciousness that makes the story of the German boys more tragic to me. Because they know that there were other options. That life didn’t have to turn out that way for them. A dog or a horse knows only its own experiences. It doesn’t have an awareness that it could have been a lapdog in a rich widow’s house being fed bonbons. The horse doesn’t know that a life of pulling a plow or giving young children rides at a petting zoo were options. They only know what they are currently experiencing.
Now, maybe to you, that makes their story more tragic. A life lived not knowing that there was a better option out there. The possibility of a life without love and without knowing love exists in the world. And I respect that position.
But, in my mind, a life without love, but knowing that love exists is a far worse fate. Growing up in poverty while knowing that others live in opulence. Being born into a war-torn country and realizing that other children live in countries at peace. There is something infinitely more tragic about that to me.
And that is why I’m not too fond of the movie War Horse. And one of the issues I had with the A Christmas Carol adaptation.