Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 6, 2017
Richard Adams recently passed away at the advanced age of 96. At the much younger age of 52, but still advanced age for a first time novelist, he published what would become a classic of modern literature, Watership Down. I was going to write “children’s literature” but I don’t know if that’s right. Is something children’s literature simply because it uses animals as its lead characters? Is Animal Farm a children’s book because it has talking pigs? I would say the answers to both of those questions is no. Watership Down is no different and while it appealed to my younger self simply because of the animal characters, my older self understands it a lot better.
The book was in my hands the first year it came out, even though I was probably too young to appreciate what I was reading. My older brother had purchased it and loved it so I naturally started reading it when he was done though I found it difficult at such a young age to fully grasp the underlying themes. When a movie was adapted from it in 1978, I found it more accessible but also darker and deeper and frustrating. I still find it frustrating but for different reasons.
The story of Watership Down, for those who don’t know, involves a group of rabbits intent on leaving their warren because one of them, Fiver (Richard Briers), has premonitions of death for all of them should they stay. Fiver and Hazel (John Hurt) try to convince the rest of the warren but only a handful will listen and together they set out with the nonbelievers attempting to bring them back and, possibly, execute them for leaving. The story goes where you would expect it to go if what you were expecting was endless death and hardship backed by a beautifully pastoral musical score and animation that sometimes sinks to a sub-Hanna-Barbera level of laziness. As I said, it’s deeply frustrating.
When I say “endless death” that’s only a bit of an exaggeration. What I really mean, and what separates it from other animated movies dealing with death, such as Bambi (1942), to take an obvious example, is that the death is bountiful, all around, and matter of fact. One of the first things they encounter is a dead possum on the road. “What’s happened to him?” one of them asks. Another responds that, basically, he got killed by one of those big things that men have that move really fast. They don’t try to kill things on the road but if something’s in the way, well, that’s what happens. Then they find out the other rabbits all died in the other warren, just like Fiver foresaw, because developers came in, plugged up their escape holes, and gassed them to death. We’re then treated to an animation of dozens of rabbits piled on top of each other in a tunnel suffering from asphyxiation. Then one of them is shot. Another is snared. One is taken away by a hawk as Fiver watches. And so on. And very little of this is accompanied by any kind of specific drama or attention, as happens in Bambi with Bambi’s mother. In fact, the death by bird of prey is particularly notable. The other rabbits come over, ask where Violet is, and Fiver says she’s gone. It was their only female and they seem more distressed by this than the actual death which apparently happens with some regularity.
This is all setup in the opening sequence in which the narrator explains the legend of the rabbits, a creation legend told by them. And, yes, the legend has to do with them alienating all the other animals by over-mating and eating all the grass, so sex is a big part of their cultural story from the get-go. In fact, after Violet’s death, their main goal is to find as many females as they can so the warren can go on.
One issue with Watership Down has nothing to do with this movie in particular but with Disney movies like the aforementioned Bambi and its emphasis on the death of Bambi’s mother. Disney movies have long explored the loss of a parent and so viewers of animated movies have come to expect a certain emotional hand holding to go along with the death scene as well as, possibly, a song or two. That Watership Down deals with death in a much more adult way, without the hand holding but more of the mystical spirituality, especially in the acknowledgement that the dead rabbits have gone onto a another plane of existence and will be reunited with the dead, is its strength as a movie exploring themes of mortality while being a weakness as a children’s movie but only if it is a children’s movie. Which it may or may not be.
Another problem with the movie would be the animation but only if top flight animation is exactly what you’re looking for and not an intense story of mysticism, survival and death. That is to say, the animation mainly consists of watercolor backgrounds over which very crudely drawn rabbits appear that never quite seem to be actively filling the same space as the background.
These problems, and I feel like I should put that word in quotes, are only problems, again, if that’s what you’re in this for and as a younger viewer, I kind of was. I liked that the story moved along briskly and it made more sense to me than the book but I hated that it didn’t look like 101 Dalmations (1961). Watching it again, I found the animation to be just as crude and, yet, this time it didn’t bother me. The music, so beautiful and haunting, the story, and the voice acting by a group of British actors all doing extraordinary work, all make up for the less than stellar animation and, by the end, it’s those Disney movies that seem truly made for kids. I don’t say that as criticism, simply as a descriptor. By the end of Watership Down, it seems clear that this movie was made for viewers with an adult understanding of death and that movies like Bambi were made for viewers who needed to be carried along into that understanding.
With the passing of Richard Adams, Watership Down will probably enjoy an upswing in readership and deservedly so but I hope the movie gets some more attention as well. It’s available on Filmstruck and it’s the kind of quiet movie that gets your attention not with its animation or thrilling sequences but with its ideas. Perhaps it will be remade with state of the art computer animation but I don’t know if that will improve upon the simple pleasures at work in Martin Rosen’s adaptation. That simple animation starts to work, after a while, by bringing all the attention to the themes. And it’s those themes, and their exploration, that make the story unforgettable.
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