(SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate.
As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much informed by an Old Testament view of God, such that Frith treats his rabbit subjects (and particularly El-ahrairah) with impunity, rather than mercy. They are, as C3P0 might say, made to suffer. The novel’s main narrative is broken intermittently with stories concerning the attempts by El-ahrairah to outwit Frith, or punishment by his god, or his encounters with the Black Rabbit of Inle (in the film, Hazel offers himself to Black Rabbit to protect his own, as El-ahrairah does in the novel; in both instances, Frith turns him down).
It’s striking how fully developed Adams’ world is, in a manner not so dissimilar to George Lucas’ pre-fabricated Star Wars universe. Both preoccupy themselves with the Campbellian hero’s journey, after all. Adams arranges his stage with prophets (Fiver, voiced by Richard Briers), no-nonsense heroes (Bigwig, voiced by Michael Graham Cox) and sidekicks/comic relief (Kehaar, voiced by Zero Mostel, who manages to be the amusing centre of the movie while also occupying what is ostensibly the Han Solo role, right down to swooping to the rescue at a crucial moment).
Underpinning and permeating these archetypes is an absolutely integral belief system. Rather than the Force, it is Frith and the Black Rabbit that are a simple fact of existence; the picture is bookended by Frith’s individualisation of El-ahriarah as a rabbit, and an older Hazel shuffling off his mortal coil in the company of the Black Rabbit; so too, at the midpoint, there comes the inclusion of Art Garfunkle’s memorably crooned Bright Eyes (more famous than the film itself), as Fiver is led to his brother Hazel through a vision quest.
Uncartoonified design, fitting the pigeonhole-less book, Watership Down, despite being directed by an American, fits into a highly individualised tradition of British animation (until the industry essentially became Aardman). The anthropomorphism is subtle, such that you’re barely aware (barring Keehar) of mouth movements as the (outstanding) voice cast deliver their dialogue.
The results are simple yet poetic and elegiac, visualised through pastoral pastel backgrounds and naturalistic behaviour and movements from the landscape’s animal inhabitants. Filmmakers often say they’re attempting to honour source material while the end product reveals nothing of the sort, so betraying their essential cynicism, but Rosen genuinely means it and genuinely delivers. Areas that would no doubt have been discarded under a Hollywood umbrella, such as the distinctive rabbit language, are retained without, rightly, feeling the need to explain; audiences can readily understand.
Adams’ book is replete with sex and death. The former is less prevalent in the picture, albeit remains the motivating force for all the problems encountered during the second half of the picture. Of note is that Adams’ presents the matriarchal rabbit kingdom as patriarchal, with does objectified as producers young, which has earned it understandable criticism from some quarters. The novel also features liberal helpings of coprophagia. As Rosen notes, no one was sure initially if this was a children’s or adult book, and the film follows that guiding principal, often regarded as much too distressing for young children by parents yet contrastingly loved dearly by those who appreciate a different, distinctive, intelligent tale, one that refuses to talk down to or coddle its audience.
And it isn’t as if the makers attempted to hoodwink cinemagoers; the poster depicts Bigwig caught in a snare in! Blood is everywhere in the film, both literal and metaphorical, and there is no shying away from animal casualties; this is animation poised between the comfort of anthropomorphism and the reality of a natural history programme (as a reminder of its heartland feel, we even hear “This is the BBC Home Service” on the radio at one point).
There is also much hallucinatory imagery, from Fiver’s vision of blood encroaching across a field (very much adopting the tone of a horror movie, sinisterly corrupting the countryside Just as the machines will in due course) to Holly recounting the terrifying destruction of the warren, expressionistic rabbits suffocating in blocked holes, grasping for air. One wonders if the film didn’t impact on Vincent Ward when he was making Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, what with the interpretation of the great metal beast that is a train as a messenger from Frith.
Sound is also used in an uncompromising way, very much following the horror genre. Angela Morley turned five minutes of Malcolm Williamson cues into a full score in only two weeks, and takes in themes from the idyllic to the martial, almost imperially so, of the Efrafan in their pursuit of the Hazel’s rabbits. The climax is notable in that (like the novel) it utilises what would become the fake-out of a thousand slasher movies or Thomas Harris novels; just when you thought it was safe, General Woundwort returns.
There is compression here, but little of it leaves one complaining how much better the the film would have been if only it stuck to the source material. Changes include having Holly come across the Efrafans during his escape from the doomed warren (rather than as part of an expedition sent by Hazel to find mates), but this doesn’t really hurt the structure; while it would be quire possible to make a two-and-a-half-hour Watership Down (apparently the ‘90s TV series loosely followed, and sanitised, the novel), and make it riveting to watch, that just isn’t the way with animations, which, conscious of viewer ages and resources, generally stick to the 90-minute mark. Perhaps Fiver is rather forgotten in the end (he doesn’t get his moment at the climax, unlike the novel) but he does cue up events with the warning “There’s a dog loose in the wood”.
Some find the animation style crude, judged by today’s standards, and it was even called out in relation to the cost-cutting approach of Disney at that time (Time Out was scathing, writing it off as a glorified radio play and lacking any of the novel’s punch), yet I find it difficult to countenance such criticism with what is so persuasively charming and distinctive.
Also distinctive is one of the best voice casts ever assembled for an animation, headed up by Hurt’s unusually heroic role as Hazel, Briers perfectly encapsulating Fiver’s woozy vulnerability, and Pipkin even looking a little like Roy Kinnear. Ralph Richardson’s Chief Rabbit is almost a boorish civil servant, oblivious to the danger he is in, while Denholm Elliot’s Cowslip, resident of the snared warren, is a fantastically louche, flaky, creepy rabbit poet (“Where are you going, stream…”), sitting idly by and ignoring suffering on his doorstep (so a rabbit very much humanised by human intent).
Indeed, one most regrets the reduction in representation of characters from the novel when one scans the supporting cast; names such as Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay), Nigel Hawthorne (Campion) and Derek Griffiths (Vervain). Michael Hordern and Joss Ackland are marvellous as Frith and the Back Rabbit respectively, the former instilling a hauntingly wistful authority, while Harry Andrews is a suitably imperious Woundwort (“Dogs aren’t dangerous!”)
And, of course, there’s seagull Keehar’s “plenty good fella”, wonderfully brought to life by Zero Mostel in his last film role. He’s the comic relief, granted the best hero moment and also the biggest laugh (and shock), exclaiming “Piss off!” to the rabbits when he first meets them (this is in the novel, but it’s still an eyebrow-raiser in a U certificate family film). While there’s little similarity between the plots of Watership Down and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, both Robert C O'Brien's novel and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, the latter released four years after Watership Down, also include a feathered slapstick sidekick in the form of dim-watt crow Jeremy (voiced by Dom DeLuise).
Watership Down went down extremely well in the UK, but was a failure in the US. Perhaps its uncompromising approach was a bit of a sucker punch in a country so used to Disney niceties. Still, it did well enough that Rosen followed it up with an adaptation of Adams’ The Plague Dogs (also with Hurt and Hawthorne). The in-the-making BBC CGI adaptation of Watership is inevitable, I guess, although I will be extremely surprised if it remains as true to the novel as Rosen (conversely, it would be nice to see faithful remakes of the likes of Mrs Frisby, The Iron Giant and The Fantastic Mr Fox one day). Watership Down’s greatest strength is that it carries the air of undoctored truth, neither patronising nor appeasing its audience; nature is cruel, harsh, resplendent and beguiling in this melancholic classic. It’s one of the best British animations ever made.