I’m starting to think I should stop watching movie adaptations, at least so quickly on the heels of a book. I’m bound to be, if not dissatisfied, outright angry at the result even though I understand that you can’t take an entire novel and shove it into 90 minutes. You are bound to end up with some sort of fictional turducken and all we can hope for is that the skin is crisp, the breast isn’t dry, and no one goes to hospital over undercooked stuffing. (Also, spoilers forthcoming.)
When I was a kid, somewhere past the invention of mass-market VCRs but before I hit my teens, I watched WATERSHIP DOWN with my family. I remember vividly how I felt watching it, if not the details of the story itself, a movie about a group of rabbits off to find and settle their own warren. I remember the ghost rabbit, I remember the violence, and I remember crying at the end of it. Years after the movie was but the fuzziest of memories, there was still a piece of me that knew if I were to revisit this movie it would strike the same chord. I knew it was based on a book, but passively avoided it.
Fast forward many years. At Viable Paradise, you couldn’t spend a day there without hearing about the novel, written by Richard Adams in the early 70s with the animated movie made shortly after. Any book mentioned during the workshop was added to my book reading list, and this was no exception. I only got to it recently but decided almost immediately as I was swept away that I would re-watch the adaptation right after.
They held the book up as an example of good description and exposition, as the novel relies heavily on making the world the rabbits inhabit as real as possible. The reader becomes intimately familiar with the kinds of things that grow near the rabbits, what they like and avoid, which smells comfort and which confuse. Adams works hard to integrate actual rabbit ecology in the novel without making it pedantic or boring. The rabbits have their own myths and fables, too, like the creation myth of El-ahrairah, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, that further deepen the tale. You can’t help but be one of these rabbits, feel the wind in your whiskers, fear of one of the Thousand on your tail or triumph as you look over the warren you have sought and bled and wandered far to found. While the book focused on Hazel, it also reached out to give us angles from Bigwig and the other rabbits and over the course of the novel explores the ways of life of five separate rabbit communities as well showing us how the rabbits interact with the rest of the natural world and man. The movie positions itself more as Hazel’s story, rather than the warren or rabbit life at large, and that Hazel’s got it all figured out. In the novel, he struggles more with his role as the accidental Chief Rabbit, makes mistakes, and learns from them.
The book is a terrific example of how to describe your world to readers and make them believe it. (I’ve read comments elseweb about the descriptive passages being too dense, but I don’t see it. In fact, I spent alot of time reading the dang book out loud to myself because it sounded so good.) Better than that, though, the book is honest. These aren’t fluffy bunnies wiggling tails and coyly nibbling carrots under a perfect blue sky. They fight, they mate, they are foolish and hidebound. They die, or, if one of the Thousand has failed, are injured, often gravely. The movie does not shy from this, either, and has graphic depictions of the violence the rabbits suffer from and participate in. When Holly recounts the destruction of the Sandleford warren the rabbits had fled, his story is tinged with a dream-like abstraction — just the way you imagine a story as its told to you — but is no less vivid and shocking as we see describe how the rabbits died. When Bigwig fights General Woundwort in defense of the warren on Watership Down they show every cut, every kick, every tear, and every drop of blood. And death, when it comes, is not kept at a safe distance. The book and the movie do not coddle the viewer and no doubt can be more graphic because the characters aren’t human. (See Samurai Jack for an example on what kind of violence is suddenly acceptable when the shape has changed and the recipients shed oil instead of blood — and what freedom that gives the writers in making a richer story.)
The movie is not for very young children because a young child will not have enough context to understand what’s being shown. And as powerful as the movie was and will be to first-time viewers, its that deeper context that, of course, makes the book even stronger (and probably more palatable to a younger audience). In the book, we also get more of El-ahrairah’s exploits, how he must be clever yet how much he also sacrifices for his people, helping to round out the world the rabbits inhabit. We also get more of a chance to think over how the rabbits organize themselves and live their lives, first with the Warren of the Snares and later with the Efrafra, a police-state warren run by a powerful despot who controls the rabbit by intimidation, spies, cruel punishment, and forced scarcity. Most books for adults don’t touch these themes as directly and economically as this novel, let alone books for kids.
Of course, it being a movie, they can’t have the whole book in there, which results in a smoothing over of the details and in some cases an outright jumbling of the narrative. While I was a little sad that no female rabbits have much of an impact story-wise until later on in the novel, we do get some of the Efrafra females, lead by Hyzenthlay, petitioning to leave and trying to escape before the rabbits come to free them. However, the movie throws in a token female rabbit, Violet, in with the original group only to have her killed shortly after they flee, and while Clover, one of the does living in the hutch on the farm, is mentioned by name in the movie they fail to free the hutch rabbits and are never heard from again, where as in the novel they did free them and have them join the warren. As well, Hyzenthlay is also added to the trio of rabbits who, in the book, lead a dog from the nearby farm to the warren to kill Woundwort. (I’m torn on the whole female rabbits thing, both on the book’s lack and the movie’s weird attempts at over-compensating for it, and failing, IMO.) Other changes include removing Strawberry, a rabbit who fled from the Warren of the Snares after Bigwig’s dramatic snaring and survival, and removing Holly’s attempt to ask Efrafra for unwanted does by Hazel’s suggestion which then leads to the attack/rescue, Holly instead survives the fall of the Sandleford (sans Bluebell) and made it all they way to Efrafra first, then escapes and finally finds Hazel and the others. Eliminated outright are things like the field mouse, the larger part the small farm plays, and Hazel’s rescue in the end, which furthers his own myth in the minds of the rabbits he leads.
These changes bothered me more when watching them fresh, but a day later, I’m not sure how I’d condense the novel into a movie if it was my job to do so. The novel is a bigger world, a deeper one, but I think the movie still captures the heart of the novel without dumbing it down or making it safe. This book, and its adaptation, trust in the intelligence of the reader, the viewer. This is a rare thing. This is a beautiful thing.
And I tell you what, when those scenes of El-ahrairah coming to Fiver in his shadow mask, and dancing through the fields without ever touching the ground, they seized me as completed as they did when I was a child. And when El-ahrairah comes to Hazel, and offers him a place in his Owsla, I cried again.
I wish the movie could have done all that the book does, but failing that I still have the book, and highly recommend it.