I just watched the 1979 animated movie Watership Down, based on the book by Richard Adams. When I was in my teens I read the novel somewhere between 10 and 15 times. It’s in my bones in a way that only, maybe, The Lord of the Rings can rival. Now that I think of it, these books might have appealed to me in similar ways. They’re long, and lumpy, and full of detail and landscape description. They’re also journeys that take the characters to places they never could have imagined when they started out. Sometimes magical, awe-inspiring places, but often frightening, dreary, or shocking places instead. The world gets hugely bigger for the protagonists as the books proceed, and even though they may have reached their own personal safe havens at the end, there is no permanent retreat from that larger world. Things change, and even without enemies, old age will get you in the end.
Sounds pretty damn grim, but after all… it’s true. And the books aren’t without their charm and humor, too.
Anyway, I haven’t reread Watership Down in over 15 years, and couldn’t remember much at all about the movie version, which I think I saw once in 5th grade. I wondered how it would hold up. Not too well, as it turns out. The book is just too long to be done justice in an hour and a half. The filmmakers are to be commended for fitting in the full outline of events, but that’s really all you’re left with as a viewer: an outline. Nothing to hook your heart to, except for a couple of standalone scenes.
These scenes really are outstanding, though. The first was one I remembered from childhood because it was so distinctive and frightening: the abstract depiction of the destruction of Sandleford warren. The voiceover is brief and not exactly clear, but from the book I know that the rabbit burrow entrances were filled in and gas pumped in to the tunnels, killing all the rabbits inside, who were scratching at the walls and each other to escape. It’s a thoroughly terrifying and horrific way to die, and the movie gets the tone of it in a surreal way by showing the rabbits as disembodied heads, floating around the screen as if they are half ghosts already, then squeezing together like they’re being pushed into a jar, eyes staring in blank terror as the field above them is being clawed away. Brr! It gives me the shivers just thinking about it.
The other scene is a vision the rabbit Fiver has that leads him to his brother (and chief) Hazel, who has been shot. All the other rabbits think Hazel is dead, but Fiver is clairvoyant and knows that’s not true. He is led by a vision of the Black Rabbit (i.e. Death) across the fields while the song “Bright Eyes” is sung in the background by Art Garfunkel. It sounds cheesy, but it works because the trippy ’70s-style imagery is perfect for the kind of character Fiver is supposed to be, and because at the end of the abstract sequence, he reaches the end of a drain pipe, out of which a trickle of blood is dripping. Hazel is in there. The music has faded, and all we can hear is his very real, very physical heartbeat.
As a complete movie, I don’t think it works very well, but since I’m so familiar with the book, I still felt a lot of powerful emotions watching it. Now I want to reread the original.