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Sunday 21 March 2010

The Hazeid - Watership Down Review

Rabbit (zodiac)Image via Wikipedia

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when 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 will never be destroyed.”- Richard Adam, "Watership Down"

Below are my reviews and reflections on the great book and film, "Watership Down". When it comes to literature and movie adaptations very few of the latter measure up to the former. There is no rule to how this turns out. Just because a film remains as loyal as possible to its source material, such as the graphic novel "The Watchmen" and especially "300", which was a frame-by-frame adaptation, it doesn't mean that the end result is going to be any good. Slavishly adhering to the original material almost makes the whole point of creating a film pointless. A film is a different animal to a book or even a play. In the latter case one has only to look at many of the early "talkies" and then compare them to the way cinema developed in the 1940s to see the important distinction. 

The main obvious problem with adapting a well-loved work is that no matter how well a visual image is presented it has to compete with the imagination of those who have enjoyed a personal relationship with the book. There are rare occasions when the film or TV show is actually better than the original material. As much as I enjoy Mario Puzo's books, he and director Francis Ford Coppola made a far higher form of art with their first two adaptations of "The Godfather" than the rather undisciplined novel of the same name. 

There are no rules when it comes to doing a good adaptation. The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Game of Thrones" TV series, "The Company of Wolves", "The Crow" movie and the subject of this post are the best examples I feel where the adaptation and the source material are on equal standing. In all instances, the adaptations take the essence of what is central idea of the work and pay respectable homage to it without forgetting the art of good film-making. They become entities completely separate from the source material. Of the five I mentioned, only really "The Crow", "The Company of Wolves" and "Watership Down" properly succeed in making that complete yet respectful divorce. And of these two "Watership Down" dates the best. 


When Hazel’s younger brother, Fiver, prophesizes impending doom to their Sandleford warren, a splinter group break free of their chief’s authority and embark on a journey to find a new home. Their group consist of a mixture of personalities including the storyteller, Dandelion, the industrious Blackberry and the warrior, Bigwig. After suffering perils and temptations on en route, as well as collecting three rabbits from another warren and three rescued hutch rabbits, they arrive at Watership Down. The adventure is far from over as Hazel realizes the need for does to help propagate their new home and to secure their legacy. This decision will lead them into greater dangers when they meet the rabbits of Efrafa governed under a tyrannical martial rule by the monstrous General Woundwort…

After the brilliant 1978 film made an indelible impression on me, it wasn’t long that I sought out the book. Despite being an avid reader at the time the book seemed rather intimidating in size and structure at the time. I was barely 10 years old and had never owned a book that was divided into four parts all containing chapters, all prefaced with erudite sounding literary quotations. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to have a mother who also loved the film and read it to me. Years later I discovered that Richard Adams, the author, created the story to entertain his daughters when they took long car journeys into the countryside. With this in mind, I think this book is particularly enjoyable when being shared between parent and slightly older children (eight to 12 years).

Of course, don’t let age restrict you. “Watership Down”, like “The Lord of the Rings”, might have been first intended for children, but it reads like an epic novel and holds its own against any other literary classic. In fact, despite Adams’s humble remarks about it all being just a made up story with his main sources coming from his military experiences during the Battle of Arnhem and Ronald Lockley’s nature book, “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, there is clearly the mark of classic mythology in here. I would agree with the author that there is little about actual politics in here - unless we consider some of Adams’s personal opinions regarding animal welfare, which comes across as very light compared to his other novels such as “The Plague Dogs – but there seems to be something very Roman in its morals and ideas. “Watership Down” seems to draw quite heavily from both Homer’s “The Odyssey” and, in particular, Virgil’s “The Aeneid”. From “The Odyssey” we see the apathetical Lotus Eaters in the form of Cowslip’s warren. However, “The Aeneid” seems to be at the core of “Watership Down”. After all, it is the story of refuges from a destroyed home that embark upon a quest to found a new and glorious homeland. Once there, Hazel’s decision to seek out females to breed with is a much more ethical version of “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. There are also obvious classic heroic counterparts found in all the rabbits of the story.

“Watership Down” is often a misjudged story (and film for that matter) by the ignorant as being just a “fluffy bunny” story. It is far from it. Apart from the suspension of disbelief required by the rabbits having their own religion and mythology, and being able to communicate with little trouble with other animals such as Kehaar the seagull, Adams does not pull back from the harsh realities of a wild rabbit’s life. If your only experiences of fictitious rabbits come in the form of Harry the Bunny then you are in for a big surprise. Rabbits are killed and savagely wounded by a variety of other animals, including their own species in bloodthirsty fights – a duel at the end sparing little anatomical detail over the injuries being inflicting on the two combatants – and the whole philosophy of an Adams rabbit, as upheld in their own fables about El-ahrairah the Prince of Rabbits (and the “Prince with a Thousand Enemies”) is about survival through cunning. Even controversial self defence coach, Geoff Thompson, dedicates a whole essay to this book in his motivational book “Everything that Happens to me is Fantastic”. Although clearly written for older children, this is not the lightest of reads.

Despite having a strong emotional investment in the work, which probably has a lot to do with my love of the film, I can see some possible flaws. There is the aforesaid animal welfare moralizing – humans are evil and responsible for most of the ills of the world – which is contained in most of Adams’s work and not always supported, particularly with regards to the “rescue” of the hutch rabbits. However, it isn’t heavy preaching and will be down to own personal opinions as to whether or not his points are valid. The biggest flaw comes from the otherwise appealing structure of the narrative. “Watership Down” is one epic story, but it also contains many minor stories. These sometimes take the form of the fables Dandelion tells and sometimes they diverge into self-contained sub-plots. In this sense, Adams gets a little carried away with the epic feel of his work and a bit more ruthless editing might have improved the flow a little. Sometimes this works, but when we get to the story’s otherwise thrilling climax it doesn’t. At the end of the story we have enough dramatic skipping backwards and forwards between two series of events without the pointless story of a captured rabbit being added in. This neither significantly adds to the sense of threat nor does it progress the plot. Instead it is a rather irritating digression. It’s a small gripe, but looking at “Tales from Watership Down”, Adams’s eventual follow-up, one can see that many of these stories would have been better reserved for this short story collection.

“Watership Down” remains one of my favourite books and one that I find inspiring on an allegorical level – even if this wasn’t the author’s intention – and further excites my interest in the devices of mythological storytelling. Being a staunch individualist it I am happy to say it is a book that shows the happy co-existence of community with individual strengths. Hazel’s warren of free-will is shown as the harmonious balanced ideal contrasted against Sandleford’s archaic stagnation, Cowslip’s apathy and Woundwort’s conformity under authoritarian dictatorship. It is an epic for children representing the values of ingenuity, vision, courage, loyalty, resilience and friendship. 

"Prince of a Thousand Enemies" - A Review of "Watership Down" (1978)


Prompted by a vision of destruction experienced by his younger brother, Fiver (Richard Briers), Hazel (John Hurt) lead a small band of deserters from their Sandleford warren. On their way to Watership Down they will encounter many dangers. When they reach this promised land the adventure will be far from over...


"Thank god for Myxomatosis" was the rather curt and supercillous statement made by a 1988 critic in Time Out's giant book of film review of the movie "Watership Down". I was shocked at the time, but later I began to realize that this rather snobbish and elitist book seemed to dislike any film that was not made by Woody Allen or any of the other perceived "greatest" film directors. Years later and I am happy to see that most film reviewers hold this picture in high regard.

It is actually darker than its epic source material, Richard Adams' already slightly edgy children's novel of the same name. John Hurt (Hazel) and Richard Briers (Fiver) lead the voice cast in this extraordinary one-of-kind story of a rabbit's odyssey to find a new warren and then to populate it. As a child I saw the film several times before I read the book and to this day it has left a huge impression on me. It inspired a lot of my writing when I was growing up and somewhere I might still have notebooks full of my different attempts to try to re-tell this story with every conceivable type of animal I could think of from dinosaurs to kangaroos!

I grew up on Greek mythology and around animals, so I guess the concept of epic heroes represented by British wildlife would have an immediate connection with me. However, if I am to be completely truthful my favourite character in both the book and the film was always Bigwig, and it was his journey to finally facing off against the monstrous General Woundwort that was always worth the re-viewing our old VCR had to endure. I still say to this day it is one of the best onscreen fight scenes ever created. It is a particularly realistic and brutal dual that will be followed by a virtual bunny apocalypse via a loose homicidal guard dog. Bigwig just seemed to represent the type of hero that would always fascinate me mythology and other fiction - powerful and courageous, and yet flawed and paradoxical.

If the brutal realism was not enough to scare the byjesus out of your average unsuspecting child and parent then the surreal depictions of rabbit perceptions will get all concerned re-looking at the "U" certificate with due concern. It's amazing that the film has not been re-certified. Nevertheless, I am not worried that it might mean it will get to more child audiences. The picture touched a lot of people worldwide and is a great antidote to the vast majority of feature length formulaic animated films. The style of animation is bold opening with the rabbit "Creation Story" presented in an art inspired by aboriginal art, turning to a near photographic picture as the opening credits lead across the English countryside until we come to a rabbit's eye. Then we switch to the main animated style, simple yet dramatic 2D that reveal detail without ever sacrificing emotion. The aforementioned surreal animation comes into play with a nightmarish representation of the description of the destruction the Saddleford Warren and then later during the famous "Bright Eyes" segment.

Everything works for "Watership Down". From its original iconic promotional poster, which is a silhouette of Bigwig caught in a snare, to its sad ending, the picture is a triumph for intelligent challenging family cinema and director Martin Rosen's finest hour. Rosen would go onto push the proverbial envelope further with an adaptation of Richard Adams' other novel "The Plague Dogs". Unfortunately this would prove too dark for audiences at the time.

"All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when 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 will never be destroyed".

Those words, as read by narrator Michael Horden, still make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Strong drama, comedy, realism, action, allegory, mythology and characterization is what makes this film stand head and shoulders above just about anything Disney and its competitors has thrown at us.

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