It’s Easter, and that means bunnies – and that means Watership Down. For this Book Versus Film we’re taking a stroll through real Hampshire countryside searching for fictional rabbits, but who gets to rule the warren? Let’s hop to it…
For a modern classic, Watership Down started life without literary any intentions. It came into being as stories Richard Adams told his two young daughters during long car journeys. They insisted he write them down – and 18 months later, the manuscript was submitted to publishing houses. And rejected, seven times.
Rex Collings, a small London publisher, finally took a chance. It was he who suggested the title, and though he couldn’t afford to pay Adams an advance, he did ensure a review copy went to every prominent critic. His gamble paid off, and word soon spread.
Told in four parts, each chapter begins with a quotation by sources ranging from Aeschylus to Napoleon. All the locations exist, and as the story opens it is May, and the mating season …
Fiver, a young rabbit, has visions that his home, the Sandleford Warren, will be destroyed in an imminent, inexplicable disaster. Most refuse to listen, except for Hazel, Fiver’s eldest brother. With a few others, they set off in search of a new home – to hills, many miles distant, called Watership Down.
After many perils the group reach the Down, but Hazel knows their long-term survival depends on persuading does to join them. They learn of an overcrowded warren called Efrafa, but it is ruled by the tyrannical General Woundwort, who will not permit anyone to leave. The rabbits instigate a daring plan to infiltrate and rescue several does from Efrafa – but though it succeeds, the General has tracked them to Watership Down, and plans a terrible revenge …
Hazel is the main protagonist. He has no pretentions to become Chief Rabbit (or ‘Hazel-rah’) but as the most level-headed, the others turn to him to lead them, both figuratively and geographically. Fiver is hyper-sensitive, prone to seeing portents and used to being dismissed, until he is proven right when Sandleford Warren is destroyed to make way for a housing development – told in horrific detail by two survivors.
Of the other rabbits, the most significant are Bigwig, an officer in the Owsla (the rabbit military hierarchy), and their strongest buck; Blackberry, the clever one, who solves how to cross a river using driftwood as a raft; and Dandelion, their storyteller, an important position within rabbit society, who shares many tales about their mythical leader El-ahrairah.
Two more characters deserve a mention: Kehaar, a seagull the rabbits befriend when he has a damaged wing, and who not only finds Efrafa but also saves Hazel’s life by removing pellets after he’s been shot; and finally the antagonist, General Woundwort, who creates Efrafa and ruthlessly enforces it. He only appears in the final third of the book, but (as in the film) his shadow looms so large across the entire story that – as with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs – you think he’s in it a lot more than he actually is.
Parallels have been drawn between the Sandleford rabbit characters and Homer’s Odyssey. It’s also been noted how Adams derives his ‘hero’s journey’ from the works of Joseph Campbell, in particular the mythologist’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces – which opens chapter 26, with a quote that perfectly captures Fiver’s (the Shaman’s) plight, after learning of Hazel’s injury.
Creating a World
One expects books like Dune or The Lord of the Rings to have within them a carefully crafted society, a language, mythology, proverbs, etc, but a kids’ book about rabbits? That’s what Adams has done, though. He’s created a language (Lapine), invents an entire creation-myth through the sun/god Frith, presents a mythic character in El-ahrairah the first rabbit – whose stories act as light relief throughout – and provides plenty of proverbs. It’s a terrific feat of world-building, and adds so much depth. And there’s even a map (two, in fact).
Adams takes great care to ensure this new world is relatable. So many rabbit observations have an anthropomorphic lineage (rabbits count heartbeats between owl hoots to judge distance, in the same way we count between lightning and thunder), and there’s even a sly allusion to the Deluge myth, where a man “built a great, floating hutch that held all the animals and birds”.
But it’s still a story about rabbits, and Adams does not stint on the research. Much of it comes from R M Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit, which is referenced several times. These bunnies fight, brutally; they defecate (or pass hraka, to use the Lapine term); and, most surprisingly, they have an urge to mate that could destroy their new peaceful life unless that need is met – not something you’d expect in a children’s book.
First published in November 1972, Watership Down received terrific reviews and won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize, among other awards. In a 2003 UK survey called The Big Read, it was voted the 42nd greatest book of all time.
For its American release, the book was cannily placed on the adult publishing list. As Connie Clausen at Macmillan astutely put it: “This isn’t about a bunny. It’s about life and death.” This crossover appeal made it a worldwide phenomenon, and by 1985 Penguin books declared it their second highest seller ever (behind Animal Farm), having sold over 5 million copies.
The book became so well known that by 1974, following President Nixon’s resignation, National Lampoon magazine wrote a satirical piece called Watergate Down. Two years later, Fantasy Games Unlimited released Bunnies & Burrows, responsible for many innovations in the then-fledgling role-playing game format, and inspired by Adams’s book. Whilst a belated sequel, Tales of Watership Down, was published in 1996, fans did not have as long to wait before it appeared on the big screen.
There have been several adaptations. In 1999 a British/Canadian TV series ran for three seasons, and in 2018 a BBC/Netflix four-part miniseries was screened. It’s been adapted for the stage at least twice, and radio numerous times – but the most famous interpretation, and the one I’ll focus on here, is the 1978 animated feature.
When producer Martin Rosen picked three-times Oscar winner John Hubley to direct the film, he probably thought the toughest job was behind him. A year later, however, he fired Hubley (his material can still be seen, in the stylised prologue where we meet El-Ahrairah), and working from his own script – with Hubley’s uncredited input – Rosen took over directing duties himself.
Headlining an impressive cast-list, John Hurt gives an assured performance as Hazel, nicely offset by Richard Briers as a suitably neurotic Fiver. Interestingly, both would return two decades later to voice different characters in the TV series, with Hurt playing his own nemesis, but here General Woundwort is voiced with sombre gravitas by Harry Andrews. For a film so keen to replicate a bygone-era English countryside, however, trust an American to steal the show: Zero Mostel’s Teutonic-accented delivery as Kehaar, entirely in keeping with the book, is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
To say this is over forty years old, the animation is still remarkable today. Of course, it cannot match the CGI wizardry of Disney/Pixar fare, but nor does it need to (and the recent miniseries showed just how charmless that would be). Watercolour backgrounds are often overlaid by soft-focus foregrounds to give a genuine sense of depth. Picking up on Adams’s love of nature, it also brings the countryside to life: the way water is represented by fractured, shifting sunlight is as breathtaking as the view from the top of Watership Down.
The characters are also well drawn, subtle use of anthropomorphised gestures making them more identifiable. Fiver especially is well served: a jittery presence throughout, his big expressive eyes always upon some horror neither we nor his friends can see. But if there’s one character that benefits most from cartoon corporeality, it’s Efrafa’s tyrannical leader.
If Darth Vader had a rabbit, it would’ve been General Woundwort. Were Angela Morley’s melodic score to detour into the Imperial March when this leporid leviathan lumbers into view, it would not have felt out of place. So indelible is this cinematic iteration, all future versions have retained Woundwort’s blind left eye – despite him not being so afflicted in the book. It’s also no coincidence he bares more teeth than any other rabbit. The General was designed to scare, and he does this well. Perhaps, as the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) discovered, a little too well. But let’s save that carrot for later…
To cram a 460-plus page book into a 91-minute film requires a lot of streamlining, so it’s surprising how little is lost. Most of it comes from the final third, where the journey to and from Efrafa, the river escape, and the final showdown are all shortened, though not at the expense of dramatic effect. Otherwise, the main differences come with reordering some events: the farm where Hazel is shot appears earlier, and Efrafa is now introduced when a wounded Captain Holly, having just come from there, finds Hazel and co. This is admittedly muddled: it’s presented as a flashback, but Holly doesn’t appear to be in the scene he’s remembering – and then there’s the question of how he left Sandleford after the rest, yet got all the way to Efrafa, escaped, then limped back to Watership Down just as the others first arrive there – but that’s the only misstep in a very faithful adaptation.
The most noticeable addition is a doe called Violet, who flees the Sandleford Warren with Hazel’s party. She’s not in the book, and sadly not in the film for long either. As the rabbits shelter in a field, she’s killed by a hawk. All we see is the bird swoop down, then a tuft of fur floating away, but the point is made: if the group’s only doe can be killed, nobody is safe.
Of course, whilst violence is permitted, sex is not: this is a British film, after all! These are a chaste bunch of bunnies, saying only that without does there will be no more rabbits. Also pruned are the tales of El-ahrairah. We just get the opening fable, where Frith turned the other animals against El-ahrairah as a punishment – but this does allow for a pleasing recap at the end, when we hear again Frith reminding us that, though the rabbit has a thousand enemies, it will never be destroyed. It’s something unique to the film, and brings it a satisfying close.
When it opened before Christmas 1978, Watership Down enjoyed good reviews and strong box office. It became a pop culture staple, helped in no small part by that song. Bright Eyes was the UK’s biggest selling single in 1979, and its video – a four-minute trailer for the film – was a marketing-campaigner’s dream. Okay, the lyric about the river of death should have been a clue, but nobody expected a song by one half of folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel to accompany anything but the gentlest of movies. And Watership Down is anything but the gentlest of movies.
The film was given a U (suitable for all) certificate, and the BBFC have admitted they’ve received complaints about this almost every year since. Woundwort plays a part, but more disturbing is the blood on display. We see it when Bigwig’s trapped by a snare; we see it as rabbits are ‘marked’ as Efrafans; and most memorably, we see it in the finale, when Woundwort battles several rabbits before facing down a dog. I feel its presence is justified – it adds to the realism – but audiences at the time were more used to The Rescuers or the part-animated Pete’s Dragon, films parents were safe taking their kids to. That it is disturbing is beyond doubt, and a re-certification is long overdue, but the film is simply staying true to the source material. To water down Watership Down would do a disservice to both film and book.
And the Chief Rabbit is …
Was this a tough choice? Do rabbits pass hraka in the woods…? To quote a rabbit proverb: “Our children’s children will hear a good story”, and both tell a very good story.
Whilst the film drops a lot of the incidental material, it absolutely gets straight to the heart of the rabbits’ quest for survival. It also packs an emotional punch then uncommon in animated features at the time (Bambi’s mum aside), and still looks beautiful today.
However, it cannot take us into the life of a rabbit with the same detail as the book. The sheer all-encompassing worldview we are presented in Adams’s prose, always informative yet never obstructive, for me is the deciding factor. It’s a close call, but the book is the winner.
What do you think?
BIO: Nick Jackson is the author of several short stories across numerous genres, and multiple Book V Film comparisons for Lucy. He lives nowhere near Watership Down, which is a relief because General Woundwort’s body was never actually found …