In the 1970s Richard Adams, a British civil servant and WW2 veteran wrote down a story about rabbits he had told to his daughters. He sent it to a few publishers who rejected it before it was finally printed by a small London based publisher, became an instant international bestseller, won the Carnegie medal and allowed Adams to quit his job and work full time as a writer.
This, and I cannot stress this enough, does not usually happen.
The book’s success was so stunning that it immediately gave birth to a sub-genre of animal fantasy stories. Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood was published a few years later and it feels like half the books I read growing up were about a group of some species of animal trying to get from point A to point B without getting run over by Toyotas. Seriously, there were Watership Down-esque books about hares, owls, squirrels, foxes, otters, even fish.
Yes. This was a real goddamn thing.
Some were good. Some were terrible. Some were about fish. But none were ever able to match the popularity of the original. Because there is only one Watership Down. Well, until Adams published the sequel in the nineties. Then there were two. Anyway, my point is; other books have fans. Watership Down has cultists. And I’m one of them. I fell in love with this book in primary school and checked it out of the school library so many times that the librarian finally said “You know what? Just keep it.”
Yeah, pretty much.
So what makes it so good? Well at the most fundamental level Adams is just a phenomenally good writer with a lovely, clear, elegant prose style that can switch between bucolic descriptions of the English countryside to a muscular blow by blow account of two rabbits kicking the hraka out of each other. Coupled with that, the personalities of the various rabbits are simple but distinct and vivid. Adams based the personalities of the main rabbits on his squad from the war back when he was a smouldering, sensitive young officer with dark unfathomable eyes and a soft voice that could win the heart of any army nurse who crossed his path.
“Jerry’s an alright sort. He’s just being lead by a bad egg.”
But the most important trick of any fantasy novel is to bring you into its world. It’s why Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are so beloved, because the amount of detail and thought that has gone into crafting Westeros and Middle Earth makes reading the books almost like taking a holiday in a foreign country, albeit one filled with rampaging orcs (so, like Lanzarote).
This is the real genius of Watership Down. Adams gives his rabbits a language and a mythology and threads details of it throughout the larger narrative. And while they have been anthropomorphized to an extent, they’re still very much rabbits. They behave and react like wild animals, and they have difficulty understanding sophisticated concepts like art or, say, numbers higher than four.
Today’s movie was released in 1978, a mere six years after the book was published. And given the length of time it takes to get an independently financed feature length animation off the ground we can probably take it that the movie was in the works almost as soon as the ink was dry on the first print run. The film is now regarded as a classic of British animation and Total Film named it as one of their greatest British films of all time. But it’s also been at the centre of controversy ever since the British censorship board rated it “U” or suitable for all ages, a decision that they are still getting complaints about almost forty years later. And loathe as I am to side with the Helen Lovejoys of the world, yeah. No way in Inlé should this have gotten a U rating.
Yes. “Mild” violence. If you’re a fucking DROOG.
But is the movie really as good as all that? Let’s take a look. Spoiler warnings for both the movie and book ahead.
The movie begins with a stylised retelling of the rabbits’ creation myth.
This sequence is done in an abstract style that resembles African folk art and was actually the work of John Hubley, the original director who died before the film was completed. The narrator tells us that many years ago, Frith (the Sun) created the world and all the animals in it. And one of those animals was El-ahrairah, the prince of the rabbits. All the animals ate grass, but El-ahrairah’s children grew so numerous that soon they were eating all the grass for themselves and leaving the other animals to starve. Frith asked El-ahrairah to tell the rabbits to knock it off and just take a cold bath or something but El-ahrairah tells him to screw off. Well, Frith hasn’t spent billions of years converting hydrogen into helium to be sassed by no smart mouth bunny so he proceeded to turn all the other animals into predators who started slaughtering the rabbits left, right and centre. Realising that he might have made a rather colossal error in judgement, El-ahrairah started digging a burrow to hide when Frith came looking for him. Frith called out to El-ahrairah that he had a present for him but the rabbit wouldn’t come out of the ground, naturally enough.
“El-ahrairah? I gotta…present…for you.”
“Leave me alone.”
“If you do not come out, Mr Hrairah, I cannot give you your…special present.”
So, because Frith could only see El-ahrairah’s bottom, he gave his blessing to it and so El-ahrairah grew a shining white tail that could flash a warning, and strong back legs that could outrun anything on earth. And Frith told El-ahrairah: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”
The action now shifts to a much more realistic style and after panning over some beautiful backdrops of the English countryside we get an absolutely stunningly detailed close up shot of a rabbit resting in the grass. This is Hazel (John Hurt). Hazel and his brother Fiver (Richard Briers) graze outside their warren and Fiver seems very uneasy. Fiver was the runt of his litter and is naturally nervous but often has a second sight when it comes to danger.
So the main rabbits are rendered in a quite realistic, de-anthropomorphised style that definitely suits the tone of the movie but throws up some problems. Firstly, it can be quite difficult to tell the rabbits apart. Oh, there are distinguishing features to be sure but they do tend to be quite difficult to pick out, which, coupled by the fact that the movie has such a large cast can make everyone quite non-descript. Secondly, the more complex a character model is, the harder it is to animate it smoothly. Disney get around this by the simple trick of having hundreds of incredibly talented animators working their asses off for long hours at great expense. Nepenthe Productions, who made the film, simply didn’t have those kinds of resources to draw on. They made a great fist of it, don’t get me wrong. And the animators who worked on this were clearly extremely talented. But the fact remains that the animation in this is kind of…kludgey. If that makes sense. It just doesn’t flow too smoothly. I think this is why the sequences that everyone remembers, the Elahrairah story, Fiver’s vision, the destruction of the Sandleford Warren and the Bright Eyes sequence are the ones that are done in a more abstract style. This allows the animators to show more vivid and surreal imagery, but it also allows the animation to flow better.
Anyway, Hazel and Fiver go grazing and Fiver is suddenly struck with a terrifying vision of blood seeping over the field and tells Hazel that the warren is going to be destroyed. Hazel at first doesn’t believe him but Fiver is so insistent that Hazel agrees to take him to see the Threarah (Chief Rabbit). Fiver is too timid to speak himself so Hazel has to speak on his behalf (shades of Aaron and Moses there). They go to speak with the Threarah but first have to get past his bodyguard Bigwig (Michael Graham), my favourite character in either the book or the movie. Adams based Bigwig on an Irish soldier in his squad named Desmond Kavanagh. Kavanagh was apparently so fearless that he used to play a game with another Irish soldier where they would pull the pin from a grenade and drop it between them and the first one to throw it away was a wimp. Bigwig is a member of the Owsla, basically the warren militia, but unlike most of the other Owsla he’s not a massive tool and agrees to let Hazel and Fiver see the Threarah (Ralph Richardson) and sweet Frith and Inle but these are some butt ugly character designs.
“Have you ever seen a portal?”
Okay, I should probably place my cards on the table here and say that a lot of my criticisms of this movie will be about how it falls short when compared with the book and I know that seems completely unfair. But the biggest problem with this movie is the fact that it’s, well, a movie. As opposed to a mini-series or movie trilogy, I mean. Trying to fit everything from the book just doesn’t work, at least for me, clearly I’m in the minority on this one. But take the Threarah for example. Here, he’s presented as a doddering old fool (the soundtrack switches to oboe for his scenes, well known to be the most senile of all wind instruments). In the book, however, Adams makes it very clear that not only is the Threarah not a fool, he was actually being perfectly sensible by ignoring Fiver. Neither the Threarah nor any of the other rabbits can even conceive of a danger so great that it could destroy the entire warren, so when Fiver tells him that a “great danger” is coming he can only comprehend it as the kind of danger the warren has faced before; disease, flooding, hunters or predators. And as he explains, even if Fiver is not a fake, the lives lost by evacuating the entire warren would be far greater than any likely casualties they’d sustain from those dangers. Even Fiver, when this is explained to him much later on in the book, admits that the Threarah made absolutely the right choice given the information that he had.
Anyway, the Threarah naturally enough thinks that Fiver is nuts and politely but firmly shows the two rabbits the hole in the dirt.
Credit where credit’s due though, the movie now does something that actually makes a good deal more sense than in the book. In the book, Hazel and Fiver gather a group of rabbits together to leave the warren and by a rather stunning coincidence they all just happen to be male which creates a problem when they establish a new warren and realise “oh shit, how’s this supposed to work?”. The movie, however, has Hazel and Fiver leading a much larger group of rabbits including many does and kittens, but they get ambushed by the Owsla with most of the group, including all the does forced to return with only Hazel, and a few other bucks managing to slip past the Owsla. They get stopped by Bigwig but he tells them that he’s coming with them after getting kicked out of the Owsla after he sassed the Threarah. They’re attacked by Captain Holly of the Owsla who tells them that they’re all under arrest (how’s that supposed to work? He puts them in a hole and makes them pinky swear they won’t dig out?) but Bigwig fights him off and they run into the forest. So, in the book the group of rabbits who leave the Sandleford Warren are:
Hazel (the Leader)
Blackberry (The Smart Rabbit)
Bigwig (the Tough Rabbit)
Fiver (The Quiet Religious Rabbit who Ends up going Crazy)
Dandelion (The Fast Rabbit)
Silver (The rabbit who’s tough but not quite as tough as Bigwig)
Buckthorn (The least tough of the tough rabbits).
Pipkin (the other runt who doesn’t even have psychic powers like what?)
Hawkbit (the Dumb Rabbit)
Acorn (A rabbit).
Speedwell (Another rabbit.)
No seriously, Acorn and Speedwell must have been based on Adams’ most nondescript squadmates. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Lagamorphs. As for who leaves the warren in the movie that’s…actually a much harder question. We definitely have Hazel, Blackberry, Pipkin, Silver, Dandelion and Bigwig but the number of rabbits in the group seems to vary from scene to scene and makes it quite difficult to pin down who’s who. Complicating matters, they included a female character named Violet who’s not in the book…
Oops. She’s dead. Never mind.
So the novel has been criticised for its gender politics pretty much since day one (something that Adams, to his credit, tried to address in the sequel by having more female characters and even a female Chief Rabbit). The movie, conversely, addresses this by creating a new female character, giving her four lines and then killing her off at the twenty minute mark.
It’s even more glaring because there is no equivalent death scene in the book. Despite the violent reputation, none of the main protagonists actually die in the novel so what even the fuck? Well anyway, as the group continues on their way, Hazel proves himself to be a canny and inspiring leader, to the point where some of the rabbits start calling him “Hazel-rah”, or Chief Hazel. Bigwig, however, is not one of those, saying “The day I call you Chief Rabbit, Hazel, I’ll stop running that day.” After dodging dogs, badgers, rats and hawks the hopping sausage fest arrives at a meadow in the middle of a rainstorm. The rabbits are cold and miserable and Hazel almost has a mutiny on his paws when they’re approached by a strange looking rabbit named Cowslip .
And if you like strange looking rabbits, friend do I have a movie for you!
Cowslip invites them to join his warren and the Sandleford rabbits are only too happy to get out of the rain. All except for Fiver, who takes one look at Cowslip and is all “dude don’t sit right with me.”. Cowslip’s warren is large with many burrows but doesn’t seem to have that many rabbits (oh God is this a cannibalism thing? Because nine times out of ten it’s a cannibalism thing).
The rabbits in this warren seem exceptionally well fed and healthy, but also depressed and lethargic. Fiver can’t stand the place runs off with Bigwig and Hazel chasing after him. Fiver tells them that he’s going on alone and Hazel tries to talk him out of it. Fiver says “You’re closer to death than I.” and Bigwig loses his temper and storms off. The next thing Hazel and Fiver hear is a horrible squeal and they find Bigwig caught in a snare.
Fiver runs back to the warren to get help but only the Sandleford rabbits come. They chew through the peg holding the snare and get it loose but it’s too late; Bigwig has stopped breathing. The rabbits solemnly intone a prayer for their friend (“my heart has joined the thousand, for my friend has stopped running this day”) and Hazel asks where Cowslip and the other rabbits are and Blackberry tells him that Cowslip hit Fiver when he tried to talk about the wire. And Bigwig suddenly jolts back to life and snarls “I’ll kill him.”
Overjoyed that Bigwig is alive, and furious at Cowslip’s treachery, some of the rabbits want to go back, beat up all the other rabbits and steal their sweet pad and Fiver is all “Frith DAMN it you guys are idiots” and explains that the whole warren is just one big farm with snares laid everywhere so how about they just leave Cowslip to his death hole and just am-scray?
Am-scray they do, and finally arrive at Watership Down, a beautiful grassy hill with a clear view for miles around.
Suddenly, a horribly wounded, half mad rabbit staggers into their midst and they realise that it’s Captain Holly. He tells them how the Sandleford warren was gassed and we see it in flashback because you didn’t need to sleep again ever, right?
“See you in your dreeeeams…your DREEEEEEAAAAMMMMSSS!”
While exploring the down, they come across Kehaar (Zero Mostel), a foul tempered gull with an injured wing. Hazel decides to help the bird and orders the other rabbits to bring him bugs to eat. So, funny story. Recently there was a kerfuffle and brouhaha in the UK because Channel 5 decided to show Watership Down at Easter during normal children’s viewing times with predictable results.
In Channel 5’s defence, what better movie to show at Easter than something that combines bunnies with the violence of the Passion of the Christ? Anyway, the British censor was asked by a newspaper to assess Watership Down as if it was a new movie he was seeing for the first time and he agreed that there was no way that this would get a “U” rating nowadays. Because of the scene where Kehaar says “Piss off”. Really. The multiple scenes of rabbits bleeding and biting chunks out of each other and suffocating to death in poisoned warrens as the dead bodies pile up higher and higher; kid’s stuff. But one mild profanity and it’s time to think of the children.
Anyway, Hazel wants Kehaar’s help because the rabbits reached Watership Down and were all “wait, so NOBODY remembered to bring a vagina?” and he wants Kehaar to help them find some does.
Fortunately, being a wingman comes naturally to him.
Kehaar flies off but doesn’t come back for days so Hazel resorts to Plan B. He discovers that a nearby farm has several rabbits kept in hutches. And that can only mean one thing: JAILBREAK!
Everything goes tits up though and Hazel is shot by a farmer. The other rabbits return to the warren and break the news to Fiver, which of course leads to the famous “Bright Eyes” sequence. The song, by Art Garfunkel, was a huge hit when it was first released and it’s fine, I suppose, but…dammit it’s no Am I Feeling Love?
Honestly, I never really got the appeal of the song. Anyway, Fiver follows a vision of the Black Rabbit of Inlé (The Grim Hopper, He Who Gnaws the Carrots of Mortality) to a ditch where he finds Hazel, wounded, but still alive.
After they bring him back to the warren, Kehaar returns and picks the gunshot pellets out of Hazel’s leg, and tells them that he’s found Efrafa, a huge warren with many does. But Holly tells them that they don’t want ‘dose does and they ask him why they don’t want ‘dose does and he tells them that nobody does. Holly tells them that before he found them he spent time in Efrafa which is a totalitarian nightmare of a warren run by General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) a big ugly rabbit the size of a fucking dog. Holly only barely made it out of there alive but Hazel says they have no choice.
So the rabbits set out for Efrafa to bust some honies out of a fascist dystopia (chicks love being busted out of a fascist dystopia, everyone knows chicks love being busted out of a fascist dystopia). Bigwig gets himself captured by one Efrafa’s patrols and is brought before Woundwort. Woundwort likes the cut of Bigwig’s cotton tail and gives him a position in his Owlsa.
Meanwhile Hazel and his rabbits find a boat tethered to the bank of a river and Blackberry has an idea.
In Efrafa, Bigwig meets Blackavar (Clifton Jones), a rabbit who tried to escape and got his ears chewed off by the Owsla as punishment.
Bigwig is so moved by his plight that he decides to bring Blackavar with him when the time comes to escape. He meets up with Hyzenthlay, a doe who knew Holly when he was in Efrafa. He manages to convince her that he’s not working for Woundwort she agrees to help him recruit other does for an escape attempt. At sundown, they make their move. Bigwig overpowers Blackavar’s guard and they make a break for the river along with Hyzenthlay and the other does; Vilthruhil, Nethilda, Thethuthinnang and SkibidibididobapdodobamdoI’mtheScatMan.
Woundwort and the Owsla pursue them to the river and surround them but Kehaar arrives just in the nick of time. They get the Efrafan does on the boat and Hazel chews through the tether and they go drifting down the river to safety. Kehaar tells them that he’s blowing this joint and returning to the sea and they say goodbye. They bring the does back to Watership Down and finally the rabbits can get down to doing what rabbits are primarily known for apart from sassing hunters with speech impediments. Oh yeah, baby.
But General Woundwort, or should I say Major Cockblock, arrives at the warren with an army of Efrafans and lays siege to the warren. Hazel goes to speak with Woundwort and tries to reason with him, and Woundwort (who doesn’t realise that the small, lame rabbit in front of him is the Chief Rabbit of the warren he’s trying to destroy) tells him that if Blackavar, Bigwig and the Efrafan does are surrendered to him, the warren will be spared. Hazel instead suggests that the two warrens work together to create a new warren which Woundwort dismisses out of hand. Another casualty of trying to do the whole story in one movie is the character of Woundwort. Oh, it’s not a huge departure from the book by any means, he more or less acts the same. But we miss a lot of the subtlety of the character, as well as his backstory and motivation. On the page, Adams created a villain who was a tyrant and a monster, but who was also capable of real courage and of inspiring real and deep loyalty in his followers. In the movie that gets lost and all that’s left is an ogre.
Hazel returns to the warren and the assault begins. Fiver has another vision and starts muttering “there’s a dog loose in the wood…”. Hazel, realising what this means, rounds up Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay and makes a break for the farm, telling Bigwig to hold the warren at all costs.
At the farm, Hazel chews through the rope tying the farmer’s dog to his kennel and rabbits get him to chase them back towards the down. Hazel is about to follow them but he gets ambushed by the farmer’s cat who hisses “Can you run? I think not.” This, incidentally, is the only time in either the book or the movie where a predator speaks and it is creepy as balls in both.
Meanwhile, Woundwort has entered the warren and finds himself face to face with Blackavar, who he brutally kills.
Oh yeah. That’s not in the book either. In the book, Blackavar survives and overcomes the horrors inflicted on him in Efrafa to become a valued and respected member of the warren. I have no idea why they shoved this in here, it’s completely gratuitous. Woundwort sees Pipkin and chases him deeper into the warren where he’s ambushed by a rabbit based on a man who used to play chicken with live grenades. Let the games begin.
They claw, they bite, they rend and tear. Finally, panting and bleeding, Woundwort offers to let Bigwig live if he surrenders. Bigwig answers: “My Chief Rabbit has told me to stay and defend this run, and until he says otherwise, I shall stay here.”
One of the major themes of Watership Down is the conflict between what is “natural” and what is “unnatural”. Efrafa and Cowslip’s Warren are both unnatural in different ways. Efrafa is a brutal totalitarian surveillance state whose citizens live in cramped conditions and total fear, whereas the rabbits in Cowslip’s warren have lives of ease and luxury free from all predators bar one which they can’t outrun or outthink. Neither way of living is natural for rabbits and so they are miserable. But Watership Down does not dismiss the unnatural out of hand. The Watership Down warren is also unnatural in many ways. The Chief Rabbit is not Bigwig, the biggest and strongest, but Hazel, who is able to inspire the best in his followers. When they arrive at Watership Down, Blackberry convinces the rabbits that they will have to dig a warren themselves, despite being male (burrows are usually dug by does who are about to give birth). And while they reject both Cowslip’s warren and Efrafa, the Watership Down rabbits still learn from both those societies, incorporating the large communal burrow from Cowslip’s warren and the Efrafan system of wide patrols. At heart the book is about finding a balance between the old and the new, about holding on to tradition while forging a society that that is fairer, less brutal and more humane than what existed before. And we see this transition through Bigwig. This line is the culmination of Bigwig’s arc. Once, Bigwig jokingly told Hazel that he’d die before calling him Chief Rabbit. Now, he not only calls him Chief Rabbit, but offers to lay his life down for him in earnest. Not because he is bigger, not because he is stronger, but because Hazel has earned his loyalty and his devotion and his respect. And this is the great advantage that Hazel has over Woundwort. Because his followers fight out of loyalty and not fear, they will fight to the end.
But Woundwort, only able to think in terms of raw power, assumes that any Chief Rabbit that Bigwig would swear loyalty to must be necessity be even bigger and stronger. He retreats out of the warren just as Hyzenthlay lures the farm dog onto the down. As the Efrafans flee in panic, Woundwort lunges at the dog yelling “Come back you fools! Dogs aren’t dangerous!”
Years later, the Watership Down warren is thriving. An elderly Hazel…
Yeah. I actually had to go back and double check this. We last see Hazel trapped by the cat and then he just shows up at the epilogue with almost no explanation as to how he escaped. I mean, we do hear a little girl yell at the cat but if you hadn’t read the book and didn’t deduce from that one yell that Hazel was rescued by the farmer’s daughter and nursed back to health with the help of the local doctor who is actually Richard Adam’s father who then drives Hazel back to the down in his car and then releases him well, I wouldn’t exactly say that’s your fault.
Anyway, an elderly Hazel hears the voice of El-ahrairah. El-ahrairah asks him if he wants to join his Owsla. Hazel looks back at the warren but is told “Don’t worry. They’ll be alright. And thousands like them.” Hazel lays down and is still, and his spirit follows El-ahrairah over the misty downs as Frith solemnly intones “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”
I admire the hell out of this movie for its obvious reverence to the source material and it’s clear that everyone involved busted a hump trying to do justice to the novel. But when you get right down to it, this was just the wrong medium for an adaptation. If you want to tell the entire story of Watership Down from beginning to end you either need more than one movie or a mini-series.
Trying to squeeze all the major story beats of the novel into one 90 minute chunk leaves you with a crowded, nutty, plotty movie, where everything is happening at once and there’s precious little room for the characters to breathe. The movie definitely has its merits, and is worth checking out for fans of the book, but for me at least, the definitive Watership Down screen adaptation has yet to be made.
A for effort. Beautiful backgrounds and the vision sequences are wonderfully hideous. But the character models are just too complex to animate smoothly and some of them are just flat out ugly.
John Hurt does good work as Hazel. Ironically, he would later voice Woundwort in the animated series, similar to how he went from playing Winston Smith in 1984 to Chancellor Suttler in V for Vendetta.
The movie’s portrayal of Woundwort is not off exactly. He is suitably terrifying, but the rushed nature of the film means that we never get to see the more nuanced and complex villain that Adams wrote.
Supporting Characters: 9/20
An excellent cast gives strong performances all around but the movie is just too rushed for many of the characters to make much of an impression.
Never gotten the fuss over the supposedly tear-jerking “Bright Eyes” myself, and I cry when the pizza’s late. But the pastoral score by Angela Morley and Mark Williamson is quite lovely.
FINAL SCORE: 56%
NEXT UPDATE: 12 May 2016
NEXT TIME: Um…meet me in the next post.