It’s easy to be scathing about the recent BBC adaptation of Watership Down. All the criticisms are valid particularly regarding the animation; the rabbits are almost indistinguishable and look more like hares than rabbits. There are peculiar diversions from the novel – I was particularly aghast at a bizarre pink crystal-worship-chanting scene. There are several such scenes inserted, and even a love story which simply serve to make an already overlong tale even longer. Watership Down has plenty of drama and doesn’t need adding to, and this version risks losing the attention spans of 21st century children who have countless other distractions to amuse themselves with.
However, the cast is excellent, and they each deliver their own parts with aplomb – including the more minor characters which gives a richness to the ensemble. The main story is there – its not as if the story has become unrecognisable. There are sections which work very well and manage to conjure up the creepiness inherent in the novel – such as the General Woundwort’s chilling back story. This adaptation is certainly less visceral at key moments but it’s all still there – Bigwig caught in a snare, the devastation wrought upon the Sandleford warren, the menace of the Efrafrans – just with a lighter touch.
The problem that this adaptation has, is that it is fighting against the memories of both the book and the brilliant (and hard to fault) 1979 film. But this adaptation is aimed at a new generation of children who most likely are coming across Watership Down for the first time. In that respect, this adaptation is a perfectly successful. We must always remember that books we’ve loved can almost never live up to our expectation on screen, usually for the simple reason that a film or TV adaptation is exactly that – an adaptation – and is not the same thing as a novel. I am one of those who first came across Watership Down via the 1979 version, and subsequently read the book after having been duly traumatised. Sometimes I wonder if I would have liked the 1979 version at all if I had read the book first.
When I learned in May 2016 that this new adaptation was on the cards AND that it was due to tone down the ‘violence’ I immediately took to Twitter in an apoplectic rage to decry the pointlessness of it. But I did conclude that it would bring the book to a new generation of readers and that is the same conclusion that I have come to again having seen it in the Christmas of 2018. I can’t help being glad that this strange book is inevitably being picked up afresh by new readers. Watership Down is a rare piece of literature that treats its young audience as intelligent beings instead of as cherubs living in some innocent idyll of childhood. Sadly, even in happy families, children can experience the same difficulties adults do – bereavement, homelessness, illness, to name but a few – and fun as Disney can be, sometimes a princess story just isn’t enough.
Which brings me to my personal bugbear with this version. As well as additions to the story, there are of course revisions and cuts. I can accept that as a general method to transpose a lengthy novel to the screen, however there is one aspect I can’t quite forgive, although it’s seemingly a small one. In the novel, when the group are fleeing the original warren, they come up with the idea of using a raft to get them away on the river as a result of a dog being loose nearby. The characters explicitly express – this was a smart idea, let’s remember this in case we need it again someday. Later, at the climax of the novel, Fiver goes into a trance remembering the raft and the dog. This memory prompts in Hazel the idea of leading the dog onto Woundwort, and ultimately defeating him. This whole thread is removed from this version.
Why would that matter? It matters because the novel shows us that it’s not enough to simply endure the hardships of life but that we can and must learn from them, that the most terrifying experiences we undergo can ultimately serve us – if we are open to learning from them.
I read this story as a child of seven, and as an adult this message stayed with me. When I have gone through difficulties, say, the usual problems of a twentysomething – hating my job, a break-up and so on – occasionally I’d remember a haunting refrain from the 1979 adaptation. Hazel tries to rally the spirits of Pipkin (the smallest rabbit in the group, a character excised from the BBC adaptation) and he reminds him of a previous run-in they had with danger which Pipkin had successfully manoeuvred; ‘We got out from the rats in the barn, didn’t we…’ That phrase was a rallying cry to myself to remember that I had survived trauma in the past and would figure things out, some way, somehow.
Watership Down is a hard sell – it is both a children’s story of anthropomorphised rabbits and a terrifying eco-horror. It’s an acquired taste – you’ve either fallen in love with the story or it’s probably lost on you. And that is why I cannot help being pleased that in 2018/19 a new generation might just be intrigued enough by this BBC adaptation to pick up the novel – which is now already back on the bestseller list.
Reviewed by T.S.J. Harling
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