When people talk about their introduction to Martin Rosen’s 1978 animated adaptation of Watership Down, there seems to be a recurring narrative: at a young and tender age it was put on the TV for them, perhaps by an unwitting parent looking for a 90 minute babysitter, and were promptly traumatized by the film’s matter-of-fact brutality and dark tones. My own story is quite similar, except that my parents were quite deliberately attempting to get me interested in Watership Down, as around the same time I received a copy of Tales from Watership Down, a followup collection of short stories which they mistook for a copy of Richard Adams’ original novel. As far as I’m concerned, they did well.
But as a result of the mix up, I never got around to reading the novel until around…now. It didn’t take long to become one of those books that you read while walking down the street; the last time I was moved to do that was during a re-read of Great Expectations, which should say something about my high opinion of it. And so I also decided to revisit the film adaptation which kept me up at night.
Watership Down is a story about migrating rabbits (and is the second animated talking animal movie set in the English countryside consecutively blogged about here). When Fiver (Richard Briers), a rabbit given over to prophetic ecstasies, predicts that their home will soon be destroyed, a group of them leaves their warren with him to find a new home. Hazel (John Hurt) quickly emerges as the reluctant leader of the group, with Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) as the strongman.
The story follows the same structure as the Aeneid – I can’t be the first person to notice this – with the first half telling in episodic form the various adventures the rabbits have on their journey, and the second dealing with martial conflict once they arrive at their new warren. In particular, their conflict with Woundwart (Harry Andrews), the chief rabbit of a neighbouring warren run with spartan efficiency and brutality.
As suggested above, Watership Down is unflinching in its depiction of the animal world. These animals will kill each other, sometimes in gruesome ways. The life of the rabbit is a fight for survival, rather than a fluffy, bucolic existence. But this doesn’t really capture the spirit of the story, which is more than an artsy nature documentary.
Richard Adams peppered his novel with rabbit folktale and myth. The characters often stop to recite a tale about El-ahrairah, a mythic rabbit patriarch of herculean stature. The film itself opens with their creation story, animated in primitivist fashion. The result is to situate the narrative within a mythopoeic framework which charges the contemporary English landscape with a pre-modern sense of significance. Like Kipling’s Jungle Books, it touches something primal in us (or in me, at least). The Secret of NIMH, with its brooding mysticism, is probably the closest animated analogue, but even that is more grounded in modern high fantasy.
So much for the story; since we’re dealing with an animated film, the question of how it looks is another make-or-break subject.
For a low budget film from the 70s (not exactly an era renowned for its contributions to animation in the west), Watership Down is quite splendid. The watercolour backgrounds have a wispy, impressionistic character to them, while the rabbits themselves are lithe line drawings. There are moments which feel overanimated, or a bit dated, but also many that are breathtaking: the aforementioned opening sequence, a moonlit trek through the woods, the nightmarish destruction of a warren, etc. It was a labor of love for Michael Rosen (who wrote, produced and directed it) and it shows.
The performances are all great; the score by Angela Morley is workmanlike, at times vividly expressionistic, but not quite reaching the greatness of something like Jerry Goldsmith’s music for NIMH. I even kinda liked the song sung by Art Garfunkel, which is saying a lot. Everything is hampered by some rather muffled sound design, though.
All this is to say that the film is a substantial work of art on its own and not just a gateway drug for the novel. It moved me.
I suspect that as I unpack and absorb more of the novel, I’ll have more to say about it here. I wish I had gotten around to reading it sooner.