Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a masterful epic about rabbits, occupies a space somewhere between The Wind in the Willows and The Once and Future King, though it is more naturalistic and less whimsical than either. Gratifyingly true both to the letter and the spirit of Adams’ novel, the 1978 British animated adaptation written and directed by Martin Rosen is a singular achievement in English-language animation: a thematically and emotionally rich cartoon about talking animals, untouched by sentiment and cutesiness.
Like Disney’s Bambi, Watership Down is based on a tough-minded, sometimes violent novel that is more an anthropomorphic interpretation of animal life than a tale of fully anthropomorphic animals. Adams’ influences included Animal Farm, Gulliver’s Travels and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but also The Private Life of the Rabbit by British naturalist Ronald Lockley, with its eye-opening accounts of leporine violence.
Unlike Bambi, Watership Down has not been Disneyfied in the retelling. The Disney magic was at a low ebb in 1978, a year that saw another ambitious, mature-toned animated adaptation of a perennially bestselling 20th-century British epic: Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. Bakshi’s project is a gallant failure, a victim of his sprawling source material; Rosen’s is a low-key success. He can only offer a sampling of Adams’ hefty book, but he made shrewd choices in editing and rearranging material, and it’s a satisfying sampling that works well in its own right, and even better as a companion to the novel.
It’s not a perfect adaptation. Occasional pacing and continuity glitches attest the sometimes troubled production. (Among other things, Rosen initially hired former Disney animator John Hubley, who had worked on Bambi, then fired him after a year of slow progress that nevertheless left its mark on two of the film’s most memorable moments: the mythic opening sequence and the song “Bright Eyes,” sung by Art Garfunkel.)
In a generally solid voice cast, John Hurt is outstanding as practical, strategically minded Hazel, older brother of the high-strung young visionary Fiver (Richard Briers), and Zero Mostel, in his final performance, is delightfully gruff and blustery as the seagull Kehaar, whose bond with the Watership Down rabbits is just one token of this warren’s unique community.
Adams’ rabbits think, talk and plan, but their horizons are limited; they cannot count beyond four, a mechanism as simple as a raft baffles all but the cleverest of them, and the ways of man are a deep mystery. They tell stories and even pray, but their stories and prayers are appropriate to the condition of rabbits.
Only one of the rabbits’ stories makes it into the film, that mythic opening sequence. It is a leporine myth of creation that does exactly what a myth of creation should do: It not only offers an account of why the world is the way it is, it explains the place of rabbits in the world, and their relationship to the rest of creation.
The deity in the rabbits’ tales is Frith, the sun; nocturnal animals would doubtless have a different conception of the creator. Their legendary hero, the first rabbit, is the trickster El-ahrairah, which in Adams’ Lapine language means “Prince with a Thousand Enemies.”
Watership Down explores themes of social roles and organization, politics and power, culture and spirituality, mortality and death. Because of precedents like Animal Farm, some have tried to interpret it as allegory, but it is simply a great story; its thematic richness lies in its truthfulness to life.
It is a mark of the story’s attentiveness to art and imagination that a warning sign of a warren where things have gone wrong is that the rabbits there no longer tell the stories of El-ahrairah; instead, they compose enervating poetry expressing the terrible truth of their condition that they dare not acknowledge any other way. Another warren is even worse: Life there is purely utilitarian, devoid of culture.
Because of its mature tone and sometimes bloody violence, the cartoon’s appropriateness for children is much debated. My own experience as a parent is that different children are sensitive to different things, but many parents shelter children more than necessary, or from the wrong things. Watership Down is not a movie to leave your kids to watch, but it’s a great movie to watch as a family and discuss afterward.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.