Watership Down on page and screen

You know how you let yourself think that everything will be all right if you can only get to a certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it’s not that simple.

Everybody knows what Watership Down is. It’s that one with the bunnies. The cute little creatures that hop around and eat grass. Those that know a little more about Watership Down know that it was first a book by Richard Adams and then an animated film, both of which are well regarded in their fields. If you watched Watership Down as a child you might remember that it’s a pretty traumatic film. Adams doesn’t hold back when it comes to the perils a rabbit faces on a daily basis, nor does the film adaptation of his book. There’s a lot more blood and terrifying images present in Watership Down than you would expect from a story about bunnies, and that’s great, but it’s not the only thing Watership Down has going for it. At least in its written incarnation it is a complex and deep story full of mythology and adventure and philosophy. And bunnies.

The Book

Watership Down is nearly 500 pages long. It has a made up language and a map of the world the rabbits live in. There are various races with which alliances are made to persevere. There are several stories told of the first rabbit and the tricks it played on the other animals. There’s a great journey and a war. If this book wasn’t about rabbits nobody would call it a book for kids. It’s not, really. It’s a book for everybody. The prose isn’t too complicated nor are the ideas too adult for a kid to read, and although the characters have names like Hazel and Big Wig and there’s a friendly seagull that squawks in an oddly Russian version of English the book isn’t nearly as childish as it might seem at the outset. Adams deftly rides the line between these two worlds and makes a book that everybody should be able to appreciate. Sure, the kids might not get all of the allusions to trickster gods and Homer’s Odyssey (that Lotus Eater warren is a fantastic set-piece, one of the spookiest things) and the plotting might be a little on the simple side for some adult readers (it’s funny that they only realize there’re no does a few days after they arrive at the titular rabbit haven, just in time to start up the next bit of the book), but everybody should be able to appreciate the depth of character and theme that Adams weaves throughout the tale. This is a big journey for such small creatures to undertake and as they do so we learn a lot about rabbit culture and the mythology they use to bolster spirits in their times of desperation.

A scene from the film's version of the origin of rabbits.

I really liked this book. It’s part Lord of the Rings, part Odyssey, part rabbit nature study but wholly its own thing. There’s a large cast of characters and each is written with such detail and specificity that they are really their own person rabbit. Big Wig is the heavy with a soft side, Hazel is the regular joe that develops into a strong leader, General Woundwart is the misguided warlord. They’re among the best group of characters I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed any point in the story when they asked for a story of the first rabbit to be told. It always came at a time when the group needed to be reminded that they were rabbits and rabbits always get out of tough situations. Particularly memorable is the story of the first rabbit’s trip to the rabbit underworld and a meeting with the Black Rabbit that meets all bunnies at the end of their lives. It is, of course, reminiscent of those journeys to hell in the Odyssey and those stories that play on that one and it is suitably creepy and moody. The whole book is, really. There are quite a few scenes that are really scary and few moments of pure joy. It’s certainly not a saccharine book.

The Movie

I know a lot of people really like this movie. I was excited to see it after reading the excellent book. The film is often mentioned among the few good page-to-screen adaptations. I didn’t like it much. In fact, only the beautiful watercolor backgrounds and Keehar, the lovable Russian-tinged seagull were of any note here. The animation felt too choppy, like there weren’t enough frames to get a fluid sense of motion for the running rabbits. And everything else moved too quickly, too. The film abandoned everything but the general plot elements of the book. There was nothing for me to latch onto. I only knew who these rabbits were because I had read the book. I got no sense of the characters outside what I brought to them. And though at times the rabbits seemed very rabbit-ish there were other times when the things they did felt rushed. I recall one scene where they stop under a wagon for a night and they all just run right under it and then close their eyes the moment they stop moving. This doesn’t gel at all with the way Adams writes about rabbits. They always worry about the creatures that want to eat them and the humans that don’t care about the natural world and destroy it through sheer ignorance. But not these little animated bunnies. They go right to sleep. Not a care in the world.

And because everything is rushed through you lose what makes the book so great. The first four minutes tell the story of the first rabbit (and does so quite well, in a clean line on white background style that works for such mythic storytelling) but that aspect never reappears. Every situation is entered so quickly and dispatched with even quicker. The lotus eater warren lasts for about a minute. You only sense that the rabbits are strange because Fiver, the psychic brother of Hazel, tells you so. Ugh. Such wasted potential.

You don't have to look at me like that just because I didn't like your movie.

In conclusion, read the book, look at the pretty stills from the film, and move on.

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3 thoughts on “Watership Down on page and screen

  1. Another victim of reading a book before watching the film. Watership Down the movie wasn’t so empty, except when comparing it to the book. It was still powerful, although I’d agree that characterization was weak.

    Don’t let this happen to you. Watch the movie, THEN read the book, and so enjoy both experiences 🙂

  2. Yes, yes. I am a bad movie watcher. Your suggested method is actually what I normally do but power outages and recent purchases all but forced me into this course of action.

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