Children’Novels and the Movies: Watership Down (1972)

Watership Down (1972) came into being as a brief, whimsi­cal tale of rabbits told to amuse Richard Adams’s daughters. Its popularity with them was such that finally he was forced to work out the ramifications of his simple story, and the novel took shape. A labor of love, it was inspired by the desire to tell a good story. The tone of the story reflects this attitude.

Breaking Away from the Warren

Watership Down (1972), Richard Adams

by Tom Jordan

A well-written book demands a slow reading pace if the reader is to develop the proper complex, reflexive relationship to the material. There is a great deal to be assimilated, and we experience a conscious desire to luxuriate in the imaginative details or repeat the pleasure of effective experiences. The richness and depth of response in such cases can be considerable and rewarding.

As filmgoers, we are allowed no such freedom. Once a film begins, it cannot be stopped without loss of meaning. Each frame, shot, and scene is related syntagmatically. Since the rate at which its information is received cannot be altered by the viewer, the editing rhythm established forms the basis of the audience’s acceptance of the material. Variations in rhythm, either longer or shorter than the average shot length, produce an immediate change in the mind’s ability to receive and process information and to generate a communicative response. As film is, in a sense, a theme with variations, the major emotional moments being controlled so that our sensory channels are in a constant ebb and flow with regard to the amount of information they receive.

Watership Down (1972) came into being as a brief, whimsi­cal tale of rabbits told to amuse Richard Adams’s daughters. Its popularity with them was such that finally he was forced to work out the ramifications of his simple story, and the novel took shape. A labor of love, it was inspired by the desire to tell a good story. The tone of the story reflects this attitude.

If a color tone were ascribed to Watership Down, it would necessarily be golden yellow, for the color runs rampant through the story. The central character is named Hazel, which evokes a yellow-brown color, and the first and last sentences in the novel refer to primroses, more often light yellow than any other color. A number of scenes are set in the early evening, when the sun is gold and the rabbits are enjoying their evening feeding. Their new warren is named the Honeycomb. And so forth.

Gold pervades the book, and lends itself to the tone of the writing, creating an atmosphere of warmth which in turn creates an empathy in the reader. Gold is the color of heroes, but it serves as easily as the color of nostalgia, calling forth sunsets and pleasant experiences in an atmosphere of serenity and security. Consider, for example, this passage from the end of the book:

He saw more young rabbits than he could remember. And sometimes, when they told tales on a sunny evening by the beech trees, he could not clearly recall whether they were about himself or about some other rabbit hero of days gone by.
The warren prospered and soon, in the fullness of time, did the new warren on the Belt, half Watership and half Efrafan—the warren Hazel had first envisaged on that terrible evening when he set out alone to face General Woundwort and try to save his friends against all odds.1

But the issue of color is, of course, purely ancillary to the more important point concerning overall response to the tone, a tone which draws us into the story and makes us live the lives of heroes. The color is only a beginning of our feeling for the story.

We deal exclusively with rabbits, toward whom most people find themselves well disposed. Their image at large connotes softness, gentleness, and an absence of violence. They may even have struck us as the inhabitants of another world, for our encounters with them leave us often with no more than a glimpse of a scurrying animal in the twilight. We see them in a positive, albeit less-than-heroic, light.

Perhaps the first problem for the author to overcome attaches itself to the image of the rabbit story. Certainly we have the traditions of Peter Rabbit and his peers, Brer Rabbit, Aesop’s Hare, and even Bugs Bunny. Literary rabbits have been with us throughout history, but always as a vehicle for a moral or a source of whimsical fun—never as credibly real rabbits living in their own environment. The deliberate, slowly paced opening of Watership Down may in large part stem from the necessity to eliminate our conception of rabbits in previous stories and replace it with a new image that reaches into the world of complex relationships and realistic dangers. By the time the story begins to pick up narrative speed, we are a wholehearted part of a rabbit world that exists within our own world—though no doubt our sensation is rather that of a fourth-dimensional fantasy world just out of sight. The author even creates a small language for the rabbits to remind us of their point of view regarding events and things for which we have no names or for which they have no way of knowing our names—for example, “hrududu” for “automobiles” or “silflay” for “feeding.” Such occasional words serve to keep us aware of their world.

Customarily, the best fantasy comes to grips with significant problems of the human character and existence. A two- dimensional story will give us joy at a victory without engaging more than our reservoir of stock attitudes toward heroes and villains. Naturally, in such circumstances, the heroes will win and the villains will die or disappear. A perfectly human desire is thus fulfilled.

But what great fantasy does not require a smashing of the stock vessels and their replacement by genuine feelings groping dimly toward half-recognized goals? The result, a satisfying ending, is superficially the same, yet the processes by which it is arrived at are part of a different literary and emotional plane. For the tone of the golden ending to ring artistically true, it must be preceded by despair, hunger, moral and emotional confusion, physical danger, and the imminent presence of death. Watership Down takes us into such a world where the only goal is a comfortable and happy life, and its achievement is in doubt until the final chapters. The story of Hazel and, particularly, the intuitively gifted Fiver, presents us with nonreflective minds that are capable of feeling and sensing a great deal regarding their situations but lack the ability to analyze and work into a coherent pattern abstract information, such as character motivations or social mores. What analytical powers these characters do have are pragmatic, dealing with immediate physical problems.

Much of our major literature deals directly with the signal difference between reflective and nonreflective minds. In a reflective story, the reader is intended to sympathize with the protagonist but to retain a detachment that allows an objective understanding of the issues at hand. For example, Shake­speare’s tragedies consistently focus on the development of the reflective mind. We become fascinated by the spectacle of Hamlet coming to grips with the incredible situation in which he finds himself, of Lear fumbling from obtuseness to clarity during his transition from king to beggar, and so on. By the end of these plays, the protagonists have learned much about the human character—and we have learned through them. Thus, the greatest strength Homer ascribes to Odysseus is his growing wisdom.

By contrast, comedies are normally nonreflective; virtually no one learns much consciously because the emphasis is on the action. From Aristophanes to Archie Bunker, comic heroes have been mere symbols of reality, acting in ways no rational persons could act, yet striking very genuine chords of response in the audience that recognizes a common bond with their fallibility. Fantasy is similarly nonreflective, at least inasmuch as its central characters generally do not concern themselves with the growth and development of their understandings of the world around them. Because fantasy normally tells an adventure story, the characters must concern themselves with the often perplexing but thrilling matters at hand. The job of organizing the experience of the characters into a coherent statement is left to the reader, for the characters can rarely articulate what they have learned on their adventures.

We empathize with these characters, for they live largely through feeling, intuition, and occasional Hashes of insight—a condition of life thoroughly recognizable to us all. For example, at no point in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit does the indomitable Bilbo Baggins ever seriously attempt to understand why or how he was chosen for a hair-raising series of adventures with a band of dwarfs. Yet our pleasure is not diminished because he does not ask the questions we might almost certainly ask. In fact, we may like him even more because of the imprecise manner in which he muddles to victory. For many readers, a slight, perhaps unconscious, vein of superiority is evoked by such a character, and we often want to protect, pity, and cheer for a protagonist unable to see patterns clear to us. In terms of perception, in The Hobbit, we align ourselves with Gandalf, who sees much further than the hobbit or the dwarfs. And if that seems questionable, merely ask yourself with whom you, a critical reader, would rather spend an evening talking, Gandalf or Bilbo? Hamlet or Fiver? The point is not that we do not enjoy some of these characters—presumably we enjoy them all—but that the processes by which their authors present them differ widely, and our empathetic responses often spring from the realization that the characters could use our help.

Watership Down falls in the tradition of nonreflective, empathetic characters, and, because our level of artistic involvement is so intense, we finish reading the book with a profound sense of satisfaction at having lived in the midst of such adventures, and sorrow that they have concluded. We may not feel like crying when Hamlet dies, but we certainly do when Hazel meets a strange rabbit who asks, “You know me, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light.
“Yes, my lord,” he said. “Yes, I know you.”

The scene reaches a climax several lines later with one of the most poignantly understated sentences in the book, “It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch. . .

Because a film is a strongly visual, rhythmic, emotional experience that cannot be fully analyzed until it has finished running, an obvious problem is created when a book is being adapted. If the film tries to compete with the original in terms of complexity and density, the audience will be unable to process the incoming information fast enough to keep pace with the on-going syntagmatic development. However, since plot alone is rarely the reason for a book’s success, the film is often left with the impossible task of conveying those “extraneous” elements that added to the significance and success of the original work.

Even if a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, a film cannot compress all the elements of a major novel into ninety minutes. That the animated Wntership Down (1978) is one of the few really successful translations of a novel into a movie is a tribute to director Martin Rosen’s understanding of how film could be used to recreate the tone of the book. Moving through Watership Down with a deft touch, he faithfully preserved only the core material of the plot. When he elaborates he does so in terms of emotionally stimulating visual detail—the strength of the cinema. Through a handsome combination of artwork, camera work, and editing, the story unfolds to produce a moving experience and a remarkably faithful retelling of the novel.

The striking animation employs a variety of artistic styles to influence mood. Working from a basic style reminiscent of Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites, who emphasized a feeling of lushness through immense detail and full, rich colors, the film moves occasionally into expressionism (as in Fiver’s Field of Blood vision), Native American symmetrical designs (as in the opening sequence introducing Frith), and the three- dimensional, Disney-like multiplane images that provide the rare animation treat of a shallow depth of field by throwing foregrounds and backgrounds out of focus. Inside the stylistic variations are color changes that match the strong colors Richard Adams uses in the novel. The emotional impact of strong colors aids in the forwarding of the story by forcing the audience unconsciously to modify its mood to suit the current action.

In animation, the camera is so closely tied to the art that the two are virtually functioning as one in the creation of effects. While in a normal film, the camera serves as the audi­ence’s point of view and creates through its placement emotional reinforcement, in animation the camera photographs every frame from a fixed position. Thus, apparent camera movement is really just a series of shifting drawings. However, the final effect is to provide a sense of motion, as in a live film.

The point of view all through this movie is involved, taking us along with the action and moving to underscore emotional points. Of particular note are the long shots, not common in animation because the central figures become dwarfed by the landscape; however, in Watership Down, this is a desirable effect. The long shots effectively focus our attention on the rabbits’ environment by employing a combination of colors, visual composition, focal points, exceptional detail in vegetation, and stressing camera motion. Thus, very small rabbits exist in a very large and complex world, and the seeming realism of their story is reinforced.

Camera angles are invariably used here to assist characterization. General Woundwort and significant Owsla members are normally seen from a low angle that makes them appear even more fearsome and overpowering than they already are, while the Watership Down rabbits are generally seen from a slightly high angle that makes them seem very small and ordinary. This increases the tension in tight spots, since we can’t be sure that the Good Guys will win; by the same token, when they do win, they have struck a blow for ordinary people everywhere.

A particularly effective motion technique involves the characters’ movement to and from the camera. This changing of relationship to the camera not only holds our attention on the character moving but serves to involve us more directly in the action. Characters who move across the field of vision remain generally two-dimensional and less interesting, while characters who move toward us or away from us demand visual attention. This is demonstrated nowhere better than when Kehaar flies, and the camera takes flight with him.

Editing in a film provides pace and helps control the emotional tone by arranging the flow of information. Despite the number of thrilling sequences in Watership Downy the editing pace is slow. Through a median shot-length of nine seconds, a pleasant, thoughtful atmosphere is established, and it sustains the tone of the book, much of which is devoted to the virtues of the peaceful life. A slow editing pace automatically directs the audience to absorb the details of the images, and because of the fullness of the frame, we almost unconsciously appreciate the pleasant pace of life on the Down. Even the action scenes are paced relatively slowly so that we can enjoy the complexity of the pictures and keep the various participants straight by picking out their identifying marks. The ability of the book to weave two story lines simultaneously is well duplicated by the editing of the movie, especially in the finale when the Honeycomb Warren is under attack by the General, and Hazel is off for the desperate effort to lead the farm dog up the hill to rout the Efrafan army. The crosscutting in this scene builds fine tension as we know the events are occurring simultaneously.

The editing reinforces emotional tone, but the music generally stays in the background, pushing us to respond more vividly to the development of the story, on which it comments through the employment of motifs. In particular, there is a travel theme that invariably sets them on the road for new adventures and makes us march right along with them. Only once does the music become the dominant element and then to less effect than might be hoped for. A song, “Bright Eyes,” is actually included, and while it is being sung several minutes are given over to establishing the beautiful tone of life on the Down. While there is a certain attractiveness to the scene, the segment seems too much like padding or a hope on the part of the producers that the song might make the hit parade.

A major feature of the book, the dialogue, was correctly whittled down in the film. Obviously, in the novel the dialogue markedly assists characterization, and Adams devotes a great deal of space to pleasant conversation and storytelling. Rosen establishes this “conversational tone” by making use of the more emotionally oriented elements of film. However, even though the dialogue is pared to the strictly informational level—and the storytelling eliminated completely—the rabbit language still causes trouble.

In the book, a small rabbit vocabulary serves to remind us that our protagonists are rabbits. The words are introduced slowly, and we come to enjoy this reminder of point of view. In the film, the rabbit language is simply confusing. Because we can never stop to think about anything, we don’t have time to translate the rabbit words from context before new impressions are calling for our attention. Since we have before us visual evidence of who is doing the talking, the language has no function in the film, whereas in the book it reminds us that our heroic characters are rabbits.

Both the book and film succeed, a rare accomplishment, because both follow the strongest features of their media. The book weaves a complex verbal atmosphere with many diversions, literary devices, and rhetorical flourishes, while the movie is resolutely visual, making its emotional pitch through art, cinematography, editing, and music. The urge to tell a good story is paramount in both, and as readers and viewers we can all be thankful for the results.

1 Richard Adams, Watership Down (New York: Avon, 1975), p. 473.

Tom Jordan is the film and arts critic for television station KDFW in Dallas, Texas, and has taught various courses in film studies. His publications include The Anatomy of Cinematic Humor.

Source: Children’s novels and the movies


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