It’s been 35 years since Richard Adams’s bestselling novel about a pack of travelling rabbits hopped onto the big screen. And, somewhat inevitably, those of the recent generation will find its animation pale in comparison to todays CGI. Yet, there’s an air of timelessness about Watership Down. The rich backgrounds of rolling green hills and winding countryside are still striking. The way in which the creatures retain their animal tendencies whilst also possessing human emotive qualities is still intriguing. And the bright, bold colours that radiate off the screen are still a thing of beauty. All of this, accompanied by a powerful score that ranges from tear-jerking to doom-impending, make Watership Down an important animated British feature. It is by no means flawless, and as a big fan of the novel I sometimes found myself cringing at the cuts made in order for the book to become a reasonably-lengthed film. But even with these exclusions, the film enables itself to raise several issues whilst keeping the viewer interested with what is at times some powerful filmmaking.
Watership Down’s opening sequence is of stark contrast to the remainder of the film. A treacly narrator tells a tale highly reminiscent of religious fables, over the top of some podgy animation and dark colour that has a hint of familiarity to caveman drawings. It ends on a somewhat daunting note, as the rabbits are warned “All the world will be your enemy, and if they catch you, they will kill you…but they must catch you first”. That’s some pretty dark stuff right there, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The rest of the film follows a band of bunnies who have trusted a hunch by the particularly fidgety buck named Fiver, who has predicted that a horrifying event is about to descend upon their warren. Under his advice, they flee their home and set to find a new warren somewhere where they can be sure of safety. This is not so much an adventure but more of a survival mission, as they are forced to dodge a wide variety of predators including cats, foxes, badgers, and even other mysterious rabbits. Eventually we meet the film’s main antagonist General Woundwort, a war-crazy rabbit with a permanent snarl etched into his features, who runs a warren like clockwork. There are many fierce creatures that pop up in Watership Down, but rabbit General Woundwort is probably the most ferocious of them all. Sometimes the rabbits can be difficult to tell apart, but they are collectively portrayed as a selfless bunch, and we are able to generate a strong connection with them as a result.
Over the years, there have been debates surrounding the film’s suitability for children. It’s a debate worth having I can assure you. I don’t know whether it was aimed at children when it initially came out, but I do know that the book won the ‘Children’s fiction award’, and this quite frankly baffles me. I guess the big appeal to kids here is the bright animation, with lots of cartoon bunnies jumping around on an epic adventure that will all turn out ok. But, as many will know by now, Watership Down is nothing of the sort. No way should this have ever been advertised to anyone under the age of 10. I’ve yet to see a cartoon film with as much brutality and unrelenting violence as this one. Indeed, when it comes to the issue of classifying, I do feel as though there is a great lack of common sense surrounding Richard Adams’s creation. The novel itself, although worthy of many an award, should never have won ‘Children’s Book of the Year’, as it should never have been slapped with the ‘Children’s Book’ tag in the first place. The content is violent, the text can be quite sophisticated, and ultimately it takes no prisoners. My only hope is that the spots of elevated lexis may be enough to deter the younger reader before they continue to the passages of violence – which in the film are brought to life in brutal fashion. Bizarrely, the film is out on DVD as a ‘U’ certificate – citing that it is suitable for all, which is in my humble opinion an absolute farce. The wild eyes of General Woundwort alone would be enough to terrify the younger viewer. But I don’t belong in the field of censorship. And it’s just as well really, I don’t think I’d last very long. I appear to have disagreed with a fair few people in this field concerning Watership Down, and in all matters of media.
The transition from page to screen is always a gamble, and whilst Watership Down in movie-form isn’t entirely faithful to the book, director Martin Rosen still achieves a pretty smooth transition. There are a cluster of characters omitted, and several sub-plots that don’t appear. I’m not suggesting that every conversation in the book should be sucked up onto the film reel, but I do feel that some key dialogue is missing at times. There is apparently no time to explain the meanings behind most of the countryside/rabbit terminology, and in contrast the novel puts these into very simple terms. Some of these terms such as silflay and hraka will mean absolutely nothing to a viewer who has never read the book. This lack of sufficient explanation could prove to be a frustrating ordeal for many. On a personal note, I did crave for some of the absent sub-plots and I also missed a lot of the omitted characters. But if it’d been up to me, the film probably would’ve ended up being over 3 hours long; excessive to say the least. I guess I’d be cutting off my nose to spite my face. This is a difficult novel to transform into a film, and Rosen has done it pretty damn well considering.
It’s a bit of shame to have to say that reading the novel first, or at least skipping over some of the plot and terminology, will enable a more enjoyable viewing as opposed to merely watching the film. But at the same time, there is enough excitement and beauty embedded in this production to keep viewers hooked as a stand-alone film. They just may not fully understand exactly what they’re being hooked by.