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.
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.”
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.
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.
But is the movie really as good as all that? Let’s take a look. Spoiler warnings for both the movie and book ahead.