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An Animal Tale for Kids and Adults: Watership Down

by Lindsay Oberst

Inkspill Magazine Issue One

When revisiting books you loved as a child, you might often find yourself grappling for
something else. You grow up, move on and want more from your literary selections. But
Richard Adams’ richly detailed rabbit saga “Watership Down” has almost as much to
offer adults as it does kids. The 1978 movie adaptation seizes this possibility
successfully, yet over-condenses Adams’ offerings.

Enter “Watership Down”—through a 496-paged wonder or a 103-minute animated film


—and find yourself immersed entirely in the bunny way of life. Either way, the story
isn’t cute, cuddly or boring like the pet you had as a child. As Adams writes, “There’s
terrible evil in the world,” and a rabbit is “the prince with a thousand enemies.” To
escape, rabbits can run and rabbits can trick.

After shy young rabbit Fiver foresees the coming destruction of his warren, he and a
group of fellow rabbits search for a safe home. Along the way they encounter one warren
complacent in its deadly way of life and another controlled by dictator-style chief rabbit
General Woundwort. Some of them die. Others are wounded by elil, as enemies are
called in the book. Yet all of them courageously discover a purpose under the sun god
Lord Frith, who gave them life.

Calling upon his wartime experiences, Adams creates an intoxicating tale capable of first
drawing in readers with sweeping descriptions and then nailing them down with accurate
realism. He develops an historical context for his characters by exploring their traditions
through stories and by explaining their Lapine vocabulary in footnotes. (This unique
rabbit language is dropped in the movie to reduce audience confusion.)

Through each chapter, Adams deepens the philosophical impact with quotes and literary
references. He even explains every aspect of rabbit life, from the strength of their smell to
the reason they find going downhill easier than humans. Despite this abundance of detail,
rarely is the plot bogged down.

Movies, however, cannot accommodate this abundance. The life-shaping stories,


typically told by Dandelion, are cut out to shorten the length. The opening scene, which
shows the creation of rabbits, is an exception. Original director John Hubley created this
sequence, which appears to be more artsy and symbolic than the rest of the 2-D
animation.

Under producer, writer and director Martin Rosen, a simple, realistic style reminiscent of
old Disney originals was used. The objective viewpoint focuses on the rabbit perspective.
Set against an unmoving, painted background, each character is often difficult to
distinguish.
The screenplay almost seems like one of those religious films watched in Sunday school.
It takes on a reverent tone, unlike the broader, adventurous tone of the book. The movie
is solely about action and contains little tension. In the book, Adam’s uses extraordinary
descriptions to slow down the plot. The darker moments are especially effective. But
sadness, unlike violence, is skimmed over in the movie.

Watch the film as an un-patronizing, graphic alternative to normal kids’ movies. Read the
novel at all costs. It will give you a fresh, new outlook on life.

Welcome to the warren, everyone. Only when you enter can the story begin. . .