I was quite amused by the news story (well, it is not really news but did seem to get a fair amount of coverage) that there had been a bit of a kerfuffle over a showing of the 1978 adaptation of Watership Down during the Easter period and the ‘trauma’ it apparently caused by upsetting young children. Obviously I am not amused by the thought of childhood trauma but more that this is something of a long running cause celebre in this household so it was interesting to see a private conversation spilling over into the media.
I’ll make my position clear – I adore this book. I think I must have read it at least three or four times a year from about age 8 to 14 when a friend started punting some quality heroic Fantasy at me instead. It was the only book that my English teacher in the first couple of years at the Newcastle Royal Grammar did not roll his eyes at during our reading sessions at school (I do not think he was that impressed with more usual fare of Doctor Who novelizations) Unfortunately, love of a book means that inevitably I am (at best) ambivalent to the film adaptation. They make a decent stab at it, and the voice work is great (John Hurt works for me as Hazel as his slightly weary voice epitomises exactly how I see this character, see below) but in the end the heart and soul of the book and the well-drawn characters of the individual rabbits are lost and I personally see it as a bit of a pale imitation. To the Lovely Wife it is the disturbing movie where ‘they all die’, a view stemming from a childhood trip to the cinema which apparently resulted in upset as recent reported (where I recall my reaction being eight year old indigence at the death of a certain character who does not die in the book). After a recent viewing we have come to a conclusion that actually the Lovely Wife never got to the end of the movie (Spoilers: They do not, I repeat, do not ‘all die’) and what she remembers is the very unsettling sequence featuring the destruction of the warren. Which is upsetting and deliberately so – it must be or the whole point of our heroes leaving in the first place is undercut.
Watership Down is not by any stretch a children’s book. It is far too complex for that, an epic tale of adventure populated by a range of diverse (and likeable) characters that you care about and with a background of a fascinating and well thought out rabbit culture and mythology. It is heavily allegorical (a bit too much so in places) but also knows when to have fun.
It also features one of the best examples of leadership to be found in fiction. In Hazel you have a lead character who appears to be totally average, an everyman that has a slightly nuts little brother. Over the course of the book he proves however to be the right rabbit at the right time to lead a ragtag bunch of rabbits through trials and tribulations to a new life – and be bright enough to save them all when things go badly wrong. Crucially it is his ability to see and use the talents of the other rabbits – Bigwig’s brawn, Dandelion’s speed, Blackberry’s intelligence and artifice – to the best advantage of all that is the reason they succeed. He inspires loyalty and is prepared to take chances and think in a flexible way. None of the other rabbits would think of making friends with a mouse, of all things. Hazel does and as a result sets up something absolutely vital for the survival of his people. Perhaps the most dramatic scene in the book is when, in a last attempt to avoid a bloody conflict, the partially lame Hazel goes alone to confront General Woundwort and politely asks him to leave in peace. The attempt fails, but Hazel escapes because the General cannot be bothered to kill this insignificant cripple and in this error seals his fate. In this meeting are exposed all the differences between these two leaders; a massive bully that cannot conceive anyway of leading except through force and the brave individual thrust into the position of leader and just doing his best.
I have seen some reports that the BBC is considering another adaptation. I would love to see an even darker and adult take on the book, and I really hope that they take the time to allow the richness of the book to spill over into what is effectively an epic quest fantasy (and latterly infiltration thriller). But I think they will need to warn people that this is not at all about fluffy bunnies.