Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 5: The Netflix Series

Our final entry in this retrospective takes us to 2018 when the third screen adaption of this classic tale of bunny heroics was unveiled to us by Netflix on December 23rd (it was released a day earlier on the BBC network in the U.K.). The BBC had announced a new adaptation in July of 2014, with Tom Bidwell of My Mad Fat Diary, Eastenders, and Casualty fame being hired to write four hour-long episodes.

Further announcements came in April of 2016 when Netflix announced that they had purchased the global distribution rights for the series. Also announced were the other production companies involved, including 42 and Biscuit Films, the production company of the series director, Noam Murro. The announcement also included several of the voice actors set to participate: James McAvoy as Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as Fiver, John Boyega as Bigwig, Gemma Arterton as Clover, Freddie Fox as Captain Holly, Anne-Marie Duff as Hyzenthlay, Miles Jupp as Blackberry, Olivia Coleman as Strawberry, and Ben Kingsley as General Woundwort. I can remember reading that Christopher Lee had been attached at some point, but he died in June 2015, aged 93.

Two other deaths would hang much more gloomily over the project shortly after. First, Richard Adams passed away at the ripe old age of 96 on Christmas Eve, 2016. The next month, on January 25th, John Hurt, the original voice of Hazel, died just three days after his 77th birthday after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Naturally, this led to many utterances of “My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today” among the Watership Down fandom.

Maybe this created expectations for the new miniseries that the producers and animators couldn’t reach. When the series finally came out in December of 2018, it received some rather mixed reviews. It did manage to receive a score of 77 and 76 on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively, with the summary on the former reading, “Though its animation leaves something to be desired, Watership Down is a faithful adaptation that will resonate with viewers of any age.” Reception among the fandom seems to be much more divided, with some liking it and others hating it.

As for me, this adaptation really isn’t anything to write home about. It’s definitely not terrible, and the creators clearly did have a vision that they were committed to. But not only is the animation woefully outdated and stilted, but some of the directorial choices and changes that the writers made left me scratching my head. Allow me to explain.

My Thoughts

Perhaps the best place to start would be the thing that most viewers will notice right away: the lackluster animation. Even most positive reviews tended to agree that the animation itself was the series’ weakest link, especially in comparison to the film. Whereas the film’s animation remains just as vibrant and colorful in 2021 as it was in 1978, many reviewers unfavorably compared the animation style here to the animated cutscenes from early 2000s video games. True, the animation isn’t anywhere near the godawful level of quality offered by the likes of Video Brinquedo. Even so, the rabbits’ movements feel jerky and robotic, like they’re not properly interacting with their environment.

Not helping the poor animation is the hyper-realistic style that the artists used for the character designs. For one thing, it’s often hard to tell which rabbit is which. Looking at the picture I used as a header for this article, I can tell that the three rabbits in the middle are Fiver, Bigwig, and Hazel. I can’t remember which of the other three rabbits are which, though.

Another problem with hyper-realism is that the rabbits aren’t allowed to emote like they could in the two previous adaptations. This often creates a disconnect between the often lively performances from the voice actors and the muted facial expressions on the rabbits, especially in far-away shots. Indeed, Bigwig barely seems to react in the third episode when the Efrafans catch him in an escape attempt with Hyzenthlay and her does.

Perhaps now would be a good jumping-off point to discuss my problems with how several characters were portrayed in the series. I didn’t particularly enjoy what the series did with Hazel, for instance. Hazel, in this version, is much less confident in his role as a leader, which annoyed me to no end. He constantly second-guesses himself and just awkwardly stands around while others make decisions for him. It gets especially egregious when, during the Efrafa operation, he seems far more worried about Clover than Bigwig or the other does imprisoned in Efrafa (we’ll talk more about her in a bit).

Bigwig also gets the shaft in this version, as he becomes much angrier and confrontational, constantly arguing with every decision Hazel makes. He even threatens to kill Fiver for making a nuisance of himself at Cowslip’s warren in this version. I get the sense that Bidwell did this because he thought it would make his character development in Efrafa more noticeable, but it just made me want to make hasenpfeffer out of him. Also, Hazel’s plan to get Bigwig into Efrafa hinging on making their best fighter into a storyteller was stupid, especially since they didn’t even give Bigwig time to memorize a few stories beforehand.

Another character who gets the full asshole makeover is Kehaar, who becomes much more selfish and rude, flatly refusing Hazel’s offer to help them find more does and even abandoning them shortly afterward, only returning when he finds out that his wing isn’t fully healed yet. True, he does eventually pull through for the Watershippers in the end, but his behavior up to that point doesn’t make his arc in warming up to the rabbits feel natural or earned. Not helping this is that Peter Capaldi decided to use his natural Scottish accent to voice Kehaar instead of affecting an Eastern European/Scandinavian accent like in the other adaptations. I can understand not even wanting to try to top Zero Mostel or Rik Mayall, but it still feels like one of Kehaar’s major defining traits has been gutted as a result.

I feel like Bidwell tried to sell the unnaturalness of Cowslip’s warren a bit too hard in this version. For example, Cowslip himself is introduced dancing on his hind legs, which I feel is way too unrealistic for a story that grounds itself so firmly in realism. The fact that several rabbits in the warren are seen worshipping a crystal formation also doesn’t sit right with me, as it pretty much throws all the slow-burning subtlety of the sequence right out the window.

Bidwell’s interpretation of Efrafa also feels very wrong to me, not the least because he put the enemy warren in the ruins of a human-made factory. Doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of Efrafa? In the novel, the warren was specifically designed by Woundwort and his council to be hidden from human eyes. True, this factory is clearly not in use by humans anymore, but what’s to stop them from knocking down those smokestacks one of these days and basically nuking the warren even worse than Sandleford?

Some of the ways in which Woundwort’s character is handled also rubbed me the wrong way. Episode Four starts with a retelling of Woundwort’s backstory that just feels all wrong since it deviates from the story told in the novel, and not for the better. For example, Woundwort’s warren is not killed by a farmer in this adaptation, but rather a pack of foxes that he was too tharn to warn them about (since when did red foxes hunt in packs?). We don’t even get to see Woundwort’s time as a hutch rabbit, even though that’s a major reason why he is so attracted to Clover when she appears at Efrafa. Even with Ben Kingsley giving a performance every bit as menacing as Harry Andrews and John Hurt’s portrayals, his character still feels a bit flat in this iteration, especially since the writers didn’t really do anything with his backstory to try to flesh his character out.

Speaking of Clover, though, here’s where I get into my issues with how the does are portrayed, especially her and Strawberry. Yes, this time, Strawberry takes his turn to be the token gender flip, being something of a hyper-active Genki girl who leaves Cowslip’s warren because she wants to live in a place where she doesn’t keep losing her friends to the shining wires. Unfortunately, once she gets to Watership Down, she ends up being consigned to almost singlehandedly digging the new warren because, in this version, does are inherently better at digging than bucks. Not only is this biologically untrue (the only reason does dig more than bucks in real life is because they need the burrows for their litters), this also goes against the novel, where Hazel even pointedly says that the problem is that “Bucks won’t dig. Not can’t, won’t.” Even if we ignore the digging issue, though, the fact that Bidwell chose a sheltered and naive rabbit with little to no survival skills as the token female is… a bit poorly thought out if you ask me.

Clover, on the other hand, is a whole different can of worms. It is understandable on a meta-level why she was made Hazel’s love interest instead of Hyzenthlay. James McAvoy and Anne Marie-Duff, their respective voice actors, had gotten divorced shortly before the series went into production, so Bidwell probably figured he shouldn’t pair them together. The problem is that the series tries way too hard to sell the two as a couple, practically turning Clover into a Mary Sue in the process.

In this version, for example, it is Clover who rescues Hazel from the drainpipe instead of Fiver, which I feel robs the story of the one moment that really solidifies his and Hazel’s brotherly bond. Not helping this is that Clover chooses this moment to utter the famous line, “Man will not rest until he’s spoiled the Earth,” which feels really out of place coming from her since she’s lived in a very well-kept hutch her whole life. True, Lucy’s father seems much more callous in this version, as he indiscriminately shoots at Hazel and his own daughter’s pet rabbits during the breakout. Still, there’s no indication that Lucy herself treats them any worse.

Clover’s expanded role in Efrafa also comes at the expense of Hyzenthlay’s character. Hyzenthlay here is much more beaten down and defeatist and far less trusting of Bigwig. Indeed, at one point, Clover is forced to try to bargain with Woundwort to save her from execution, offering to become his queen if he agrees to spare Hyzenthaly’s life (he rather rudely declines). She consequently seems to take Hyzenthlay’s place as a leader in the group, much to the detriment of the latter’s character.

There are a few elements that I did like from this adaptation. For instance, Fiver’s visions are suitably eerie, with objects and even live rabbits floating motionless in mid-air. The way Fiver’s “the roof is made of bones” comment is visualized in Cowslip’s warren was especially creepy. I also thought this series’ depiction of Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare was appropriately intense, even though the only blood we see in the scene comes from Fiver of all rabbits, from cutting his lip trying to chew through the peg.

The fight scenes were the only time where I felt that the rabbits actually moved like real rabbits, their quick movements showing what real damage a rabbit’s claws can do to an opponent. Again, though, the series seems strangely reluctant to show any blood except during Bigwig and Woundwort’s climactic battle, which is weird since it doesn’t seem to be aiming for that young of an audience. Still, the confrontation with Woundwort under the railway arch was a definite highlight, especially when Kehaar comes flying in with a genuinely awesome slow-motion shot.

I think that this series’ reinterpretation of the Black Rabbit of Inle is fascinating. Instead of the fearsome harbinger of death we saw in the book and previous adaptations, he is presented here as a doe with soft-black hair and a soothing voice provided by Rosamund Pike. It really helps to illustrate how death isn’t really all that scary when you get right down to it, especially given how the Black Rabbit has been portrayed in all Watership Down adaptations. That said, though, I really don’t like how the final scene where she takes Hazel was handled. I don’t really feel like Hazel earned his spot in the Black Rabbit’s Owsla since the writer undermined his leadership skills with the way he wrote the character. Also, it seems like his death occurs only months after Woundwort’s defeat, which feels cheap to me. Still, his and Fiver’s final conversation is suitably emotional, especially since it’s clear that Fiver knows what’s coming and has no power to stop it.

Even if the script didn’t really give them good material to work with, the voice cast was solid. McAvoy and Boyega were especially undersold, as I felt their performances could have been even better if their characters were closer to how they were portrayed in the book. Nicholas Hoult was great as Fiver, perfectly capturing the vulnerability of the character. Lee Ingleby and Freddie Fox’s performances as Campion and Holly, respectively, were also highlights. Here’s an interesting piece of trivia about Cowslip’s voice actor, Rory Kinnear: he’s the son of Roy Kinnear, the voice of Pipkin in the film adaptation (who, along with Silver, is Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Adaptation).

Finally, I feel I should give a shout-out to “Fire on Fire,” the theme song composed by Sam Smith for this version. It is a pretty good song, tapping into the themes of love, friendship, and hope present in the story. Even so, I can’t help but agree with Mike Batt’s criticism that it doesn’t really have much to do with the actual content of the series itself, and it definitely isn’t nearly as memorable as “Bright Eyes.” The score by Argentian composer Federico Jusid also didn’t really leave much of an impact on me, as it didn’t really have the folksy charm of the film and ’99 series scores and felt like generic film music.

So yeah, overall, this adaptation was just a disappointment in my eyes. Even the few elements I did like (the voice acting, the background animation, the fight scenes, etc.) were often overcome by the series’ faults dragging them down. The characters often felt like downgrades from their book counterparts. The pacing often felt much faster than the film (despite having a runtime three times as long). The deviations from the novel’s story almost always felt like changes for the worse (seriously, why was the boat escape cut? I sincerely doubt the Watership rabbits could simply outrun Efrafa’s Owsla). And the lack of colors just makes the whole series look lifeless and drab. I give the series a 4/10. I think the series’ creators really were trying to make something good but were too caught up in giving their adaptation its own identity and missed much of what made the original story so good in the first place.

Epilogue

So now we come to the end of this retrospective. It took a lot longer to finish than I initially anticipated. When I first announced it in May, I definitely didn’t think it would take me until July to finish it. Am I going to put myself through something like this again next May when I turn 27? Maybe. We’ll wait and see.

For now, though, I want to close off this retrospective by answering one last question. Say I actually did manage to achieve a professional writing career and decided that I wanted to have a go at my own adaptation of Watership Down. What would I want to see in my own adaptation?

Obviously, the best place to look would be what I liked and didn’t like about all three screen adaptations. The film was definitely the closest to the original story and did an outstanding job at hitting all the plot beats and staying true to the characters and the dark tone. At the same time, though, the ninety-minute runtime often made it feel like it was merely scratching the surface of the plot and themes and is barely able to let any characters other than Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Woundwort, and maybe Cowslip and Hyzenthlay to have much of an impact.

The 1999 series makes up for this by having three seasons of 13 episodes each, allowing more room for the plot and characters to stretch their legs. Unfortunately, the writers on that show somewhat shot themselves in the foot by stretching the Efrafa conflict out over two seasons and including filler episodes that forced themselves between very plot-relevant episodes, often leading to adult viewers developing arc fatigue. While season three somewhat remedies this by having the Woundwort take over a meaner and scarier warren after Efrafa is destroyed, the writers reshot themselves by suddenly introducing supernatural elements that allowed them to resolve the conflict with a bloodless deus ex machina. Plus, since the series creators were aiming for a younger audience, much of the violence that gave the original story its identity was stripped away, along with much of the sense of danger that followed the protagonists everywhere they went.

There isn’t really much from the Netflix series that I feel inclined to emulate, aside from the voice cast. I would be interested in having James McAvoy, Nick Hoult, John Boyega, and Ben Kingsley back to have another go at voicing Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and Woundwort again this time with the characters acting far closer to their book counterparts.

With all that in mind, I think my perfect adaptation of Watership Down would be a three-season TV series like the 1999 series. The first season would cover the original novel’s story, ending with Woundwort’s defeat at the beech hanger. Season Two would explore what would happen if Woundwort actually survived his fight with the dog, defied the Black Rabbit’s call to follow him to the spirit world, and secretly worked behind the scenes to rebuild his empire; his refusal to follow the Black Rabbit causes the Watership Down rabbits to deal with strange supernatural events as the spirit world is thrown out of balance. Season Three would feature Woundwort retaking Efrafa only to lose it again and be forced to return to his original home in Darkhaven. I would like to redo Campion’s arc from the ’99 series, hopefully better this time, especially better developing his romance with Blackberry in the second season (yes, she’s a doe again in my version. Sorry to all the purists out there, I just liked Doe! Blackberry best).

I especially would prefer not to do that thing that both television adaptations did where the Sandleford rabbits reach Watership Down at the end of the first episode, as I feel it cheapens the arduous journey that the rabbits have to go through to reach their destination. Also, would it kill the creators of these adaptations to have Watership Down actually look like the real Watership Down?

For reference, here’s what Watership Down looks like in the film and TV adaptations…
…and here’s what Watership Down looks like in real life (from the north side).

Not really sure if there’s much else to say on this subject or if I’m just tired of working on this project after two months, but I think this is where I finally close the book on the subject of Watership Down. Be sure to stay tuned for updates in a few days, where I’ll explain where this blog is headed next after this project comes to an end. Remember to be cunning and full of tricks, and I’ll see you next time. Thank you, buh-bye!

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