Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 2: The Movie

U.S. theatrical release poster

The film adaptation was the brainchild of two producers hailing from California and Quebec, respectively, Martin Rosen and Jake Eberts. Rosen had previous experience in film producing an obscure Canadian feature called A Great Big Thing in 1968, as well as the more well-known Women in Love the following year, directed by Ken Russell (best known for The Devils, Altered States, and the 1975 adaptation of The Who’s Tommy). Eberts, a merchant banker at the time, was completely new to the film industry and was only there to help Rosen purchase the film rights from Richard Adams, which went for 50,000 pounds.

If TV Tropes is to be believed, Rosen and Eberts considered adapting the novel into a ballet and an opera before settling on producing an animated feature film. They chose legendary animator John Hubley as director, who quickly left the project after disagreements with Rosen. Any hopes of getting him back were dashed when he died while undergoing heart surgery in February of 1977, and Rosen decided…

Some of Hubley’s work did make it into the final film, most notably the introduction, which tells the rabbits’ creation myth, narrated by Michael Hordern, in a pseudo-aboriginal art style.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you…

Rosen’s direction went for a more detailed and life-like portrait of the story in the film proper, meticulously studying the maps Adams provided of the countryside in the original book to recreate them faithfully in the watercolor backgrounds, especially around Efrafa. Some artistic license was taken in regards to Watership Down’s actual appearance (basing its look more on nearby Beacon Hill, which Rosen apparently found more photogenic) as well as for streamlining the story, especially in regards to Captain Holly’s journey to the Down (more on that later). The naturalistic tone of the art style also reflected in the rabbits’ appearance, making them look as much like real-life rabbits as possible, albeit giving them human-like paw gestures and facial expressions to make them more relatable to the audience.

The film was produced in a studio founded in London by Rosen over a period of three years for a budget of $2.4 million. The film would be released to theaters on October 19, 1978, distributed by Rosen’s own production company, Nepenthe Productions, as well as the Cinema International Corporation. It would be rated U (equivalent to G in the U.S.) by the British Board of Film Classification, which would quickly prove controversial since Rosen did not hold back on the more violent scenes, especially the flashback to Sandleford’s destruction, the scene of an Efrafan rabbit named Blackavar getting his ears shredded for trying to leave Efrafa, Blackavar later getting his throat torn out by General Woundwort, Bigwig’s very bloody showdown with the General shortly after, and the Efrafan rabbits getting mauled to death by the Nuthanger farm dog shortly after that, leading to this lovely image of Woundwort charging at the dog.

“Whilst the film may move children emotionally during the film’s duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story is broken and a U certificate was therefore quite appropriate.”- The BBFC.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Motion Picture Association of America chose to rate the film PG, although it almost certainly would have earned a PG-13 had they come up with that rating yet. The film’s violent nature has also earned it a memetic status on the Internet from clueless viewers expecting a cute Disneyesque tale of talking rabbits, often provoking responses of “I just wanted a movie about bunnies!”

Notwithstanding all the quibbles about child-unfriendly content, the film was both a critical and financial success. According to Eberts, some investors received a return of as much as 5,000 % on their investments. The film scores an 82% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 64% rating on Metacritic.

Is It Any Good, Though?

It most certainly is!

Perhaps the best aspect of this film is how well-chosen the voice cast is. They managed to perfectly capture a perpetually wary tone well befitting a cast of small herbivorous prey animals while at the same time playing to each of their characters’ strengths. Possibly the biggest name to appear in the film is John Hurt, his distinctively smooth and reedy baritone voice lending itself well to Hazel’s understated charisma as the band’s leader. Richard Briers lends a suitably high-strung performance as the waif prophet Fiver, and Michael Graham Cox’s gruff voice plays nicely into Bigwig’s no-nonsense tough-guy persona.

Other standout performances include Roy Kinnear (who plays well into Pipkin’s shy and timid nature), Denholm Elliot (as the shifty and secretive Cowslip), Harry Andrews (who probably captures General Woundwort’s savage bloodlust a little too well), and especially Zero Mostel, who’s hammy and bombastic performance of Kehaar lends the story some much needed comic relief. It also would sadly be his last film performance, as he died about a year before the film came out.

The animation style is perfect for the type of story it wants to tell. It’s a bit rough around the edges (not surprising, since a lot of beginners were working on it), but that’s only appropriate since this film isn’t telling a slick, escapist tale like a Disney Animated Canon film. The specter of the Black Rabbit of Inle is never far from the rabbit’s minds, and Rosen’s retelling never loses sight of the inherent bittersweet melancholy of the rabbit’s existence.

The music in this film is excellent. Mostly composed by Angela Morley (the original composer, Malcolm Williamson, also left early in production due to falling behind schedule), the score manages to give the rabbits’ journey an appropriately epic feel similar to Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Standout pieces include “Kehaar’s Theme,” which features one of the best saxophone solos I’ve ever heard, “Fiver’s Vision,” a creepy and foreboding piece that perfectly captures the horror Fiver feels as his visions show him the dark future of his home warren, and any piece in the soundtrack that includes Morley’s Watership Down theme, which appears most prominently in tracks like “Crossing the River,” “Climbing the Down,” and “Final Struggle and Triumph.”

Another piece of music worth mentioning is “Bright Eyes,” written by Mike Batt and performed by Art Garfunkel. The song appears in the film during a hallucinogenic sequence after Hazel is shot during the Nuthanger Farm raid, when Fiver, convinced his brother is still alive, sets out to look for him. The lyrics reflect his disbelief at how quickly someone like Hazel, so full of life and spirit one minute, can become cold and lifeless in the next. The audience also gets to see the world from Fiver’s perspective as the boundaries between the living world and the dreamlike realm of the dead become blurred.

There’s a fog along the horizon/A strange glow in the sky/And nobody seems to know where it goes/And what does it mean?/Oh, is it a dream?

It is a wonderful song and would practically become the franchise’s theme song for the next several decades… much to Richard Adams’ chagrin, as he reportedly hated the song.

As for the story of the film, I do think it’s difficult to argue with Arizona Daily Star critic Phil Villarreal’s assertion that “Martin Rosen did a superb job cutting through Adams’ book… to get to the beating heart.” However, in condensing the almost 500-page novel to film script running slightly over 90 minutes, Rosen made some noticeable sacrifices. For example, Captain Holly’s plight, facing the destruction of Sandleford Warren and getting captured by Efrafa, is condensed into a single harrowing ordeal. This makes no sense if you follow the original maps Adams provided in the novel (shown below), as they clearly demonstrate that Sandleford and Efrafa are located miles from either side of Watership Down.

This is more of a nitpick, though, since it doesn’t really have much of an effect on the story (plus, John Bennett’s performance is so good that it kind of makes you forget all that). I’ll admit that I was also disappointed that Rosen didn’t delve into Woundwort’s rather tragic backstory, which makes him rather more of a generic evil dictator, even if Harry Andrews’ performance does somewhat make up for it.

A cut that does have a significant impact, though, is how rushed over Cowslip’s warren is in the film. I could not make out just what the deal was with Cowslip and his rabbits just watching the film. Maybe it’s just that my autism makes me disturbingly blind to subtext, but I never realized that the farmer was farming the rabbits at the Warren of the Snares at the warren until I read the book, where Fiver’s epic speech spelling out what’s going on was a lot more than simply, “That’s warren is nothing but a death hole. Yes, let’s help ourselves to a roof of bones!” It kind of robs that scene of its impact if you have no idea what’s going on in the first place. It answers the “how” of what’s wrong with Cowslip’s warren but not the “why.”

Another flaw with the climactic battle that I overlooked until TV Tropes pointed it out to me is that it doesn’t give us any resolution on Fiver or Bigwig. Fiver completely disappears from the film after a vision of his gives Hazel the idea to bring the Nuthanger Farm down upon Woundwort’s troops, and the last we see of Bigwig is him standing bloody and battered after his fight with Woundwort, with the film giving us no indication if he survived or not. Indeed, the only character who does get a resolution is Hazel, who is shown flying through the sky with the Black Rabbit on his dying day years later after the Black Rabbit invites him to join his Owsla.

Despite all this, though, the film is a very worthy adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel. It stands as one of those unique animated features of the period that you can’t really tell if it’s for kids or not (like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Don Bluth’s early films) thanks to the frankness with which adult subjects are tackled. If you think you or your child is up to it, definitely give this film a watch. And I’m giving this one a 9/10.

Before I wrap this up, however, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Martin Rosen’s second adaptation of a Richard Adams novel, The Plague Dogs.

Fair warning: this film is an adventure in the same way that Grave of the Fireflies is an adventure.

This film was released on October 21st, 1982 by MGM, and once again starred John Hurt as the put-upon fox terrier Snitter, who has been sent away to an animal testing lab in Cumbria (colloquially known as the Lake District) after his master dies saving him from an out-of-control truck, where experiments on his brain have caused him to experience hallucinations. One night he escapes the lab alongside Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin), who has a crippling fear of water thanks to being repeatedly drowned and resuscitated by the lab’s resident “whitecoats.”

Once out in the countryside, however, they discover that life in the wild is far from easy. They manage to get by with the help of an unnamed Geordie-accented fox (voiced by James Bolam), but their repeated killing of livestock quickly attracts the ill will of local farmers and rumors that they may be carrying bubonic plague soon cause a military company to join the hunt (whose leader happens to be voiced by Patrick Stewart in one of his earliest film roles).

The film was equally if not more controversial than Watership Down when it first came out. Perhaps the biggest reason was how the violence this time ends up extending to humans. Two especially infamous scenes involve a hunter accidentally getting himself shot in the face when Snitter climbs over his gun…

I think you’ve got a little something in your eye, dude. Buckshot, by the looks of it.

…and another scene where, after the coming winter limits their food supply, Rowf and Snitter decide to eat a dead hunter after the fox scares him into falling off a cliff, and we get to see this lovely close-up of his half-eaten corpse afterward.

Hey Mr. Rosen, Cannibal Corpse called. They want their album cover back.

Another source of controversy was the overall depressing nature of the film. Unlike Watership Down, where the protagonists eventually earn their happy ending, The Plague Dogs ends with the dogs swimming out to sea to escape the military, hoping to eventually find an island where they can be free from the whitecoats. This is in stark contrast to the novel, where Snitter’s owner is revealed to be alive and adopts both him and Rowf (although admittedly, Adams only added this happy ending because his publisher wouldn’t touch it otherwise).

Since it doesn’t seem to give the protagonists any reason for having gone through all this suffering in the end, the entire film may seem pointless to some viewers. However, I think it still has worth because of the commentary on animal testing, especially since every test on animals depicted in both the film and the novel happened in real life. Yes, even the experiment where Rowf swims laps around the tank until he drowns and is resuscitated. I don’t know why, of course, but it did happen.

In summary, while some children definitely can watch Watership Down if they’re old enough and/or mature enough, it’s probably best to keep this one as far away from your kids as possible. This is an especially harrowing watch if you’re a dog lover, but it’s all worth it if it can give you a deeper appreciation of the hurt that animals have to go through because not enough humans care. And I’m giving this one an 8/10.

And that’s all I have to say about the Watership Down film adaptation. Join me next time when we look into all three seasons of the 1999 TV adaptation and see whether its attempt at a more family-friendly approach to the source material worked out. Until next time, beautiful watchers.

Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 1: The Novels

First edition cover

The original novel was inspired by a series of improvised stories that the original author, Richard Adams, told his two daughters, Juliet and Rosamund, during long car journeys. They centered on two rabbits named Hazel and Fiver, the latter of whom had psychic powers that allowed him to see the future. When Adams had finished his story, the girls insisted that he write it down. He hesitated but was finally convinced when he was reading a bedtime story from a mediocre book and became convinced that he could write a better story than that. By his account, he spent the next eighteen months writing the book, working in the evenings after supper. The completed book would bear the dedication, “To Juliet and Rosamund, remembering the road to Stratford-upon-Avon.”

Adams drew from several sources in building the characters, especially several characters that he met during his service in the Airbourne Company of the Royal Army Service Corps during World War II. Hazel was based on an officer he served under who “had the natural power of leadership.” Bigwig, future head of the Watership Down Owsla (aka rabbit law enforcement/military caste), was based on another officer who was “a tremendous fighter who was at his best when he had been told exactly what he had to do.” Kehaar, the rabbit’s seagull ally, was based on a Norwegian resistance fighter who Adams had become acquainted with. Fiver was inspired by the tragic Greek character of Cassandra (although he’s obviously more successful in getting others to listen to his prophecies, otherwise we wouldn’t have a book). Finally, he tied it all together by reading the book The Private Life of the Rabbit by Welsh naturalist Ronald Lockley so he could convincingly portray his rabbits in their wild setting.

The book was rejected by seven publishers, all of whom thought there was no audience for it. Adams puts their objections this way: “Older children wouldn’t like it because it’s about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it’s written in an adult style.”

However, when the manuscript landed on the desk of Rex Collings, a one-person publisher in London, the book finally went somewhere. He asked his associate, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of whom has extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fortunately, he wasn’t. The first edition of the book, published in November 1972, sold out very quickly and garnered numerous positive reviews. The Economist even went as far as to claim that “if there is no place for Watership Down in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead.” The book would receive a big boost in popularity after Macmillain Inc. published the first US edition in 1974.

But enough of the making-of documentary. What is it about the book that captured the hearts of so many readers?

The Novel

The basic story should likely be familiar to most, but for those who aren’t, here’s a quick rundown of the plot:

The story starts in the hedgerows of Sandleford, a hamlet in the English country of Berkshire. A warren of rabbits lives there, among them a pair of “outskirters” (basically unimportant average Joe rabbits) named Hazel and Fiver. Fiver, a diminutive runt with the gift/curse of clairvoyance, foresees a horrible disaster descending on the warren. Hazel, his brother, fails to convince their chief rabbit to evacuate, and so he and Fiver leave of their own accord. They are joined by Bigwig and Silver (both former Owsla), Blackberry (the “smart guy” planner of the group), Dandelion (gifted with speed and a great storyteller), Pipkin (a runt rabbit even smaller than Fiver, naturally inclined to timidity), Hawkbit (“a rather slow and stupid rabbit”), Buckthorn (strong and a good fighter, though still too young to join the Owsla), and Speedwell and Acorn.

They encounter several perils along the way to their new home, with the elil (predators) and hrududil (motorized vehicles) sometimes being the least of their problems. They also encounter a warren led by an eccentric rabbit named Cowslip, which seems like an idyllic paradise where a kindly farmer feeds the rabbits. After Bigwig is nearly strangled to death by a snare, however, the rabbits figure out that the man is harvesting them for their meat and skins, and the native rabbits are using them to increase their own odds of survival. They depart, but not before being joined by Strawberry as they leave, heartbroken over losing his doe, Nildro-hain, to another wire.

They finally make a home on a hill called Watership Down, located about three miles south of Sandleford. Speaking of Sandleford, two rabbits from the former warren, Owsla captain Holly and plucky jokester Bluebell, arrive at the down to inform the others what happened: Men came, filled in the burrows, poisoned the trapped rabbits with gas, shot most of the ones who escaped and then dug up the warren to make way for housing developments.

After Holly recovers, he leads an expedition to another warren another three miles south called Efrafa, which was spotted by Kehaar, a wounded black-headed gull who was nursed back to health by the rabbits. They wish to see if their chief rabbit wishes to relieve its overcrowding problem by sending some of their does to Watership Down, for the rabbits neglected to bring any does with them when they left Sandleford. Meanwhile, while attempting to release some other does from a hutch on nearby Nuthanger Farm, Hazel is shot in the hind leg by the farmer. He miraculously survives, mostly because Fiver has a vision telling him where his brother is hiding, only to receive bad news about Efrafa.

Their chief rabbit, General Woundwort, is a despot who ensures that no rabbits succumb to elil through harsh regimentation, brutally punishing those who refuse to fall in line. However, the cunning Watershippers manage to outsmart the general when Bigwig meets up with Hyzenthaly, a doe leading a passive resistance movement in the warren, and orchestrates a massive escape, leading the fugitives onto a small boat, with Kehaar hampering the Efrafan’s pursuit.

But the Watershippers underestimate Woundwort’s vindictiveness, and he leads his own Owsla to the down and lays siege to the warren (Kehaar, having departed for his native “peeg vater,” is not available to assist). He is thwarted when Hazel, Dandelion, and Blackberry set the dog from Nuthanger Farm on them. Woundwort stands his ground and is presumably killed, although his body is never found, and at least one of his officers still believes him to be alive even months after the fact. Hazel, meanwhile, is saved from the farm cat by the farmer’s daughter, Lucy, and returns to the down unscathed.

The story ends years later, with the warren thriving. A much older Hazel is greeted by the rabbit’s legendary folk hero El-ahrairah, who invites him to join his Owsla, to which he happily obliges.

Why It’s Worth Your Time

Perhaps the book’s best feature is how Adams refuses to anthropomorphize the rabbits beyond raising their intelligence level a bit to make them more relatable to human readers. They are still believably portrayed as vulnerable prey animals, even if they are better able to hold their own in a fight. Consequently, they behave as if death is a moment-to-moment possibility, which it very much is, not just from foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, and birds of prey, but also men.

Indeed, rabbit-human relations are rather complex in the book. Whereas seemingly any animal can effectively communicate with the rabbits if enough effort is put into learning their language (even elil), humans are so far above them on an evolutionary scale that understanding them is all but impossible. Their presence hangs over the story in the same way that Cthulhu and his eldritch brethren hang over the protagonists of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Of course, as Hazel finds out in the final chapters, humans do have a leg up on Cthulhu in that they sometimes do notice their fellow animal’s suffering. Of course, this fact is more confusing than uplifting for Hazel since Lucy is still of the same species that so brutally tore apart his old warren.

Besides that, Adams also distinguishes his rabbit protagonists by giving them their own unique culture, which revolves around their religious beliefs. I mentioned El-ahrairah above, who basically serves as both an Adam figure (as the first rabbit) and a Jesus analog (given how the rabbits treat him as their mythic savior). However, given the rabbits’ love of tricks, his personality could be better described as “halfway between Beowulf and Bugs Bunny,” in TV Tropes’ words. In addition to him, there are several other mythological god-like figures, including Lord Frith (their creator deity), Prince Rainbow (Frith’s right-hand-man who has something of a love-hate relationship with El-ahrairah), Rabscuttle (chief of El-ahrairah’s Owsla and his closest friend), and the Black Rabbit of Inle (the rabbit grim reaper). General Woundwort is added to the pantheon after his disappearance as a sort of bogeyman figure who serves as the Black Rabbit’s right-hand… er, rabbit, I guess.

Adams even came up with a language for the rabbits to speak for whenever he needed a word for a concept unique to the lagomorph experience. For example, humans don’t really need a word for the practice of going above ground to feed. This concept is simplified into the Lapine word silflay, meaning “above-food.” Other Lapine words used in the book include hlessi (wanderer), flayrah (garden food like lettuce, carrots, etc.), and hrair (thousand… or any number above four, since rabbits can’t count any higher). Adams has explained in interviews that he wanted the language to have “a wuffy, fluffy sound” since he figured that’s what rabbit speech would sound like if they could talk. Certain words also have an onomatopoeic quality, especially hrududu (made to sound like a rabbit’s impression of a running engine). Granted, the Lapine language isn’t nearly as well developed as the various languages that were the foundation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium (which isn’t that surprising since Tolkien was a linguistics scholar and Adams wasn’t). Indeed, Adams freely admitted that he made up the words to the language as he went along. Still, as Keren Levy of The Guardian notes, the language is “somehow easy to accept as one we have always known.”

Much has been made of supposed political allegories present in the book. Adams swore up and down until the day he died that it was not his intention. As he states in the introduction to the edition I own: “I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.” It isn’t hard to see why people started drawing those connections, though. The novel is rife with themes of exile, leadership, liberation, self-determination, heroism, and community-building, and it’s hard not to read certain themes of environmentalism into the discussions the rabbits have regarding humans. Take, for example, this impassioned plea from Strawberry to the Efrafans (who are often thought to have parallels with Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia):

“Animals don’t behave like men,” he said. “If they have to fight, they fight; if they have to kill, they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”

Chapter 27, “You Can’t Imagine It Unless You’ve Been There,” pg. 237, Scribner edition

There’s also this infamous quote from Captain Holly as he recounts Sandleford’s destruction to the Watershippers: “Men will never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed all the animals.”

Even if Adams didn’t intend a political message to the story, it’s clear that a lot of people struggling against oppression have seen themselves in the characters.

One last cool feature of the book I want to talk about before I move on is the fact that every location described in the pages actually exists in real life. Every location can be found within a single strip of land stretching about 7-8 miles long, between the hamlet of Sandleford in the province of Berkshire all the way to the stretch of the River Test where the towns of Overton and Laverstoke are located (Efrafa is on the other side of the railroad at the crossing of two bridle paths known to the rabbits as the Crixa), with the actual Watership Down located smack dab in the middle. Indeed, Richard Adams lived in the region his whole life, so it makes sense that he might want to immortalize it in his most popular work.

If there is one criticism I have to give of the book, it would definitely have to be the portrayal of the female characters. Aside from Hyzenthlay, most of the does are treated as little more than breeding stock to help the Watership Down warren survive, especially the hutch does that Hazel nearly gets himself killed over. Indeed, while Holly and Hazel are discussing the hutch does as the latter lies recovering in a ditch at the foot of the down, he asks, “Are they any good?” Adams tries to dismiss this in the narration by pointing out that rabbit gender relations are not comparable to humans. But the damage was still done, as far as some feminist critics were concerned. Adams apparently came to agree if the official sequel is any indication.

Tales from Watership Down
Cover of the December 2012 first Vintage Books edition, which I own a copy of.

Tales from Watership Down, published by the Hutchinson printing firm in 1996, was written to be more of an anthology series than a single narrative. The nineteen stories contained therein are divided into three parts. The first part, consisting of seven stories, features more tales of El-ahrairah and two more modern stories. The second part, consisting of four stories, consists entirely of side quests taken by El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle on their way back from Inle, the land of the dead. The third part, consisting of the last eight stories, detail events in the Watership Down rabbit’s lives that take place in the months after Woundwort’s defeat.

Some have criticized the new El-ahrairah tales as pointless since they don’t have context with the story like the ones in the original novel. While I can’t argue against that criticism, I still find many new adventures entertaining in their own right. “The Scent of Smell” is probably my absolute favorite story in the book, thanks to probably being the most epic and adventurous tale in Lapine mythology. Others that have stuck in my mind include “The Tale of the Three Cows” (especially because of the downright Lovecraftian way in which the Third Cow is described), “The Hole in the Sky” (okay, seriously, how much cosmic horror was Adams reading when he wrote this?), and “Speedwell’s Story” (in which one of the more nondescript rabbits from the original novel reveals himself to have a… rather interesting imagination, to say the least).

The stories of how rabbit society on the downs restructures after the fall of Woundwort’s regime are also interesting to read, even if the stakes are a lot lower with the dictator dethroned. We get to see things like forming a new warren halfway between Watership Down and Efrafa called Vleflain. We get to see the story of Flyairth, a spirited doe who, despite nearly undermining the stability of Watership Down due to her pathological fear of the “white blindness” (known to humans as myxomatosis), inspires the Watershippers to promote Hyzenthlay to the position of co-chief rabbit alongside Hazel. We see an escaped hutch rabbit named Stonecrop who gets treated like dirt because of how strongly he smells of humans, only to prove himself by scaring an invading horde of weasels away from Vleflain with his scent. And, perhaps most importantly for feminist critics, we get to see Hyzenthlay-rah prove herself as she leads a wounded doe named Nyreem to Watership Down.

Ironically enough, given how critical the reviews on Goodreads seem to be of the El-ahrairah stories in this book, I actually somewhat prefer them over the Watership Down tales, as they had much more of an epic style closer to the first book. Still, despite all that, I think Tales is a worthy sequel and well worth reading at least once.

My Life on the Autism Spectrum

Of all the various disorders of the human brain, perhaps none has fascinated and terrified the public as much as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The reasons for this are varied. It may be because autistic people, especially those deemed “low-functioning,” often challenge our perceptions of human nature whenever a seemingly stupid and helpless individual reveals their astounding level of knowledge about whatever topic it is that they are hyper-focused on. It may be because of widespread myths and romanizations popularized through movies and TV shows, many of them harmful and infantilizing. Or it may be because society is finally starting to see past these stereotypes and learn the complex and wonderful reality behind the myths. In this blog post, I’d like to talk about my experiences on the autism spectrum and maybe help debunk a few myths along the way.

Notes on the Term “Asperger Syndrome”

When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a disorder that has since been reclassified within the greater autism spectrum. This move has been met with a mixed reception. Some argue that it is no different than what is commonly known as “high functioning autism.” Others argue that it can be distinguished by the fact that there are no impairments in language and intelligence in individuals with Asperger’s. Of course, autism acceptance advocates will point out that modern-day IQ tests are made by and for neurotypical people, obscuring the average ASD person’s intellect.

Another much darker reason why the Asperger label has fallen out of favor recently mainly has to do with the man the syndrome is named after, Dr. Hans Asperger. You see, Asperger, alongside American psychiatrist Leo Kanner, was the first to codify modern understanding of autism back in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Up until recently, Asperger’s work with his so-called “little professors” at the University of Vienna was considered superior to Kanner’s, mostly because he recognized a spectrum of behaviors in his patients and also, as Steve Silberman reports in his 2015 book NeuroTribes, protected his charges from the eugenicist wrath of the invading Nazi regime by inventing the term “high-functioning autism” to throw Hitler’s brownshirts off (as opposed to Kanner popularizing the now-discredited “refrigerator moms” theory).

Except it turns out that actually wasn’t the case, as evidence uncovered in 2018 revealed that Asperger actually referred at least two “little professors” that he deemed “low-functioning” to a children’s clinic known as Am Spiegelgrund, despite knowing full well that the Nazis used the clinic as a euthanasia center. It’s probably not hard to see why several people, myself included, have consequently become hesitant to associate themselves with his name in that manner. And it also makes me question whether the governments of the world should continue to celebrate Asperger’s birthday on February 18 as International Asperger’s Day.

In any case, I simply prefer to refer to myself as “autistic” and “on the (autism) spectrum” nowadays. But enough history: let me explain how the symptoms of autism manifest in me (please note, however, that I will mainly be using TV Tropes.com’s Useful Notes page on Asperger Syndrome as a template for the following section: I know it’s not exactly a medical source, but the notes they have seem to be medically accurate. Plus, it’s straightforward and clearly explained, so… yeah).

The Symptoms

The pervasive developmental disorders commonly classified under the autism spectrum are generally diagnosed based on three criteria: difficulty in communication, difficulty in socialization, and restricted interests. We’ll examine how those diagnostic criteria manifest in me in that order and then go through some miscellaneous symptoms that the Useful Notes article also mentions.

Communication Difficulties

People on the autism spectrum have often been described as having “body language blindness.” On the other hand, TV Tropes argues that it can be more accurately described as “body language dyslexia.” It’s not that we can’t see the body language being used; it’s correctly interpreting it that’s difficult. Some of us try to compensate by watching TV and seeing how characters use their body language. That usually causes other problems since body language in fictional settings tends to be exaggerated, which causes neurotypical people to think that there’s something off about us.

Woe betide the poor Aspergian soul who learns his body language from the wonderfully over-exaggerated world of Disney movies.

It’s also not uncommon for autistic individuals to have speech problems (unless, of course, they’re nonverbal). They may develop a natural speaking voice that’s too fast, too loud, too formal, or too monotone. I was lucky enough to develop a fairly normal speaking voice, even though I do have a bit of a stuttering problem like others on the spectrum. My grandfather tends to stumble over his words as well, though, so I at least have company there.

Related to the restricted interests part of the diagnosis is that, naturally, autistic people tend to struggle with conversations that have nothing to do with whatever kind of topic they’re hyperfocused on at the moment. Indeed, we don’t tend to care for small talk, since in our view, a conversation that exists just for the sake of filling silence is pointless. We don’t want to talk about the weather or want to know “What’s up?” We have knowledge we want to share, damn it!

Unless, of course, the weather is your special interest as an autistic person. I’m more concerned about climate change personally, but hey… you do you!

Finally, there is the fact that autistic people have a lot of trouble with facial expressions, which may have contributed to the myth that autistic people are sociopaths. Once again, autistic people may try to compensate by learning facial expressions from movies and TV.

Again, woe betide.
Socialization Difficulties

Of course, the difficulty with expressing emotion and reading body language is a part of our problem with socialization, as is the unwillingness to speak unless the conversation is lucky enough to steer into whatever subject the ASD individual is interested in at the moment.

Another part is that it takes very strenuous effort for an autistic individual to initiate communication with another person because we never have any clear idea what to say. Not only that, but normal social interaction is often outright physically exhausting for people like us who aren’t built for it. Thus, we often adopt a “do not speak unless spoken to” attitude that we may stick to rigidly. I’ve mastered this art so well that my family full of Trump supporters still doesn’t know that I hate the man’s guts, simply because they’ve never bothered to ask my opinion.

There is also the fact that, unlike most neurotypical people, autistic people dislike eye contact, often finding it uncomfortable or even painful. Naturally, this is another factor that often hinders the autistic individual’s ability to read body language properly. Personally, I think I’m on the lower end of the “eye contact discomfort” meter, as I usually don’t have a problem with it if a person is directly addressing me. It’s usually still a bit uncomfortable, though, especially if the person is standing right next to me.

Perhaps other difficulties with socialization can be explained by the autistic individual’s relationship with logic. We tend to focus on step-by-step answers to any problems that cross our path. This often leads to autistic individuals being very literal-minded, often telling things how we see them because we see no point in pretending that something is anything other than what we perceive it as. Indeed, this often makes us unable or unwilling to tell a convincing lie.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the final socialization-related topic I want to talk about: the autistic individual’s relationship with empathy, especially social/cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to predict other people’s thoughts, emotions, and intentions. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of “reading between the lines” regarding body language and speech patterns, which, as we have established above, autistic people are terrible at. This, combined with our inability to emote properly, often leads people into inaccurately labeling us as sociopaths.

On the contrary, however, autistic people often have a higher than average capacity for affective empathy, meaning an ability to share another person’s feelings with them. While this often makes autistic people into very morally upright citizens, it can often be overwhelming for a person, given the amount of death and disaster that affects the world every day. Empathy and logic often combine in an autistic individual to produce a very “Treat others as you would want to be treated attitude.” This can present problems of its own, though, since not everyone wants the same things. Indeed, while some people like the idea of sadomasochism as part of their sex life, I certainly don’t.

Especially if they learned about it from probably the one person who’s worse at writing romance than Stephanie Meyer.

The autistic ideas of empathy and logic may often combine into a deep sense of social justice. They logically think that powerful people using their power for selfish ends is illogical and hurts far more people than it helps. Indeed, logic and empathy were what made me turn away from my family’s conservatism when Trump was elected president. They tend to assume that there was a good reason Trump got into the White House because the American political system is the best in the world and only produces good results (although usually only if conservatives are leading it). On the other hand, I refused to accept that Trump was in any way qualified for the office of the most powerful person in the world. Of course, that ultimately led to me deciding that no one person should ever be allowed that much power, and now I am an anarcho-communist.

Restricted Interests/Behaviors

This is almost certainly the most visible symptom of ASD, even though it is the least significant, medically speaking. Of course, a big part of this is the fact that they often find themselves fascinated by a certain subject to the point that they end up defining their whole existence around it and gather as much knowledge as they can on it to the point that they can become leading experts on it. They can even make whole careers out of these restricted interests. Temple Grandin used her insight on animal behavior, especially cattle, to create innovations to make slaughterhouses as humane as possible. Greta Thunberg has managed to channel her rage and despair caused by her autistic obsession with climate change into political activism. Donald Triplett, one of Leo Kanner’s patients who became the first to be formally diagnosed with autism, would later put his abilities with rapid mental multiplication to good use at his family bank.

Of course, it can be equally common for a person on the spectrum to end up changing their defining interest constantly. My personal experience is somewhere in the middle between these two extremes. I remember being even more obsessed with dinosaurs and other prehistoric life during my childhood years than the average kid was. There was also a period when I became oddly obsessed with the RMS Titanic (and the Hindenburg to a lesser extent). I also developed an interest in the paranormal during my later childhood, which has since developed into my obsession with religion and esoteric occult practices that combined with my love of fantasy novels to create The Divine Conspiracy. I’ve also had some low-key obsessions with subjects like music and literature crop up from time to time. For example, my family hates playing Trivial Pursuit: Classic Rock Edition with me because I usually wipe the floor with them. I also became obsessed with everything Watership Down after I rediscovered it (something you’ll learn all about during the retrospective this month).

It’s not just interests that are restricted for us, though. Autistic people are also well known for being oversensitive to certain stimuli, be it tactile, visual, or audio. Certain clothing materials can irritate their skin, for instance. Certain colors, patterns, or speeds of light can cause distress, especially for those who are co-morbid with epilepsy (which I, fortunately, am not). They can also be picky eaters, not just because of flavors they don’t like but also because certain textures can make a piece of food unpalatable, even if the flavor agrees with them. Sudden loud noises can trigger panic attacks in autistic individuals who are sensitive to noise.

While I’ve never had panic attacks or meltdowns due to loud noises, several have been problems for me in the past. I used to avoid restroom blow dryers like the plague when I was younger because I hated the noise. I also used to have such a low tolerance for spicy foods when I was a kid that I couldn’t even eat pepperoni pizza. Nowadays, I can use both without problem, although I still have trouble with spicy foods. I’m still a very picky eater today, as I still have trouble with several kinds of vegetables (although I have taken a liking to garden salads with ranch dressing as of late).

Autistic individuals have also tended not to be very “outdoorsy,” possibly due to being very unwilling to break their comfortable routines. I was born into a hunting family, though, so I tended to be much more of an outdoor person when I was younger (even though I didn’t become a hunter myself, as I loved animals too much). I tend to spend much more of my life indoors nowadays, although I usually like to walk in the woods surrounding my house now and again. I also really want to explore America’s national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Olympic sometime in the future once this COVID epidemic finally dies down.

Miscellaneous Symptoms

People on the autism spectrum often seem to appear less physically mature than others with different developmental disorders since their faces tend to be more rounded and thus more childlike. This has definitely been the case for me. I’m 25 (going on 26), and yet I still look like I’ve barely finished high school. As recently as three weeks ago, when I was showing an official at the local vaccine distribution center my ID, she was surprised that I was 25, as she would have guessed I was 18 at first glance.

Another symptom often associated with autistic people is a tendency to compulsively talk to themselves, similarly to Tourette’s Syndrome (minus the stereotypical foul language, which in real life only happens in ten percent of those with the disorder). This is especially true if the ASD individual starts daydreaming, which, as an aspiring fantasy writer, I tend to do quite frequently. Sometimes I’ll blurt out something one of my characters says in certain vignettes I cook up in my head. It’s never at the top of my lungs, though, and it hasn’t caused a major disruption… yet.

The autistic individual may also experience sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep, frequent nocturnal awakenings, and early morning awakenings. I tend to struggle quite a bit with falling asleep myself. Sometimes I manage to fall asleep within an hour of going to bed. Other times I end up lying awake for hours on end, unable to drift off because my mind is still buzzing. Either way, I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of going to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow as some others do.

Another symptom associated with ASD is a higher than average visual or auditory perception. This may be associated with the fact that the autistic brain tends to filter out fewer auditory signals than the neurotypical brain, which can be a major factor in why several autistic individuals are sensitive to loud noises. My version of this heightened perception often comes in being able to see and hear things that others around me usually don’t notice… although I’m not entirely sure if it’s because I actually have heightened perceptions or because I’m usually not interested in what people around me are talking about, so I let my eyes wander about my surroundings. Of course, I also wear prescription glasses, as my banner photo will attest, so it’s not like my senses are unimpaired in any way.

One other symptom I have that often worries me is my trouble with short-term memory.

Not that kind.

Our issues with short-term memory usually come in the form of not being able to follow step-by-step instructions very well since the last task given to us often pops out of our head when the next task is given. This hasn’t caused much of a problem at my workplace, although I couldn’t tell you how to operate the paint mixer even though the boss has shown me at least once.

Somewhat related to this is our struggle with executive function, which means we have difficulty fully grasping the steps of certain processes and carrying them out. This is especially difficult for me since I’ve never been able to grasp how finances work (and have been somewhat unwilling to since, as a newly converted socialist, I’d much rather our society got rid of money anyway). This means I have a lot of trouble planning for the future, which makes me fear the future immensely, so I avoid it even more. I admit there is some comfort in “Indiana Jones-ing” it through life, especially given my newfound fondness for Daoism. However, at the same time, it still often feels like I’m gambling with my future “in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time…” at least, that’s how Terry Pratchett might put it.

Final Thoughts

Indeed, a lot of this may make it seem like my existence is a living hell. Sometimes, I don’t entirely disagree, especially given the capitalist dystopia I’m living under. Not only do I have to live with the fact that most of the people we put in charge of our governments and corporations are perfectly fine with letting hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people die every year just to preserve their own wealth and privilege. Not only do I have to live with the fact that there are likely more working-class people in the industrialized world (my own family included) who support them than don’t. I also have to live with the fact that my neurodivergence makes me a target for the ruling class, who would gladly throw me under the bus the first chance they get and replace me with a more neurotypical cog that can properly follow their orders.

However, at the end of the day, I still have my empathy. I still have the complete inability to have ulterior motives for the kind acts I perform. I still have impeccable attention to detail. I still have exceptional visual thinking skills. And probably most importantly, I still have my passion. I still have a desire to show my art to the rest of the world, no matter how much my inner critic tells me it sucks. I still have my drive to see this world changed for the better. I still have my intense love of what little unspoiled natural wilderness we still have in this world. And I still have unexplored horizons waiting for me to explore if I only have the courage to take that first step.

Announcing the May Retrospective

So, for a while on this website, I’ve been teasing a retrospective for the month of May since my birthday falls on that month, and I want to do a series of essays talking about a fictional work that had a big impact on me during my formative years. I’ve mentioned before on my blog entry about The Divine Conspiracy that I was a bit slow to discover the wonders of fictional literature. There were plenty of novels assigned to me by my English classes that I thoroughly enjoyed (The Outsiders, The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, and probably some others that escape me now).

Especially as I got into my high school years, I began to seek out novels on my own time, like The Hunger Games trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. But out of all the books I discovered during that period, there is but one that I can honest to God say actually changed my life. That book was written by a humble British civil servant named Richard Adams, and its name was Watership Down.

Cover of the Scribner 2005 trade paperback edition, which I own a copy of

I mentioned in the “Animation Age Ghetto” essay I did a while back that I watched the 1978 film adaptation when I was around 8-10 years old after Mom rented it from a video store. I rediscovered it on YouTube during high school, and it (along with Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away) woke me up to the fact that animation was more than a genre of children’s entertainment, which I had been deluding myself into thinking for most of my teenage years. From there, I purchased the novel on my Amazon Kindle, as well as some of Richard Adams’ other novels, like Shardik and The Plague Dogs. And it shortly grew into a life-changing rabbit hole (no pun intended) that led me on a journey that ended with me deciding to become a writer myself when I attended college just a few short years later.

There are five works from the franchise that I will be covering for this retrospective:

  • The original novel, as well as the 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down
  • The 1978 film adaptation
  • The 1999 children’s television series
  • The discography of the British punk/metal band Fall of Efrafa, whose Warren of the Snares trilogy is loosely based on the Lapine mythology presented in the books
  • The 2018 Netflix miniseries

So yeah, I’ve got a pretty busy month ahead of me as far as writing goes. I’ve also got that essay on my relationship with autism spectrum disorder that I still have to finish. I also want to get the first part of my Divine Conspiracy pilot uploaded on DeviantArt before the end of the month, come hell or high water. The Watership Down franchise is something I am very passionate about, however, so it should be relatively easy for me.

Things are gonna get pretty busy over the next month, beautiful watchers. I hope you’re ready to come along for the ride!