…and it certainly took me on a roller coaster ride, especially regarding its main subject.
(Trigger warning for those sensitive to violent crime topics: this article will contain mentions of such subjects and some brief references to pedophilia.)
This documentary series, which served as one of the earliest Netflix original programs, generated a storm of controversy when it first premiered in December 2015, thanks to its shocking accusations of police corruption and misconduct in the trial of Steven Avery.
Before we explore that controversy, a little background: Steven Allan Avery was a resident of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who grew up in a family that was widely viewed as the redneck black sheep of the community. Nevertheless, his father owned a successful auto salvage business that kept his family fed.
Avery’s calm rural existence was shattered in July of 1985 when he was sentenced to thirty-two years in prison for the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen, despite eyewitnesses corroborating his alibi of being in Green Bay at the time. He was released after 18 years when DNA evidence proved that the rape had actually been committed by Gregory Allen, another local man who bore a striking resemblance to Avery and had a history of violence against women. A vengeful Avery decided to sue the Manitowoc County police department for $36 million and was even the primary inspiration for new Wisconsin state legislation to decrease the likelihood of future wrongful convictions.
But, to paraphrase the words of Michael Corleone, just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. On Halloween of 2005, a local photographer named Teresa Halbach went missing, and a search party found her Toyota RAV4 in the auto salvage junkyard a few days later. Police searched Avery’s property and claimed to have found Teresa’s bones in the remains of a bonfire Steven had held on Halloween. They later found the key to the RAV4 in Steven’s bedroom, and Steven was arrested and tried for her murder. When his nephew, Brendan Dassey, confessed to helping his uncle kill Teresa and dispose of her corpse, things became even bleaker for Steven. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, while Dassey (only 17 at the time of his sentencing) was ineligible for parole until 2048.
Steven and Brendan’s defense teams pointed to numerous inconsistencies in the prosection’s evidence, including but not limited to:
It seemingly took multiple searches of Steven’s property to find enough evidence to incriminate him (I think the key wasn’t discovered until the sixth search, if I’m not mistaken).
Steven’s lawyers questioned why Steven didn’t use the compactor in the junkyard to dispose of the RAV4 and how he would be stupid enough to leave Teresa’s bones lying around on his property.
The lawyers also questioned how little of Steven’s blood was found inside the RAV4, especially when they found a vial of Steven’s blood collected from his previous conviction that looked like a hypodermic needle had punctured it. This was possibly disproven by the prosecution when analysis proved that there was no EDTA (a preservative added to blood samples to prevent coagulation) in the sample.
Brendan Dassey’s confession was also thrown into question, thanks to the coercive tactics his interrogators used and Dassey’s intellectual and developmental disabilities (he scored in the seventies on an IQ test), which the defense argued made him highly impressionable.
Interim and Reactions
I’ll admit that I was fully convinced that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey had been framed by the last few episodes of the first season. However, as I looked at some other articles about the incident, I learned about certain troubling facts of Avery’s past that the miniseries’ directors, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, had conveniently left out.
They did talk about some morally questionable things Steven had done before his 1985 conviction. For example, in January of that year, he ran his first cousin off the road and threatened her with a gun after she accused him of masturbating in her direction. They also brought up an incident from 1982 where Avery and a few friends horrifically murdered a cat by pouring gasoline over it and dropping it on a fire (which the documentary frames as an accident) and his burglary of a bar the year before. Avery dismisses it in the first episode by saying that he “was young and stupid and hanging out with the wrong people.”
Somewhat less defensible is the fact that Steven wrote letters to his first wife threatening to murder her, especially when she told Steven she wanted a divorce. He is also alleged to have told another prisoner that he planned to create a torture chamber with which to spirit away female victims. He even bought handcuffs and leg irons shortly before Teresa’s murder, which he claimed was for his then-girlfriend Jodi Stachowski. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Stachowski (who was featured in the first season) later claimed that Steven threatened to kill her if she said anything that made him look bad and had been physically abusive in the past.
Not even members of his own family were allegedly safe from Avery’s depredations. A female relative claimed that Avery had raped her in 2004 and threatened to kill her family if she told anyone. Also, Brendan Dassey later claimed that Steven had touched him in ways that made him uncomfortable, so there’s that too.
That being said, that still doesn’t mean the prosecution is totally innocent either. There are clearly several holes in their arguments. For instance, Dassey originally claimed that Teresa had been murdered in Avery’s bedroom, despite there being no blood anywhere in the room. Their alternate theory that Teresa was murdered in Avery’s garage is also questioned by his attorneys, who question how Avery could have been thorough enough to scrub all of her DNA from the garage and the junk inside and still not think to dispose of her bones. On top of all that, the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department clearly had a conflict of interest in involving themselves in Avery’s case (so much so that his trial took place in neighboring Calumet County). Yet, they were the ones who searched Avery’s property and found all the evidence the prosecution used.
The second season, released in December of 2018, mainly follows Kathleen Zellner, an attorney specializing in wrongful convictions, as she tries to build a case for Avery’s innocence. At the same time, we follow Brendan Dassey’s new attorneys as they battle for appeals all the way to the Seventh Circuit and the Supreme Court.
All the while, Zellner digs up new inconsistencies in the prosecution’s evidence, including but not limited to:
The idea that the police did not take Steven’s blood from the vial that his attorneys originally found but from Avery’s bathroom sink after he bled into it from a cut on his middle finger (possibly supported by marks from a crowbar on Avery’s front door).
Zellner also managed to gain access to a bullet found in Avery’s garage that allegedly had Teresa’s D.N.A. on it, arguing that if Avery had fired it through Halbach’s skull as the prosecution claimed, there should be bone fragments embedded in it. Instead, forensic investigators only find wood fragments and a waxy substance that Zellner suspects to be Halbach’s lip balm (thus suggesting where Teresa’s D.N.A. came from).
Zellner learned of a truck driver who claimed to have seen the RAV4 in a location away from the Avery property before it was discovered in the junkyard. Unfortunately, the first officer he told of this was Andrew Colborn, the officer accused in the first season of being one of the masterminds behind Avery’s framing, and thus nothing came of it.
Zellner also interviews Debra Kakatsch, the Manitowoc County coroner at the time, who was not only prevented from investigating the alleged site of Halbach’s murder but was also prevented from testifying at the trial and even quit her job a few months later as she no longer felt safe.
The most shocking new evidence that Zellner uncovers is Bobby Dassey’s internet history. Bobby (Brendan’s brother) is revealed to have a morbid interest in violent pornography (some involving children). Zellner even claims that several of the subjects of the images Bobby searched even looked like Teresa Halbach. The same motorist who claims to have seen the RAV4 off the Avery junkyard also texted his friend Scott Tadych (Brendan Dassey’s stepfather) about it, asking to be put in touch with Dassey’s attorneys. Nothing came of it.
There are many reasons to criticize the Manitowoc County police for letting their obvious biases color their view of this case, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated above. However, that doesn’t mean I’m totally convinced that Steven Avery is innocent of Teresa Halbach’s murder, especially in light of his previous history of violence against women. True, it is doubtful that the murder occurred either in Avery’s bedroom or garage. But, even with the alternate scenario that Zellner lays out in the final few episodes, I see no reason why Steven couldn’t still have been involved as well.
Even if it seems like one hell of a coincidence that Avery’s second conviction came right when he was trying to hold the sheriff’s department accountable for its previous foul-up, that doesn’t seem so improbable when you remember that there is a reason American police jokingly refer to prisons as “crime colleges.” Allow me to reiterate this Pyotr Kropotkin quote from my essay on anarchism:
Have not prisons-which kill at will and force of character in men, which enclose within their walls more vices than are met with than in any spot on the globe-always been the universities of crime? Is not the court of the tribunal a school of ferocity?
Pyotr Kropotkin, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Model
If you combine the horror of American prisons with Avery’s previous violent tendencies, you can probably see why I and many others have a nagging suspicion that Zellner and Steven’s loved ones might be barking up the wrong tree.
However, I am absolutely not convinced that Brendan Dassey had anything to do with the crime. Given his limited intelligence and lack of a criminal record before his fateful interviews, plus the fact that that interview is literally the only evidence connecting him to Halbach’s death, I feel extremely confident in stating my opinion that Dassey is innocent. If you think I’m being overconfident, allow me to point you to another Netflix Original true-crime documentary series called The Confession Tapes, which details the numerous coercive techniques police can use to obtain false confessions. When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Original docudrama about the Central Park Five, also provides a good case study on false confessions.
…and it is easily one of the most joyless media-watching experiences I have ever had to endure.
We all know Charles Dickens’ story of how the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler soul when several ghostly spirits help him see the true magic of the holiday season. We’ve also seen it portrayed in many adaptions starring Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, and many others in the title role (although the version starring Michael Caine alongside the Muppets will always be my personal favorite). It has been well renowned for not only helping to codify many modern Christmas traditions in a time when the holiday had slowly been regaining popularity in Victorian England but also for simply being a life-affirming story about the value of kindness and generosity.
Even so, some have noted that the story, despite acknowledging the plight of the poor numerous times, doesn’t really engage with the question of why they’re impoverished in the first place and paints too much of a happy, sentimental picture over the very genuine and very terrible suffering that the lower classes went through in this period. Need I remind you that Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto appeared only five years after A Christmas Carol was published?
It seems that this was the lens that Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight was approaching the story through when he wrote the three episodes that make up the 2019 adaptation. He decided to lift the veil on the horrific conditions that the proletariat worked under as the age of capitalism truly codified itself in the early 1800s. But does Knight’s approach work when he applies his critiques of systemic abuse to an adaptation of A Christmas Carol of all things?
Before I go into my many, MANY problems with this adaptation, however, I should at least go into what I felt the series did right.
The best element that the series has going for it is its cast. Despite being much younger than the traditional image most of us have of an elderly skinflint, Guy Pearce is suitably imposing, manipulative, and chilling as a more middle-aged Scrooge. Stephen Graham is obviously having fun playing Jacob Marley, providing most of the series’ rare moments of comic relief as he stumbles in confusion through Purgatory. Another standout performance is Andy Serkis as a much more grizzled and imposing version of the Ghost of Christmas Past than we’re used to.
Meanwhile, Vinette Robinson gives an intense performance as Mary, the matriarch of the long-suffering Cratchit family, while Lenny Rush is delightfully adorable as Tiny Tim.
Another point in the series’ favor is its cinematography and set design. The setting is appropriately Victorian, and the design for Purgatory is suitably dark and Christmassy. It takes the form of what looks like a giant abandoned Christmas tree lot, which is tended by the Ghost of Christmas Past periodically burning the trees.
The more horror film-inspired scenes are also very creative, especially during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence when Scrooge sees the ceiling of his office transform into a frozen pond surface and watches in horror as Tiny Tim falls through it and drowns.
That being said, the series also does that annoying thing some cinematographers do in that they try to emphasize the darkness of the story by making the shots so dark that you can barely tell what’s happening onscreen. This series is definitely guilty of that, although it does brighten up a little as the story goes along.
The literal darkness is one thing, but the thematic darkness inherent to this version of the story is what ruins it. For example, this version begins with a boy with a prominent facial scar pissing on Marley’s grave. This alone is cringeworthy edgelord bullshit, but what pushes it into unintentional hilarity is that as some of the piss drips on Marley’s corpse, he wakes up and starts loudly complaining about how he’s not allowed to rest in peace. And it all goes downhill from there.
The biggest sin that this series commits is the way it handles Scrooge himself. One can argue that Scrooge in the original novella really wasn’t all that bad a guy. True, he is ruthless in charging his financially challenged debtors for more than their meager dwellings are worth. He also just sits on his wealth rather than spend it on anything and pays Bob Cratchit starvation wages that more than likely are condemning his youngest son to an early death. Plus, when told that the poor would rather die than slave away in prisons or workhouses, he famously responds, “Well, if they’re going to die, they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population!” But that type of evil is subtle enough that some readers (especially those more sympathetic to Ayn Rand) might wonder why he’s treated as evil at all, especially since he is presented as scrupulously honest and, for all his grumbling, does allow Cratchit to take Christmas Day off.
Unfortunately, Knight’s solution to this problem goes so far beyond the realm of good taste that one ends up concluding that Pearce’s Scrooge deserves nothing more than an eternity in the lowest pit of Hell. For example, unlike in the novella where Scrooge and Marley’s business doesn’t seem to go beyond the impoverished Londoners they lend money to, this version portrays them as the Victorian era equivalent of a private equity firm, buying struggling small businesses for far less than they’re worth and gradually ruining them for a profit. The consequences of this are shown plainly when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a factory explosion and a mine collapse that was directly caused by his financial meddling. Indeed, the boy shown pissing on Marley’s grave was a survivor of the mine disaster.
But that’s nothing compared to what made Scrooge this way in the first place.
(Major trigger warning for those sensitive to issues of sexual assault, especially the kind involving children. Please proceed with caution for the following three paragraphs!)
Knight was determined to show Scrooge as having the worst childhood possible, from watching a pet mouse gifted to him by his sister get decapitated by his howling drunken beast of a father…
…to his father letting him be sexually assaulted by his schoolmaster so that he could get a discount on tuition fees. Incidentally, this leads to the other most infamous scene in the series when Scrooge’s sister (named Lottie in this version) pulls a gun on the schoolmaster to rescue Scrooge from his abuse after their father dies. I will admit that I was rather entertained by this scene, mostly because of present-day Scrooge’s reaction (“She pulled a fucking gun on him!” he exclaims in shock).
Later, the effects of this abuse are shown when Mary Cratchit, desperate for money to save Tiny Tim’s life, asks Scrooge for help. Scrooge says he will, but only if she will come to his house to prostitute herself. When she is halfway undressed, however, Scrooge tells her to put her clothes back on, as he wasn’t interested in sex, just in trying to prove how easily people will abandon their morals for money. The Ghost of Christmas Past storms away afterward, convinced that Scrooge is beyond all hope of redemption.
Many critics trashed the series for this, as it seemed less like Knight was using this to open up a dialogue about these issues and more like he just added them for shock value. It doesn’t help that after Scrooge dismisses Mary, she lays a curse on him that is strongly implied to have set Marley and the Spirits on him. The ending even implies that Mary will continue to enlist the Spirits’ help to punish men who abuse women. Many reviewers have pointed out how having the only central non-white character be into witchcraft is… rather tone-deaf at best, but that’s probably a conversation for someone more qualified than me to have.
The unrelenting grimness of the proceedings is not helped by how sluggish the pacing is. The series runs for three episodes that bring it up to a total runtime of just seven minutes shy of three hours. And believe me, you will feel every single minute of it, especially if you watch it all in one sitting as I did with the version shown on Hulu (plus commercials! Joy to the fucking world!).
To give you an idea of just how badly the series paces itself, let me show you where the appropriate plot beats happen in this version of the story:
Scrooge doesen’t even leave his office until about 40 minutes in. Most other feature-length adaptions are well into the Ghost of Chrsitmas Past sequence by this point.
Jacob Marley’s meeting with Scrooge happens an hour in, at the beginning of the second episode!
The Ghost of Christmas Past sequence last for about seventy-five minutes! And virtually all of it is spent wallowing in Scrooge’s miserable childhood and equally miserable business career watching him carry on the cycle of abuse to basically all of London’s lower class (and possibly even farther: Marley mentions them having employees as far away as India). There is no Christmas cheer to be seen anywhere. Scrooge’s eternally sunny nephew Fred never shows up again after his short visit in the beginning and Fezziwig has become Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Adaptaion.
The consequently truncated Ghost of Christmas Present sequence, which only lasts twenty minutes, doesn’t lighten the atmosphere one bit. For one thing, the role of said Ghost is filled by, of all characters, Scrooge’s deceased sister, presumably just to remind us more about how Scrooge sucks. And for another, because Mary Cratchit is a witch in this version (ugh!), when Scrooge visits the Cratchit dwelling, she’s able to see him, which causes her to have a nervous breakdown and ruin Christmas for everyone. Fa la la la la, la la, la la!
Finally, with not even half an hour left, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come finally arrives… and he looks utterly ridculous!
All of this makes the ending scenes feel incredibly rushed. Scrooge decides to reject redemption because he doesn’t feel he deserves it (Yeah, no shit!) and decides instead that all he wants is to save Tiny Tim from the skating accident he foresaw, which he accomplishes by spreading salt over the ice. He then visits the Cratchits to announce that he’s shutting down his business, thanks Mary for summoning the spirits (ugh!), and heads off to try to become the best person he can be. And despite Pearce’s best efforts to bring back memories of the joyful Scrooges of old, none of it feels convincing. This is still a ruthless, sexually harassing capitalist we’re talking about. After almost three hours of Steven Knight ripping out all of the salvation present in the story, it’s hard for me to get on board with him suddenly taking a 180 and saying, “See, I can do Christmas cheer too!”
I get what Steven Knight was trying to do. He wanted to lift the veil on the economic conditions underpinning this beloved classic and recontextualize it with our more modern understanding. But in doing so, he ended up removing everything that made A Christmas Carol a beloved classic in the first place. Scrooge is turned into an irredeemably awful cad, the darker elements are handled with about as much subtlety as a Monty Python sketch, the story is too busy wallowing in the melodrama to actually go anywhere most of the time, and the supposedly “happy” ending is so rushed and underdeveloped that it almost makes the whole affair seem like an unfunny joke.
Hell, I almost recommend watching Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas instead: at least that film’s incompetence makes for good riffing material at parties and such. Basically, any adaptation of A Christmas Carol is better than this one simply by virtue of having some goddamn cheerfulness to them as opposed to three hours of wallowing in a cycle of abuse. And I’m giving this one a 3/10. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Progressive rock has often been seen as the red-headed stepchild of the family when it comes to the various subgenres of rock. In its heyday in the early 1970s, it was rivaled only by early heavy metal in terms of how much critics hated it. Granted, even as a big progressive rock fan myself, I can acknowledge that some of this criticism was warranted. Prog artists tended to take themselves way too seriously, and their often idealistic and fantastical lyrical themes became increasingly out of touch to average Joes as economic woes set in toward the latter half of the decade. Some bands managed to escape this stigma by having more cynical lyrics (i.e., Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator) or having a sound more compatible with the radio rock format that was becoming more popular (i.e., Rush, Queen, Supertramp). But most ended up being overtaken by the much more DIY working-class sensibilities of the punk rock movement or the much more radio-friendly experimentation of new wave music.
One way that newer prog bands tried to counter this was by taking influence from these new styles, especially new wave. This led to the creation of neo-progressive rock, a primarily British scene featuring bands like IQ, Pallas, Pendragon, Twelfth Night, and Arena. However, some North American groups like Saga and Spock’s Beard have also been included under the label. However, the biggest band in the subgenre was undoubtedly Marillion.
The band experienced its highest level of popularity during the 1980s when it was fronted by charismatic Scottish singer Derek William Dick, who earned the stage name Fish due to the long baths he liked to take. The band had no less than eight albums reach the Top Ten spots in the UK charts between 1983 and 1994. The high watermark of their chart success was undoubtedly the 1985 concept album Misplaced Childhood, which spawned the chart-topping singles “Kayleigh” and “Lavender.” The former even entered the Billboard Top 100 in the United States.
Unfortunately, the album’s success quickly began to wear on Fish as he began to fear that the excessive touring schedule and pressure from management would lead to him drinking himself to death. This is especially obvious given that the band’s next album, Clutching at Straws, tells the story of an unemployed man who dives further and further into whiskey bottles to escape the shambles that his life has become. Fish performed his last concert with the band in July of 1988, and the band has continued with singer Steve Hogarth ever since.
Fish would begin his solo career in January of 1990 with the release of his debut solo album Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors. Several well-known musicians performed on the record, including former Dire Straits guitarist Hal Lindes, future Iron Maiden guitarist Janick Gers, veteran prog-rock keyboardist Mickey Simmonds, Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki, and Spandau Ballet drummer John Keeble. And it is the title track of this album that I want to focus on for this episode of P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist.
The track, totaling almost nine minutes in length, begins on a soft note, with Mickey Simmond’s keyboards giving the song an almost new-age sound for the first two minutes. Fish’s vocals start out equally soft, singing about his alienation in a world that’s gone mad with consumerist greed and political violence. He asks the crowd around him to quiet down so he can find another soul who shares his disillusionment.
I get so confused I don't understand.
I know you feel the same way; you've always wanted to say,
But you don't get a chance;
Just a voice in the crowd (in the crowd).
The vocals take a sharper tone in the second verse as Fish talks about how the way our society is set up has left him in a confused and depressed state, with Frank Usher and Hal Lindes’ guitars making their entrance with big power chords.
I don't know the score anymore!
It's not clear anymore!
I can't tell right from wrong anymore!
I just don't understand.
From there, the song turns to a more traditional rock format as Fish describes the betrayals in his life by authority figures in his life that lead him up to this point (“I was sitting here thinking of exchanging a new world for old, like changing channels on the TV, or the dirt that we stand in to gold.”) He recalls words from his father about the nature of good and evil in the world:
When I was young, my father told me only bad guys die;
At the time just a little white lie.
It was one of the first, but it hurt me the most,
And the truth stung like tears in my eyes;
That even the good guys must die.
There's no reasoning, no crimes, and I never knew why.
Even now, it still makes me cry!
As the chorus rolls around, Fish appeals to a higher power to show him the truth about the world, to tell him if the authorities of this world really are all a bunch of liars or if he is the one who is deceiving himself (“If there’s somebody up there, could they throw me down a line? Just a little guiding light to tell wrong from right? Just some answers to the questions that I’m asking you.”).
He vows to “keep a vigil in a wilderness of mirrors, where nothing here is ever what it seems.” The phrase “wilderness of mirrors” was initially coined by T.S. Elliot in his 1920 poem “Gerontion” and has since been used in spy fiction as a metaphor for disinformation. This seems to indicate that Fish has dedicated himself to studying the mirror maze he has found himself in so he can finally parse out the truth for himself.
The chorus and the following verse are separated by an instrumental passage dominated by a bagpipe solo performed by Davey Spillane, who also plays the tin whistle alongside Phil Cunningham. This section is likely there to remind listeners that Fish is very proud of his Scottish heritage.
The next verse shows Fish applying this “wilderness of mirrors” approach to others who claim to share his radical beliefs to determine if they actually agree with him that the system needs to be overthrown or if they are simply telling Fish what he wants to hear in order to undermine his cause from within.
And you sit there and talk revolution,
But can you tell me just who's in command?
When you tell me the forces we're fighting,
Then I'll join you and gladly make plans.
But for now just our T-shirts cry freedom,
And our voices are gagged by our greed;
Our minds are harnessed by knowledge,
By the hill and the will to succeed,
And if that's not what you believe,
Would you just let me know I'm not standing alone,
That I'm not just a voice in the crowd?
The chorus repeats one last time before the song ends, this time with additional lyrics that reflect on both the hope that a better world is possible if only the powers that be would just get out of the way and let us have it…
You're reaching out, you're so close you can touch it,
But it all disappears when it's always so near,
But one day we will find that we stand in the light!
…as well as the fear that Fish might be putting a target on his back by criticizing said powers in such a public manner.
I'm scared to shout in case I draw attention
From the powers that preside over our hearts and our minds
When they find what I want is the deadliest weapon;
That is truth.
The last part of the song then tones back down to the soft keyboard tones present at the beginning, with Fish’s vocals calming down equally as much as he croons about how the need to do something about his decaying society is building inside of him.
Day by day, it's getting louder,
And day by day, it's getting stronger,
But when I can't scream no more, and I need reassurance,
I listen to the crowd.
This somewhat hopeful note of solidarity with the lower class masses negatively affected by the grinding nature of capitalist greed is contrasted with this spine-chilling spoken word passage at the very end of the song, which, alongside portraying the David and Goliath character of the struggle against late-stage capitalism, also instills an almost Lovecraftian sense of existential dread is this particular listener.
And the boy stood and stared at the hill,
And the hill stared back.
This song perfectly captures my feelings of confusion in these politically fraught times. To be sure, the era in which Fish wrote these lyrics was equally fraught. America and Britain were just coming out of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, which were an absolute nightmare for people like him with left-leaning sympathies. The LGBTQIA+ community had been devastated by HIV-AIDS, which Reagan had ignored; both countries had engaged in controversial military actions in Central and South America; and the neoliberal world order that devastated the world with a new era of laissez-faire capitalism was codified. And now, thirty years later, here I am feeling the same things Fish likely was as the seeds planted during the 70s and 80s have grown into the poison oak of climate change and wealth inequality.
This song also captures the feelings of paranoia I have espousing leftist beliefs in a country that has been historically hostile to such ideologies. My own family is very conservative, with my dad, in particular, being a very enthusiastic Trump supporter. Indeed, the verse that begins with “When I was young my father told me only bad guys die” is incredibly relatable to me because I was raised to believe that the moral divide between conservatives and liberals was as clearly good and evil as the one between the orcs and elves in your average epic fantasy novel. So you can only imagine how frustrated it makes me feel to learn about things like the U.S. backed coups in burgeoning socialist countries that installed murderous right-wing dictators like Augusto Pinochet or the truth about how law enforcement agencies treated civil rights leaders and organizations like the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King Jr. It also frustrates me how my father continues to view Trump as overall good for the country despite things like the “grab them by the pussy” tape and his instigation of the January 6th attack on the Capitol building.
This makes it very awkward since Trump pretty much destroyed any sense of patriotism I once had for the United States and eventually drove me into my current affinity for anarchism. But I’ve had trouble coming clean about this to my family members because I tend to take even the smallest amount of criticism very hard, and I can only imagine what kind of shitstorm coming out as a socialist might do to my family.
Still, though, I know I’m right about the real causes of the problems in the world. I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life. And I know that nothing my family members say can change my mind on this. Who knows, my sister and brother are younger than me; maybe I can sway them before they get older and set in their ways. The possibilities are endless.
And that’s all I have to say about this tune. Be sure to check out some of Fish’s other stuff, and maybe look up Marillion as well. They are a criminally underrated band, and both the Fish and Hogarth-fronted eras are chock-full of fantastic music. Join me next time for another episode of The Complete Noobs Guide to the Left, where I talk about Marxism-Leninism, the official political ideology of most socialist countries that formed during the twentieth century. But that will most definitely have to wait until after Thanksgiving. Hope you have a festive one this year, beautiful watchers!
(Content warning: the following blog post will contain discussions of fascist and antisemitic hate speech, as well as very brief discussions of pedophilia, although that won’t come until later in the article. I will give a second warning later for those who are sensitive to those topics.)
So here’s a question: what kind of music do you like to listen to on Halloween? Maybe it’s the silly novelty songs like “Monster Mash,” “The Purple People Eater,” or “Spooky Scary Skeletons.” Perhaps it’s a spooky classic rock tune like “Season of the Witch” or “Witchy Woman” or “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Or you might indulge in some supernaturally themed heavy metal and punk music like Helloween’s “Halloween,” Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?”, or anything by King Diamond or Black Sabbath, or anything by Powerwolf or Rob Zombie or the Misfits. Or maybe you like to be hypnotized by the industrial horror of “Frankie Teardrop,” or the stark gothic blues of a spooky Nick Cave or Tom Waits track.
For a voracious music consumer like myself, all of these are equally valid options. However, there is one band over the years that has managed to worm its way into my fear centers like no other for a variety of reasons: their nihilistic lyrics, their theistic Satanist religious outlook, their incredibly harsh and dissonant music, and their extreme reclusiveness, to the point that no one knows who they even are. That band, coming to us from the city of Poitiers in west-central France, is Deathspell Omega.
Deathspell Omega, or D.S.O. for short, was founded in 1998 out of the ashes of the black metal project Hirilorn. Its lineup consisted of Frederic “Shaxul” Sescheboeuf on vocals, Christian “Hasjarl” Bouche on guitars, Khaos on bass, and Yohann Pasquier on drums. Pasquier left before the recording of the band’s first album, Infernal Battles, in June of 2000, as the other Hirilorn members were angry at him and second guitarist Sinn for participating in a hardcore recording. The name of the drummer who replaced him is unknown.
Indeed, that’s one of the biggest gimmicks this band has- its complete and total anonymity. They have no official website, no social media accounts, and have never allowed themselves to be photographed. They have never performed live, do not credit themselves in their liner notes, and conducted no interviews between 2004 and 2019. This lack of information certainly plays a large part in the nightmarish mystique of the band.
Even so, several names have been attached to the band over the years. For example, Tobias Forge of Ghost, in a 2018 interview with Loudwire, stated that the band’s producer was Frank Hueso, a fellow Poitiers musician best known for his synthwave project Carpenter Brut. The vocalist who took over after Shaxul’s departure is often suspected to be Finnish musician Mikko Aspa (which has caused no small amount of controversy for the band for reasons I’ll get into later). Another vocalist is suspected of having joined the group sometime around the recording of the 2010 album Paracletus. Most fans suspect him to be Spica, vocalist for fellow French black metallers S.V.E.S.T. (who, incidentally, haven’t put out any new material since recording a split E.P. with D.S.O. in 2008).
In any case, most fans generally agree that the band didn’t become truly great until after Shaxul’s departure following the release of their second album, Inquisitors of Satan, in May of 2002. Shaxul later clarified that he was uncomfortable with the shift in themes that the band was undergoing. The band’s music on the first two albums consisted of orthodox black metal, very similar to pioneering Norwegian bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem. However, starting with their next album, the band would find a new sound that would catapult them into the highest echelons of the French black metal scene, alongside Peste Noire, Blut Aus Nord, and Alcest.
Si Moventum Requires, Circumspice
The first and most apparent difference one might notice between this album (released in February of 2004) and the previous two is the change in music and vocal style. The music has changed from the orthodox black metal style to a much more avant-garde style, making heavy use of polyrhythms, dissonant and atonal riffs, and weird chord structures. The vocals have changed from the typical black metal shrieks of Shaxul to a deeper, more full-throated growl closer to death metal vocals (or the operatic rasp of Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar).
The album’s title is Latin for “If you seek his monument, look around you,” and is taken from an inscription on the tomb of widely celebrated English architect Sir Christopher Wren. In this context, however, the title is not for the aggrandizement of a single great man. No, here, D.S.O. is inviting us to see the monument to their Lord and Savior, Satan. And that monument is Earth itself.
This concept is further reinforced by the album art, drawn by the late Timo “Davthvs” Ketola, which features a decaying cherub corpse over a globe, its genitals hanging over the Levant in an apparent middle finger to the holy land of all three Abrahamic religions. But that’s not all the symbolism going on here. The cherub as a whole represents all three of the album’s most significant themes: antinatalism, antinomianism, and putrefaction.
Antinatalism is the philosophical belief that procreation is a moral evil, usually borne out of environmentalist concerns or because they think the very act of being born is a violation of consent. This theme appears most clearly in the lyrics from “Blessed are the Dead Which Dye in the Lorde,” which I quoted above. This sentiment is also clearly stated in a Latin phrase that appears in the closing track, “Malign Paradigm,” which translates as “the house and church of our Lord is childless.”
This antinatalist stance is closely tied with the band’s symbolic use of the concept of putrefaction. D.S.O. takes the common Christian concept of original sin and cranks it up to eleven, arguing that a spiritual rot is inherent in every human’s soul, making Heavenly salvation impossible. For the heart of a lost angel is in the Earth, and that heart belongs to Satan. As the lyrics of “Carnal Malefactor” state, “He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption.” The empty throne of Christ that resides on the Earth will forever remain empty because humanity will never be spiritually pure enough to receive His kingdom. Again, in “Carnal Malefactor’s” words, human nature is a “ciborium of shame and waste.”
With that, D.S.O. offers the third theme of the album as a solution; antinomianism. Antinomianism, which Wikipedia defines as “any view which rejects laws or legalism and argues against moral, religious, or social norms,” is often used in Christian contexts in the same vein as “sola fide,” or “by faith alone” in Latin (that is, when it’s not referring to heresy). Several Christian scholars have criticized this notion.
D.S.O. is equally critical of the notion in the context of their metaphysical Satanist perspective. Faith in Satan alone is not going immanentize the eschaton and finally render humanity to the dustbin of history where it belongs. One must commit evil acts in the name of Satan to bring about his will on Earth. Such actions might take the form of the nightmarish avian-assisted abortion portrayed in “Carnal Malefactor”:
A phallic communion that sanctifies interior wastelands,
When a woman is knead by the claws of fowls attracted
By seminal odors no longer hidden by dignity,
And purified by their beaks rummaging her swollen vagina.
The carrion birds extract the woman’s unborn fetus, which is then used as part of a Satanic Eucharist in the following track, “Drink the Devil’s Blood.”
The whole theme of the album is that humans are far more susceptible to Satan and his influence than to that of God or His angels. Thus, in the words of this Pop Matters article, the album is about how “Satan is pervading every aspect of our material and metaphysical realms and how Man’s relationship with him should be one of reverence and devotion.” In short, if you can’t beat him, join him.
The band would take this premise a step further in the 2005 E.P. Kenose, named after the Greek word for “emptiness.” This concept is one method by which Christian scholars have theorized that Jesus’ relationship to God the Father worked while He was performing His miracles on Earth. Upon incarnating as a human child in Bethlehem, He emptied Himself of all divine attributes to live on Earth as an average person. D.S.O. seized on this possibility to argue that Jesus Himself ended up falling prey to the putrefaction inherent in the human soul, and thus His death upon the cross to redeem humanity’s souls from the grip of Satan was all for naught.
S.M.R.C. would only be the first in a trilogy of albums dealing with humanity’s relationship with Satan. The second would be released in July of 2007.
Fas-Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeturnum
This album gives us what is probably the most chaotic music out of all of D.S.O.’s discography. Featuring riffs that almost sound more like random noises than chord progressions and drumming that is equally breakneck and madcap, the music is surprisingly fitting for the absolutely shattering existential crisis that the main character is going through in this album’s story.
Although the album title (Latin for “Divine Law- Depart From Me, Ye Accursed, Into Everlasting Fire”) and art above may seem to represent Satan’s fall from God’s grace, the lyrics indicate that Satan’s and man’s fall from grace are one and the same. Because, again, the heart of a lost angel is in the Earth, and that heart belongs to Satan.
This album is where the band really starts to show off the influence of one of their biggest literary idols: the French post-surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille (pronounced buh-tie). His book Inner Experience is quoted extensively in the lyrics, alongside texts like My Mother, Theory of Religion, and The Solar Anus. Bataille’s philosophical writings were obsessed with limit experiences and acts of transgression. The basic thesis of his entire life’s work is probably best summarized by this quote from Inner Experience, which also appears in the track “A Chore for the Lost”:
Every human being not going to the extreme limit is the servent of the enemy of man and the accomplice of a nameless obscurity.
Georges Bataille, Inner Experience
Bataille saw no differences between the emotional states aroused by divine ecstasy and extreme horror and thus came to believe that humanity must seek experiences that drive us to our mental and physical limits to discover the absolute truth that lies within our souls.
In Fas-Ite…, D.S.O. argues that that truth lies in “Oobombration,” derived from the Latin word for “shadow,” which provides the title of the opening and closing tracks of the album. The Oobombrations seem to represent the darkness that comes before birth and after death and demonstrates humanity’s fragility and insignificance compared to their all-powerful, all-knowing God.
The four tracks between them show the stages of the protagonist’s journey after discovering this fact. He starts by going insane with terror in “The Shrine of Mad Laughter:”
A senstion of everlasting rot and those frantic wails!
No, it is not a fall into the abyss,
The defiance of descent,
A coronation beyond liberty and slavery!
The protagonist tries to cling to some semblance of normalcy in “Bread of Bitterness,” even as the truths he built his worldview on crumble around him:
From a suppliction without response,
The essence of man, his ground giving way,
Comes illumination by a sun of great evil that sets aflame the inner core
And enthrones suffocation and the intolerable without respite
As the joyful reward for a million aborted truths.
The protagonist then realizes that all of this was predestined in “The Repellant Scars of Abandon and Election,” and thus decides to follow the left-hand path away from conventional morality:
I was beyond withstanding my own ignominy.
I invoked it and blessed it.
I progressed even further into vileness and degredation.
Am I resurging, intact, out of infamy?
Finally, in “A Chore for the Lost,” we see the protagonist finally embrace the intoxicating transgressions that all men succumb to one way or another, for Satan is the unquestioned Lord of this World. Thus we must “be a blight… on all orchards of this world.”
What pleasure of inconcievable purity there is
In being an object of abhorrance
For the sole being to whom destiny links my life!
Darkness encloses the human soul every step of its journey through life, and one way or another, the darkness always reclaims us.
The title for this album comes from a Greek word that literally means “he who was called for/sent for.” It has also been used as “advocate” or “helper,” primarily in Christian contexts where it is used as an epithet for the Holy Spirit. Here, however, D.S.O. seems to be taking inspiration from French writer and Catholic apologist Leon Bloy, who is quoted in Raymond Barbeau’s book Un Prophete Luciferian as arguing that Satan will rise out of Hell at the end of days to become the Paraclete.
D.S.O., of course, spins this idea in a much darker direction, portraying his rise from Hell as being the final battle between God and Satan as depicted in the Book of Revelation. Of course, the shadowy seven-headed dragon illustrated in the album art is a big giveaway in this regard. There are other more subtle hints, however; for instance, the albums runs for just over 42 minutes, which is a reference to Revelation 13:5, which states that “The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority over forty-two months.”
Indeed, the lyrics have a very apocalyptic feel to them. The first half of the album seems to show Satan’s followers chanting an epiklesis, or “invocation,” for him to rise out of Hell to claim what is his. He commands his followers to undergo abscission, shedding parts of themselves that they don’t need, much like a maple tree sheds its leaves in autumn (likely shedding all sense of self in the same type of limit experiences Georges Bataille was so fascinated with). Meanwhile, those who still insist on following God are left without any sense of unity in His absence. Any perceived case of Him answering His followers’ prayers is nothing more than the spiritual equivalent of phosphenes, the phenomenon in which the eye perceives light without light actually entering the cornea.
The following five tracks describe the chaos that reigns on Earth as the final battle between Heaven and Hell rages. The rivers and seas boil away into nothing, and sickness and famine spread among the emaciated populace. Perhaps “Devouring Famine” depicts this hellish apocalypse best:
It is senseless to fight against this infinite stream.
Behind this threshold life exhausts itself, loses itself.
Rejoice! For tonight it is an eerie birth that we celebrate!
And with dusk, as shadows slowly recover the land,
The most extreme solitude drapes the shoulders
Of a distant silhouette bearing a glacial emptiness,
Laden like a luminous storm in which sun and lightning are prolonged;
A wound through which, hastening from all points of the universe,
Desolation spreads in chaotic convulsions.
The album, and the trilogy proper, ends with the track “Apokatastasis panton,” meaning “recreation of the universe” in ancient Greek. Usually, the phrase is used in the context of universal salvation, as with the Leon Bloy quote above. But of course, D.S.O. uses it to mean Satan is remaking the world in his image after his victory in the final battle. The track’s stark lyrics seem to represent Satan’s last message to all those poor souls who still cling to a belief in the essential goodness of humanity:
You were seeking strength, justice, splendor!
You were seeking love!
Here is the pit!
Here is your pit!
It's name is Silence!
In between the main albums in the trilogy, D.S.O. released several E.P.’s that examined topics adjacent to the themes presented in the albums. Most of them only contained one song, usually running around twenty minutes in length. In order of their release, they are:
Mass Grave Aesthetics: Originally released in 2005 as part of a split L.P. titled From the Entrails to the Dirt, the song was eventually released as its own E.P. in December 2008. Lyrically, the song is based on this quote from the 19th-century French anarchist Laurent Talihade, which was responding to a terrorist attack against the Chamber of Deputies:
What matter the victims, provided the gesture is beautiful? What matters the death of vague human beings, if thereby the individual affirms himself?
Laurent Talihide, December 1893
D.S.O. uses this quote to argue that human self-affirmation is only possible through acts of violence, whether against oneself or others, especially to prove one’s loyalty to certain ideologies. Or, as Georges Bataille argues:
To choose violence is to choose freedom. What evil in essence rejects is a concern with a time to come. It is precisely in this sense that the longing for the summit-that the movement toward evil-constitute all morality within us. Morality has in itself no value (in the strong sense) except inasmuch as it leads to going beyond being-rejecting concerns for a time to come.
Geroges Bataille, On Nietschze
Diabolis Absconditus, meaning “the devil is hiding” in Latin, was also released on a 2005 split L.P., this time titled Crushing the Holy Trinity. It also received its own E.P. in May 2011. Here, the band portrays the traditional patriarchal archetype of God being replaced by a sexually depraved feminine archetype. This concept was heavily inspired by a Georges Bataille short story titled Madame Edwarda, in which the narrator hires the services of a prostitute who claims to be God on Earth.
Veritas Diaboli Manet in Aeturnum: Chaining the Katechon: Released in December of 2008, this track revolves around the concept of the Katechon, a figure from New Testament esoterica who is believed to hinder the rise of the Antichrist as well as the second coming of Jesus. Thus, this Katechon needs to be chained so the apocalypse can proceed as planned. Indeed, one could interpret this as a direct prequel to Paracletus, especially in this repeated verse in which the Satanic cultists summon their Lord from the firey pit and experience an appropriately Lovecraftian response to his appearance:
We went to the trough, Lord!
We went bent and convulsed!
We saw blood, Lord! It was glittering!
You dispensed it and we drank it!
We saw your image!
The gap of your* eyes and mouths is void!
We went bent and convulsed!
It broke us and dissolved us!
*The lyrics in the liner notes read, “The gap of our eyes and mouths is void,” but the singer to me seems like he’s saying “your eyes and mouths.” I don’t know. I kind of think it’s scarier that way.
But by far the most consequential E.P. the band ever recorded was Drought, released in June 2012. It acts as an epilogue to the trilogy, showing the aftermath of the final battle from the point of view of the poor human souls left to rot on a dying planet Earth. God has surrendered to Satan, and, whether because He thinks humans are not worth the trouble anymore or because He has lost any power to save them from their fate, He has abandoned them to Satan to do with them as he pleases. Satan thus leaves Earth as, in the words of the track “Scorpions and Drought,” “a desert with no life but scorpions coming as a swarm, as a flood, with an abundance of deadly stings.” Naturally, D.S.O. views this as a mercy kill, “like the shooting in the head of a horse with a broken leg,” in the words of “Abrasive Swirling Murk.” All is truly lost.
The Synarchy of Molten Bones
Despite not being related to the trilogy in any direct fashion, I like to view this and the next album as prequels to the trilogy. Although calling Synarchy an album feels kind of wrong, as it only clocks in at slightly over 29 minutes, seven minutes shorter than the Kenose E.P.
The album art depicts Nimrod, a Biblical king who is often attributed as the man behind the Tower of Babel, thus portraying him as a rebellious and hubristic ruler who tried to usurp the authority of God. Some Jewish and Islamic traditions also describe him as an evil counterpart to Abraham. However, the artwork here is inspired by Book I of La Fin de Satan, which was Les Miserables and Hunchback of Notre Dame author Victor Hugo’s answer to Paradise Lost. Book I depicts Nimrod, who, having conquered and laid waste to the Earth, decides to conquer Heaven. To this end, he constructs a makeshift cage driven by four eagles drawn upward by lion carcasses. After traveling for a whole year and seeing nothing but blue skies, he finally shoots an arrow into the infinite and is thrown back to Earth.
D.S.O. uses this story to portray a group called the “Synarchy of Molten Bones” who take inspiration from the figure of Nimrod and decide to find a way to kill God so that they can become the ultimate power of the universe. For those wondering what a “synarchy” is, Wikipedia offers two definitions. Going by the original Greek, it comes from the words for “joint/harmonious rule.” However, D.S.O. seems to be going for the other definition, which is “rule by a secret elite.” Indeed, this was the definition popularised by French occult philosopher Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre in the 1880s as a conservative alternative to anarchism that preserved the existing hierarchies rather than abolishing them.
Indeed, the central thesis of this album’s story seems to be that humanity’s boundless ambitions will only end up destroying us in the end, both materially and spiritually. The result of the Synarchy’s meddling, according to the final track, “Internecine Iatrogenesis,” will be “a brazen holocaust, brighter than a hundred suns, that slowly consumes God and man.”
But D.S.O. isn’t content with simply stating that the Synarchy’s reign and their insatiable quest to conquer Heaven and Earth will create a nightmarish hellscape in our world. They want to show us what that world might look like…
The Furnaces of Palingenesia
This album, released in May 2019, presents possibly the most unambiguous themes in their entire discography. The album is presented as a speech by an authority figure who serves as the spokesperson for a fascist organization called the Order. The lyrics present fascist rhetoric in its purest form, divorced from all the alt-right’s facile promises of a utopia waiting beyond all the bloodshed. The spokesperson admits that the Order is only looking to amass more and more power for itself and those who swear loyalty to it.
Granted, the band does throw some shade at left-wing authoritarian governments as well, as another big theme seems to be that every violent revolution, regardless of its stated goals, contains the seeds of its own destruction. Take this passage from “Ad Arma! Ad Arma!” which quotes Mao Zedong almost verbatim:
Nothing from the world of yore deserves to be preserved;
Every particle is infected and corrupt.
The great cleansing shall take as long as necessary,
For power exclusively stems from the gun barrel.
On a glorious dawn,
The odor of tear gas shall replace the scent of fresh brewed coffee,
The dust of crumbling buildings shall darken the horizon and fill your lungs
As the sun reaches its zenith;
Victorious chants will resonate at dusk
To the rhythm of cracking necks and the gunfire of mass executions.
Behold the glorious beauty of unrestrained fraternal compassion and love!
However, these passages are far outnumbered by others that directly condemn various fascist beliefs, including some that have become mainstream talking points among traditional conservatives (because we live in the worst timeline). Take this quote from “Sacrificial Theopathy,” for instance:
Thou shalt decree that thine enemy comes from shores unknown to the man of virtue,
Strange lands that breed beings devoid of any redeeming qualities.
Anyone else getting major Tucker Carlson/Stephen Miller vibes from this quote? “Absolutist Regeneration” also contains a promise that “we will clean out the marsh at all cost.” In other words, we will drain the swamp. Of course, the Order’s spokesperson has a much less outwardly altruistic motive for doing so than Mango Mussolini, as the preceding sentence states that “We will turn this world into a cemetery rather than not regenerate it in our own way” (which, let’s be honest, is probably what Individual 1 meant anyway).
Several other passages speak to the cutthroat nature of the late-stage capitalist economics that most fascists prefer, especially this one, also from “Absolutist Regeneration/Year Infinity”:
Those who nourish the famished shall be left to starve.
Those who heal the wounded shall be maimed.
Those who console the lamenting souls shall be buried alive,
Thier stomachs filled with ignonimous larvae.
Rats shall feed on the eyes of those guilty of empathy towards their fellow men.
That which is not our credo is not to be.
And now I get major Augusto Pinochet vibes from this passage.
The album goes on like this for ten songs for about forty minutes, the spokesperson ranting like a deranged and murderous psychopath over music that is much more straightforward than the other albums but no less dissonant and discordant (unlike all other D.S.O. albums, this was apparently recorded live in the studio). The final track, titled “You Cannot Even Find the Ruins,” dispenses with this to present much softer (yet still heavy) music, as the narrator describes the end result of the Order’s rapacious power grabs:
You cannot even find the ruins
of the jewels of yesterday
they're ashes gone
memories wiped clean
Indeed, this may reflect how another fictional fascist organization called “the Order” left the Earth after its final victory. The classic white supremacist text The Turner Diaries ends with much of the Earth becoming an irradiated hellscape with 90% of the human population wiped out and the remaining 10% likely soon to follow. But the author wants us to view this as a good thing because at least all the Jews and non-whites are dead, right?
But here is where we address the larger controversy that this album spawned upon its release. While the majority of listeners have (rightly, in my opinion) come away from The Furnaces of Palingenesia seeing it as a double-barrelled dark satire of fascist rhetoric, given the massive amount of self-aware irony present in the lyrics, some are accusing Deathspell Omega as a whole of being an outright National Socialist Black Metal (or N.S.B.M.) band.
Remember that content warning I gave way at the top of this essay about fascist and antisemitic hate speech and pedophilia? Yeah, here’s where I warn you that anyone sensitive to those topics should proceed with caution because here is where we discuss the one person who is the reason why D.S.O. is accused of being fascist sympathizers.
Mikko Aspa (aka The Elephant in the Room)
Mikko Reino Juhani Aspa, from the city of Lahti, has long been recognized and decried for being a leader in Finland’s National Socialist music scene. Aside from his suspected involvement in Deathspell Omega, Aspa has racked up a truly massive number of other musical projects over the years, including but not limited to:
A one-man black metal project called Clandestine Blaze
A Rock Against Communism group called Vapaudenristi
A one-man funeral doom metal project called Stabat Mater
A pornogrind project called Creamface
A noise project called Nicole 12
Guest work for bands like Goatmoon, Mgla, and Pagan Skull
Of all the bands listed above, probably Stabat Mater is the only one not embroiled in controversy around white supremacy or Aspa’s somewhat disturbing obsession with taboo/illegal sex acts. For instance, Creamface songs have sported such lovely titles as “Rimjob Teenager” and “Underage Anal Girl,” and Nicole 12 was a project that was apparently centered on the lyrical theme of pedophilia (although Aspa apparently shelved that project after becoming a father in 2011, so… good on him, I guess?).
As for the white supremacy accusations, those most prominently come up in relation to Clandestine Blaze and Vapaudenristi. I won’t go over all the details here since the Finnish Antifa network already went over Aspa’s connections in this beautiful article on their blog. Suffice it to say, though, Aspa’s ties go pretty deep.
For instance, in October of 2016, Vapaudenristi participated in a benefit concert for Jesse Eppu Torniainen, a Neo-Nazi activist sent to prison for the murder of an anti-fascist activist named Jimi Karttunen. The band has also gotten flack for anti-Semitic rhetoric in their lyrics, which seems to be true if Google Translate is working correctly.
Anti-Semitic themes are equally present in the Clandestine Blaze song “Tearing Down Jerusalem” from the 1999 E.P. On the Mission:
War! Strike to the holy city!
Torture the followers of weakening God!
Let the blood stream through dirty streets!
Zionist cancer faces zero tolerence!
Tearing down Jerusalem!
Crushing Zionist power!
Victory of unholy forces!
Granted, Aspa seems to have toned down the anti-Semitism in more recent albums, although that probably has more to do with not wanting to appear too extreme to the unconverted rather than a genuine heel face turn. Indeed, as recently as a 2020 interview with the WordPress blog Excuse the Blood, Aspa identified Pentti Linkola as an influence, a Finnish ecofascist who once said he preferred dictatorships to democracies.
As for his history with Deathspell Omega, the band released their first two albums on Northern Heritage, a record company founded by Aspa in 1999. Ironically enough, though, all of the albums with Aspa reputedly on vocals were released through D.S.O.’s self-publishing label Norma Evangelium Diaboli. Some have argued that someone other than Mikko Aspa is the vocalist, at least since Synarchy, usually Hasjarl, Spica, or Frank Hueso. However, I took the liberty of listening to “Ad Arma! Ad Arma!” from Furnaces and the title track of the 2018 Clandestine Blaze album Tranquility of Death back-to-back, and I am pretty well convinced that Mikko Aspa is indeed the vocalist.
Personal and Concluding Thoughts
I admit that I was pretty excited to talk about this band back toward the beginning of this month, as the band seemed the perfect scary topic for the month of spooks and specters. However, right after I finished the previous article on paranormal triangles, I decided to read that article I linked above outlining Mikko Aspa’s connection to the Neo-Nazi underground, and subsequently became much more conflicted. Am I indirectly supporting fascist movements in the Baltic region by listening to Deathspell Omega? How much in the way of royalties does Aspa receive via his participation in this band?
D.S.O. themselves have stated that their intention was for Furnaces to be interpreted as anti-fascist in a 2019 interview with Bardo Methodology, in which they said that a minority of their contributors stand on opposite ends of the political spectrum from the core French collective “and are therefore irreconcilable political foes.” They also point to the historical friendship between French communist philosopher Louis Aragon, Gaullist Andre Malraux, and fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle as a parallel to their relationship with Aspa. However, they fail to mention that Aragon and La Rochelle became enemies when the latter sided with the Vichy French government after the Nazi takeover of Paris in May of 1940.
A part of me does get a sense of schadenfreude listening to Aspa singing the lyrics to Furnaces as his bandmates take the piss out of an ideology he clearly holds dear. But then I wonder if it’s just slightly hypocritical that the band is working with an avowed fascist while writing lyrics about how fascism is the ultimate expression of human evil.
Then again, I feel that the band has been operating on this mantra that opens the Furnaces track “Absolutist Regeneration” since the beginning of their career: “The only truly malignant evil is hope.” Indeed, just by reading the interviews the band gave around the release of Furnaces, they seem to think that humanity is incapable of finding a way out of their inevitable destruction, that fascism or some version of Stalinist Russia or North Korea is the logical endpoint of human progress. Thus, they probably don’t see collaborating with a known fascist collaborator as really anything worth commenting on.
Indeed, any reader who is aware of my previously stated political beliefs might naturally be wondering why I’m giving this band the time of day in the first place. Well, the answer is probably similar to many other people’s fascination with true crime or with violent gangster rappers: humanity is evolutionarily hard-wired to pay attention to dangerous people who might say or do things that may cause them harm.
Deathspell Omega is truly a one-of-a-kind band, for better or for worse. They took a tried and true black metal tradition, bashing Christianity, and took time to actually engage with the religion they were criticizing rather than attack a caricature of it. And while I disagree with most of their conclusions, especially their view of human nature, their lyrics have given me a possible philosophy for the human villains of The Divine Conspiracy to work off of. So maybe there’s some good one can get out of this band.
So, what are your opinions? Am I a terrible person for profiling this band despite it collaborating with a fascist? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist in this case since Aspa has been confirmed not to contribute songwriting in any way? Or is it best for me to just leave this band behind and focus on less problematic artists? I appreciate any and all comments and responses.
In the meantime, that’s it for this article. Join me next time when I do a P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist Episode on an obscure Scottish progressive rock artist from the 1980s. Until then, have a safe and happy Halloween, and remember: “Judica me… perinde ac cadaver!”
Today on P.J.’s Ultimate Playlist, we cover one of the most (in)famous bands to come out of the late seventies post-punk movement. Post-punk is an umbrella term used to describe several different styles of music that tried to apply punk rock’s energy and DIY stylings to genres not necessarily within the parameters of rock, like electronica, jazz, funk, dance music, etc. The movement produced numerous bands of note, from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Public Image Ltd., and Pere Ubu to Devo, the Talking Heads, The Cure, The Fall, and Gang of Four. It was not only the starting point of a surprising number of commercially successful bands, like U2, R.E.M., and Depeche Mode, it also helped influence even more experimental genres like goth rock, no wave, and industrial.
However, the band I want to focus on today is best known for the life of its lead singer, who died tragically at a far too young age and thus cast a shadow not just on the band member’s reputations but also on the history of post-punk as a whole. So let’s talk about Ian Curtis and the genre he helped define.
The band was conceived in the town of Salford in Greater Manchester, England, after childhood friends Bernard Sumner (guitars) and Peter Hook (bass) attended a Sex Pistols concert on June 4, 1976. After acquiring the talents of Stephen Morris on drums and Ian Curtis on vocals, the group initially chose the name Warsaw, after the David Bowie song “Warszawa.” However, the group soon decided to rename themselves to avoid confusion with an obscure punk group from London called Warsaw Pakt. Their new name, Joy Division, raised some eyebrows at the time since it was inspired by sex slavery programs run in Nazi concentration camps. This, combined with the illustration of a Hitler Youth prominently displayed on the cover of their debut EP, An Ideal for Living, led to accusations of Nazi sympathies.
But this minor controversy didn’t deter local TV personality Tony Wilson from signing the band to his independent Factory Records label shortly after. The band would go on to release two albums with Factory. Unknown Pleasures was released on June 15, 1979, followed by Closer, released on July 18, 1980. The non-album single “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” released the previous month, became their first chart hit, reaching the 13th spot on the UK singles chart.
Sadly though, Ian Curtis would not live to experience this success. Ian had epilepsy, which would often cause him to experience seizures in the middle of a concert. This condition did not mix well with the band’s relentless touring schedule, and Ian quickly drove himself to exhaustion. Bouts of insomnia, alcoholism, and a failing marriage finally combined to send him beyond the breaking point. His wife, Deborah, found his body hanging in his apartment on May 18, 1980, with the album The Idiot by Iggy Pop playing on the turntable and Werner Herzog’s Stroszek playing on the TV. He was only 23 when he died.
Both albums would go on to influence the alternative rock scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Joy Division itself had made a pact to change their name if any member left. Thus, after recruiting Stephen Morris’ partner Gillian Gilbert as a new guitarist/keyboardist, they regrouped as the seminal new wave group New Order.
But what exactly was it about Joy Division’s sound that made them so influential to future bands as diverse as The Smiths, Radiohead, the Pet Shop Boys, and the Smashing Pumpkins. Maybe I can do my best to explain as I examine the opening track of Closer, a stark and riveting piece of music titled “Atrocity Exhibition.”
The song takes its title from the experimental anthology novel The Atrocity Exhibition, written by J.G. Ballard and published in 1970. Inspired by recent tragedies like the Kennedy assassination and his own wife’s sudden death from pneumonia, the book attracted controversy for its sexually charged nervous breakdown of a plot, which sees the narrator fantasizing his way through several different roles and scenarios to try to make sense of the chaotic world events he’s living through. Ian Curtis only read the novel after he had written the majority of the lyrics, however.
When listening to the song, one may scratch their head, wondering why the band chose this of all songs to open the album. It sounds nothing like anything that Joy Division has done before, be it the straight punk of An Ideal for Living or the dirges on Unknown Pleasures that sound like Black Sabbath minus Tony Iommi’s heaving metallic crunch. Granted, the calm and steady bass riff sounds like business as usual, as does Ian Curtis’ vocals (albeit a bit more strained than usual).
Stephen Morris’ drums, on the other hand, sound much more tribal and African inspired than the more straight-ahead beats of “Shadowplay” and “New Dawn Fades.” This chaotic atmosphere is further reinforced by the guitar work, which dispenses with recognizable riffs and instead simply bangs away with random screeching, clattering, and scraping sounds that might sound more at home with future noise rock groups like Swans, Big Black, or The Jesus and Mary Chain. This may have something to do with the fact that bassist Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner switched instruments for this track. The result, as TV Tropes put it, sounds “like a chorus [read: cacophony] of deformed souls moaning in agony.”
Martin Hannett’s production, which shaped the sound of both albums, is the final piece that brings it all together. His cavernous and atmospheric production style has been widely praised for how well it complements Ian’s tales of isolation and mental torment. However, Sumner and Hook hated it at the time mainly because they thought it was too far a departure from their more aggressive live sound. On the other hand, Morris and Curtis liked what they heard and thought it would be asking a bit too much for Hannett to make an exact copy of their live sound.
The lyrics seem to be Curtis spelling out his view of society and human nature, with a chorus that solely consists of the phrase “This is the way, step inside.” What exactly is Curtis beckoning the listener to see? Allow the first verse to illustrate:
Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside.
For entertainment they watch his body twist;
Behind his eyes, he says, "I still exist."
This verse likely references the practice of 19th century Englanders to visit mental asylums to watch the struggles of the mentally ill inmates, as if they were animals caged up in a zoo. It also has a much more personal meaning for Curtis related to his epilepsy. While he was initially open about his diagnosis, he started to become paranoid that much of the band’s audience was there hoping Curtis would have a seizure on stage. It’s certainly not hard to see how Ian could draw a connection between such sick ways of getting entertainment, given the continued stigmatization of those with mental and developmental disorders.
The darkness and nihilism only grow more in scale as the song progresses. The second verse adds to the asylum inmate’s ordeal:
In arenas he kills for a prize,
Wins a minute to add to his life,
But the sickness is drowned by cries for more;
Pray to God, make it quick, watch him fall.
Here, Ian reaches further back in history to the gladiator games of ancient Rome for another case of humans being entertained by atrocities, especially those the ruling class considers so far beneath them as to be barely even human.
After this point, Ian’s narration seems to take the form of a godlike outside observer, watching with glee as the lower classes of humanity struggle against the powers that be, only to be knocked back down into the stations their rulers have chosen for them and slaughtered if they refuse to stay put.
You'll see the horrors of a faraway place,
Meet the architects of law face to face,
See mass murder on a scale you've never seen,
And all the ones who try hard to succeed.
The song ends with this spine-chilling parting message from the omniscient narrator:
And I picked on the whims of a thousand or more,
Still pursuing the path that's been buried for years.
All the dead wood from jungles and cities on fire,
Can't replace or relate, can't release of repair.
Take my hand and I'll show what was and will be.
Here, the narrator seems to admit that he’s been orchestrating these atrocities from behind the scenes and argues that these atrocities will always plague humanity for as long as they continue to exist as a species. The verse takes even darker personal implications for Ian’s mental health at the time if one interprets the last line as an answer to this line from the Unknown Pleasures track “Disorder”:
I've been waiting for a guide to come
And take me by the hand.
Those familiar with my political beliefs probably already know where this is going: late-stage capitalism and America’s cultural takeover of the world. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the third verse and America’s forever wars (“See mass murder on a scale you’ve never seen”), its ongoing problems with racism and police brutality (“Meet the architects of law face to face”), and the rigid class divides enforced by the moneyed classes (“And all the ones who tried hard to succeed”).
I can certainly relate to the last line of the first verse (“Behind his eyes, he says ‘I still exist'”) as a person on the autism spectrum. In a society that looks down on the neurodivergent, it’s hard for me not to be self-conscious about my disorder. I usually keep it secret from my coworkers and friends out of fear that they may simply dismiss me as a “retard.”
I feel like Ian Curtis might have been having the same thoughts I’m having right now when he wrote this song. Indeed, many of the lyrics in the last two verses seem to be referencing various capitalism-induced crises that have only gotten worse in the four decades since his death, from the cycle of poverty to the destruction of the environment (“All the deadwood from jungles and cities on fire”). He had previously talked about the bloody history at the roots of the current global order in “Dead Souls”:
Where figures from the past stand tall
And mocking voices ring the halls.
Imperialistic house of prayer;
Conquistadors who took their share.
Fortunately, I have faith that there is a way out, and it lies in what the fourth verse refers to as “pursuing the path that’s been buried for years.” You can call that path whatever you want; Daoism, anarchism, socialism, paganism, the indigenous peoples’ ways buried by the tides of imperialistic conquest. There is no need to surrender to the defeatist attitude that Mark Fisher named “capitalist realism.” We can fight this, and we should.
And that’s all I have to say about the song “Atrocity Exhibition.” Next time, I will be starting a new series where I will dive into various leftist ideologies to teach my readers (and myself) how they would run a post-capitalist world. So until next time, stay safe, beautiful watchers, and rest in peace, Ian Curtis, wherever you may be.
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.
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’spet 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.
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?
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!
We’ve talked about the subject of Watership Down’s supposed political and/or religious allegories in previous entries in this retrospective. Richard Adams, as noted before, insisted that it was simply a story that he made up for his children that they finally persuaded him to write down one day. Still, it seems that people keep reading their own political opinions into the novel. I tend to believe that what is going on with Watership Down is the same thing that J.R.R. Tolkien suspected was happening to The Lord of the Rings whenever people started reading political allegories into his work as well:
I think that many confuse “applicability” with “allegory,” but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Forward to The Lord of the Rings
Indeed, while Tolkien readily admitted that his experiences as a soldier in World War I certainly influenced his worldbuilding, he denied that he was consciously making commentary on the political affairs of the real world in his work.
As for Adams, we’ve discussed how characters like Hazel, Bigwig, and Kehaar were inspired by characters he met during his service in World War II. Therefore it’s definitely not much of a stretch to assume that Hitler or Stalin may have influenced General Woundwort and Efrafan society in general. As for the journey undertaken by Hazel and his band of hlessil, I think author Rachel Kadish, in an essay talking about how she compares the novel to the founding of Israel after the Holocaust, puts it best:
Turns out plenty of other people have seen their histories in that book. Turns out some people see it as an allegory for struggles against the Cold War, fascism, extremism. Or a protest against materialism, against the corporate state. Watership Down can be Ireland after the famine, Rwanda after the massacres. A quick online search for “Watership Down allegory” definitively proves that the book is an adaptation of Homer and Virgil, or of the life of Jesus, or of Native American religion.
Rachel Kadish, “Whose Parable Is It Anyway?”, Moment Magazine, September/October 2011
And this is where Fall of Efrafa comes in.
This band’s history begins in the southern coastal city of Brighton, East Sussex, in 2005 with two friends, Alex Bradshaw and Steve McCusker. McCusker was a touring musician, playing guitar with several local punk bands. Bradshaw was a graphic artist struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, from which he would derive his future stage name, Alex CF. Steve happened to be reading Watership Down, and the two began discussing the political allegories they saw in the story. As their discussions continued, they hit upon the idea of starting a band based on the concept of examining the mythology of the book through their own radical left-wing viewpoints, with a heavy emphasis on promoting atheism and animal rights. And thus, Fall of Efrafa was born, with the lineup being completed by Neil Kingsbury on second guitar, George Miles on drums, and Michael Douglas on bass guitar.
With the quintet in place, the band entered the studio in May and June of 2006 and, with producer Peter Miles at the helm, released the first of three albums in their Warren of the Snares trilogy in October of that year via the German indie label Alerta Antifascista.
The Warren of the Snares Pt. 1: Owsla
Before we discuss the actual music on the three records, I should probably give you an idea of what kind of music to expect from this band. One might expect music based around a bucolic setting like Watership Down to be more similar to the laid-back folk-rock tunes that Mike Batt wrote for the movie and TV show. Fall of Efrafa could not be further from that if it tried. The music here exists at the intersection between the grimy crust punk of bands like Amebix and Discharge, the slow and atmospheric post-metal of Pelican and Cult of Luna, and the sludgy and plodding doom metal of Crowbar and Neurosis. This may seem strange to the uninitiated, but it makes sense given what kind of story the band creates off of the source material.
The story told in the Warren of the Snares trilogy is a deeply dark and cynical allegory that examines the tyranny of organized religion, the rise and fall of empires, and humanity’s seeming inability and/or unwillingness to learn from its mistakes. Efrafa, as represented here, seems to represent humanity, taught from birth to see themselves as superior to their animal brethren because God supposedly gave them a soul. Meanwhile, the titular Owsla are kept as the elite warriors of the rabbit hierarchy, with much emphasis placed on how they are often portrayed in the book as pushy and abusive to their underlings, far more concerned with showing off their power rather than dealing with the threat of the Efrafa.
Interestingly enough, Owsla is actually the story’s finale, documenting nature’s last stand against the Efrafa. We see the animal populace begin to question their leadership in the opening tracks, “Pity the Weak” and “A Soul to Bear,” noticing that humanity is inching closer and closer to wiping them out entirely. They are the fastest and most intense tracks in the band’s discography, being the most punk-influenced, although the cello playing on the tracks helps keep subtle hints of post-rock present. After the short instrumental “Lament,” the band launches into the much slower but still punchy “Last But Not Least” and “The Fall of Efrafa,” running a total of ten and fifteen minutes, respectively (although ambient rain sound effects take up the last five minutes of the latter).
These two tracks follow the Owsla populace as they take a final stand against the Efrafa, charging into a hopeless battle to halt the advance of humanity’s mechanized capitalist empire that is inevitably doomed to failure. The animals are left as nothing but bloodstains on the ground and ragged clumps of fur hanging from the hedgerows. The warren is empty.
The Warren of the Snares Pt. 2: Elil
Whereas Owsla dealt with themes of extinction and apocalypse and explored the punk side of the band’s sound, Elil, released in September of 2007, explores the band’s post-metal influence and consists of three tracks that all run over twenty minutes in length. As one familiar with the Lapine language might expect, this album deals with the theme of predators, especially in the form of institutions and religious beliefs that tell us to keep our eyes on some faraway paradise while said institutions pollute and rape all our earthly paradises.
True to the style of post-metal, the three songs (“Beyond the Veil,” “Dominion Theology,” and “For El-ahrairah to Cry”) are slow-burning arrangements that rely heavily on crescendo and atmosphere to evoke despair and hopelessness instead of the brutal crust punk pummeling of the previous album. There are several faster and more punk-oriented passages in all three songs, but they are still slower and darker than anything that Owsla had to offer.
The elil of the title are El-ahrairah, Frith, and the Black Rabbit of Inle, portrayed here as capricious and uncaring masters unwilling to help their subjects in their hour of need, instead demanding the animals take part in outdated and archaic rituals that have no bearing on their present situation. Thus, the populace rebels against the three-headed godlike elil and slays them down as punishment for their dereliction of duty.
These atheist morals are further accentuated by the latter two tracks, which feature recordings of speeches by the notorious atheist philosopher Richard Dawkins. “Dominion Theology” features the speech that begins with “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.” “For El-ahrairah to Cry” features Dawkins trying to make the case that numerous coincidences lining up at once to bring us into existence is far more meaningful than us being willed into existence by some outside intelligence.
The cello player left between Owsla and Elil, as he was frustrated that the band couldn’t figure out how to balance their sound in a live setting so he wouldn’t be drowned out. Alex stated in an interview that this helped the band become better musicians, as they couldn’t rely on the cello player to carry their sound anymore. And it definitely shows, as the band is in fine form here.
The Warren of the Snares Pt. 3: Inle
The third and final album in the Warren of the Snares trilogy was released in October of 2009. Perhaps fittingly, considering the theme of death on this album, the music here explores Fall of Efrafa’s doom metal side, with occasional flashes of the shoegaze-influenced black metal of bands like Alcest and Agalloch. The music is slow and gloomy while still containing classic punk energy, with songs ranging from ten to seventeen minutes. This album is the beginning of the saga, taking place right before the society of the Owsla self-destructs. The leader of the theocratic dictatorship, represented by General Woundwort, is murdered in a populist uprising, leaving the populace free to face humanity’s threat. Of course, as Owsla demonstrates, their battle against humanity is ultimately doomed to failure.
The music here is probably the most varied out of any Fall of Efrafa album. We start with “Simulacrum,” a lightly instrumented piece that features a morbid poem about the Black Rabbit of Inle that Silverweed could easily have easily composed. We then transition into the heaving “Fu Inle,” told from the point of view of the Black Rabbit himself as he takes a rabbit (Hazel?) to join his Owsla.
After that comes what is probably my favorite Fall of Efrafa song, “Republic of Heaven.” The powder keg lying under the proletariat of the Owsla society finally detonates as they decide to end the torment that Woundwort keeps inflicting on them. The driving arpeggiated guitar riff is what really makes this song for me (some editions of this album include another track after this one called “The Burial,” originally released as a single about six weeks after Inle).
“Woundwort” tells the story of how the leader of this theocracy finally falls and features Alex’s vocals at their most strained and desperate, especially in the chorus (“Where we lay! We will build! Though we may falter! We will build!”). After a short instrumental interlude called “The Sky Suspended” (named after the chapter in the book where Woundwort is defeated), the trilogy concludes with the seventeen-minute epic “The Warren of Snares,” with the newly-liberated populace reflecting on the battle ahead, both with the remnants of the theocracy trying to salvage their empire and with the much greater threat of the Efrafa, which they know they are not likely to survive.
In addition to being told in reverse order, the story is also cyclical, especially demonstrated by the cello playing at the end of the album echoing the cello in the intro to Owsla. This really helps drive home the trilogy’s themes of how humanity keeps building oppressive empires (Rome, Britain, the United States) and never learning from their past mistakes.
Where Are They Now?
In an interview with the Aristocrazia webzine in May of 2020, Alex revealed that he had ideas for a fourth album, tentatively titled Zorn (Lapine for “destroyed”), telling how the system dies and is then reborn in a sort of Satanic ouroboros situation. By this time, the rest of the band had had enough, however, and, after their final concert in Brighton on December 5, 2009, formally disbanded.
As far as I’m aware, Michael and George haven’t done much of note in the music industry since. Neil Kingsbury and Steve McCusker formed a stoner/sludge band called Blackstorm that lasted from 2007 to 2014, and Kingsbury has performed guest work with several other stoner bands, perhaps most notably Orange Goblin since 2013 as a live guitarist. He also recorded a demo for a project called Charybdis in 2015, in which he played all instruments.
Alex CF has been the busiest out of all of them, having founded several other concept bands in the decade-plus since Fall of Efrafa. He started immediately after with Light Bearer (musically similar to Fall of Efrafa except with more influence from prog rock and ambient music), inspired by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of books. Other bands he was involved in include Momentum and Carnist. Encyclopedia Metallum currently lists him as fronting four bands: Pnakotus, Anopheli, Morrow, and Archivist. I’ll admit that I haven’t listened to material from any of these bands (except Light Bearer, but that was a while ago). However, I do find the concepts behind Morrow and Archivist fascinating. The former follows a tribe of humans trying to make their way in a post-apocalyptic world. The latter follows the sole survivor of an ecological disaster on Earth as she ponders what led to humanity’s extinction alongside the artificial intelligence named Construct that controls the spaceship she is traveling on.
In addition to these musical projects, Alex has not only continued his graphic arts career (perhaps most notably with the fictional museum based on fictional cryptozoologist Thomas Merrylin), but he also took the unused concepts from Zorn and repurposed them into his own work of xenobiological mythology, featured in the books The Orata and Seek the Throat from Which We Sing, with another titled Wretched is the Husk on the way.
This band likely influenced my development in my later teenage years almost as much as the novel that inspired them. While I was a pretty firm metalhead at the time, I tended to avoid more extreme subgenres like black metal, death metal, and anything to do with hardcore punk. It all just grated on my ears, and I didn’t have much of a desire to see the messages hidden under all that sonic grime and muck.
Fall of Efrafa definitely changed that for me. Knowing that my favorite novel inspired them helped me to know what I was getting myself into when I first looked up the band on YouTube. And it turned out to be an enriching experience. I remember being annoyed at the Richard Dawkins speeches sampled in the Elil tracks, as I was much more devoutly Christian back then. Nowadays, having grown more aware of the abusive nature of organized religion (as well as hierarchical power structures in general), I find myself much more sympathetic to the general ideas behind them… even if I still think that Richard Dawkins is a pretentious jerk.
As for the band being a gateway to more extreme and experimental forms of music, I ended up checking out a lot of the bands that Fall of Efrafa cited as influences on their sound, like Neurosis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Agalloch. Agalloch especially has become one of my favorite music artists in any genre.
Thanks to Fall of Efrafa, I was also able to stop worrying and form healthy respect for black metal artists like Immortal, Enslaved, and Deathspell Omega; death metal groups like Bolt Thrower, Death, and Arch Enemy; and hardcore punk outfits like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Discharge. Although I still tend to prefer power metal over any of these subgenres.
Speaking of which…
Epilogue: Rabbit’s Hill Pt. 1 & 2 by Trick or Treat
Before I end this article, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another rock n’ roll concept album experience inspired by Watership Down. This two-part series comes to us from the city of Modena in northern Italy’s Po Valley, courtesy of power metallers Trick or Treat. Parts One and Two were released in November of 2012 by Valery Records and July of 2016 by Frontiers Records, respectively. Rather than the political allegory approach that Fall of Efrafa took with the source material, Trick or Treat’s adaptation is a simple, straightforward retelling of the book. Part One follows the story from Fiver’s vision of doom at Sandleford to Hazel’s near-death experience at Nuthanger Farm. Part Two tells the rest of the story from that point, centering on the conflict with Efrafa and ending with Hazel surrendering himself to the Black Rabbit of Inle.
Is it any good, though? As someone who is already a power metal convert, I think it’s pretty damn good. The genre is rather prone to being very cheesy, though, and these records are no exception. Indeed, the cheese factor here is pretty high, not the least because of lead singer Alessandro Conti’s performance and songwriting. The guy’s Italian accent is very thick, and it’s clear from reading the lyrics that his grasp of English isn’t all that good, at least at this point in the band’s career. It gets especially hilarious when American vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens, singing as Woundwort on the Part 2 track “They Must Die,” sings the line “They have defeat me, now they must pay” exactly the way Conti wrote it. I don’t know about you guys, but that makes me sic.
If you can look past all that, though, the music here is pretty solid. The instrumentalists are excellent (what else would you expect from a metal band?), the solos on the title track from the first album being a special highlight. Aside from Owens (best known for his stints in Judas Priest, Iced Earth, and Yngwie Malmsteen’s band), the albums have several other notable guest stars from the power metal world, including the late, great Andre Matos (Angra, Viper, Shaman), Davide “Damnagoras” Moras of Elvenking, Sara Squadrani of Ancient Bards, and Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica.
I might especially recommend this band to the nerdier side of the metal fandom, as the band seems to have an affinity for anime and cartoons. Not only did they release a metal cover of the Disney anthem “Let It Go” as a single in December of 2014, but they also released an album called Re-Animated in 2018, consisting entirely of covers of anime and cartoon theme songs. In addition, their most recent album, The Legend of the XII Saints, was inspired by the anime Saint Seiya, which I have not seen but heard good things about (I think it’s on Netflix).
And that’s all I have to say about the world of rock operas and concept albums inspired by Watership Down. Join me next time when I complete this retrospective with a look at the 2018 Netflix miniseries. Until next time, beautiful watchers!
The 1999 TV series, which ran from September 28, 1999, to December 4, 2001, on YTV in Canada and CITV in the UK, occupies an interesting and controversial place within the Watership Down fandom. It was created as a co-production between Martin Rosen’s Nepenthe Productions company, another British company called Alltime Entertainment, and a Canadian company called Decode Entertainment (now known as DHX Media Toronto). Mary Crawford and Alan Templeton would head the writing team.
The explicit aim of the show’s creators was to create a version of the Watership Down story that was more family-friendly, avoiding the baggage that the film carried with it. As such, the creators toned down much of the violence and changed several of the characters. Perhaps the most infamous of these changes was turning Blackberry into a doe, as well as turning Pipkin into a child instead of a timid runt rabbit. Some characters were removed entirely (most notably Silver), while others were replaced with original characters. Hyzenthlay, for instance, was replaced by a character named Primrose, presumably because they thought kids would have too hard a time pronouncing her original name. For similar reasons, El-ahrairah was shortened to El-ahrah (which, amusingly enough, changes his name to “enemy prince” in Lapine).
One might expect the series to be kiddie nonsense with all of those changes, right? And yet, several Watership Down fans argue that this series is even better than the film adaptation. I remember agreeing with them back when I first watched all 39 episodes on YouTube the first time. Rewatching it for this retrospective, on the other hand… it’s definitely not terrible, and the writers were still clearly trying to stay true to the mature storytelling of the novel as best they could, even with the younger audience in mind. However, it was also clear that the series still has some significant problems holding it back. Perhaps the best way to explain how would be to examine all three seasons individually to show how the series evolved.
The first episode, “The Promised Land,” launches somewhat abruptly in the middle of the action with the rabbits already on their journey, with Sandleford Warren nowhere in sight. Indeed, Sandleford Warren is practically a ghost during the entire series, mentioned several times before and after its destruction but never seen in person. This is somewhat understandable given that Sandleford’s fate would probably be the hardest sequence to make family-friendly given the wholesale mass slaughter. Still, it does make the series start off rather awkwardly.
We are then introduced to our rag-tag band of hlessil for this adaptation, consisting of seven rabbits: Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, and Hawkbit (making his adaptation debut).
One may notice the changes that several of the characters have gone through right away. The central trio of Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig are still relatively unchanged (although Fiver seems less melancholic and more at peace with himself). As noted above, though, Pipkin was aged down to become more of a kid-appeal character while Blackberry was gender-flipped, presumably to add more diversity to the cast. Dandelion has become much more of a comical figure (possibly having been combined with Bluebell, also absent for this adaptation), while Hawkbit has an entirely new personality. While described as “a rather slow and stupid rabbit” in the book, here he is a grouchy pessimist who rarely lets a situation pass without a sarcastic remark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he seems to be a fan favorite among people who actually like the series.
Another thing one might notice is that the animation is a lot more vibrant and colorful than the film adaptation. It’s also definitely TV quality, meaning that it’s often limited and sometimes goes off-model. Still, it does get the job done, at least.
There’s also the voice cast for this adaptation, which dispenses with the wary and urgent tone taken by the actors in the film adaptation and uses a more standard delivery. Some voice actors are better than others at capturing the spirit of their characters. Ian Shaw and Andrew Falvey were well cast as Hazel and Fiver, respectively, and Lee Ross’s nasally sharp voice lends itself exceptionally well to Hawkbit’s biting sarcasm. Steve Mangan’s performance as Bigwig seems a little off at first, given how he seems to follow a more exaggerated drill instructor-type performance, but his interpretation still grows on you. Phil Jupitus as Dandelion, on the other hand, tends to get on a lot of fans’ nerves thanks to how high-pitched and screechy his voice is. While I don’t dislike his performance as much as others, I still never really got used to it since it seemed way too cartoonish and exaggerated even for this show.
Another criticism I have of this episode is that it ends with the rabbits reaching Watership Down by the end, which I feel cheapens the drama around the actual journey, especially since Cowslip’s warren is completely bypassed. Granted, it does show up two episodes later, but I still think placing it after the arrival on the Down was a mistake.
I do kind of like the idea of Kehaar meeting the rabbits before they arrive at the Down, and it certainly works with the more friendly and less acerbic personality that the gull gets in this adaptation. A part of me wonders if keeping his more brash and aggressive side would have made much better use of Rik Mayall’s comedic talents, but his voice work for the character still gets a few laughs. His early arrival also helps establish the new talent that Pipkin was given in this adaptation, making friends with practically any animal species that isn’t elil.
Kehaar is also joined by a new character named Hannah, a spunky field mouse voiced by Jane Horrocks. There’s not a lot to say about her. She gets in fights with Bigwig. She befriends other animals alongside Pipkin. She takes advantage of her small size to help the rabbits spy on Efrafa later on. I’ll have a bit more say when we get to what the writers did with her in season three, but that’s a ways off.
As for Doe! Blackberry, I tend to believe that she gets a lot more hate than she deserves. Many fans argue that making her a doe undermines the whole reason why the rabbits had to infiltrate Efrafa in the first place. Since the warren now has a doe, they’re all set, right? Not really. Do you really expect one doe to be able to populate an entire warren? Plus, just one doe would mean that the bucks would constantly be at each other’s throats trying to win the right to mate with her. Indeed, in the book, even after Hazel nearly kills himself getting the two hutch does from Nuthanger Farm back to the Down, he’s still worried about the bucks getting in fights and decides to raid Efrafa anyway.
That being said, though, it quickly becomes apparent that once Blackberry finishes designing the new warren and discovers the boat that helps the Watershippers outrun Woundwort, the writers had no idea what to do with her. She never joins the other rabbits on their various misadventures and pretty much fades into the background until Woundwort’s attack on the warren at the end of Season Two. But, again, more on that later.
Speaking of Woundwort, though, let’s talk about how Efrafa is portrayed in the series. Hazel’s voice actor from the film, John Hurt, returns to voice Woundwort.
Many of the characters introduced in Efrafa are vibrant and interesting, especially this series’ version of Vervain, Woundwort’s chief enforcer. Here he is portrayed as a cowardly sleazebag with a strong vendetta against Captain Campion, Woundwort’s chief Owsla officer. Woundwort himself is appropriately savage and intimidating, even with more kid-friendly restraints placed on him.
However, his motivations become somewhat muddled when it comes to the reasons he wants Watership Down destroyed. In the book, it was because he was angry at Bigwig for betraying his trust and “kidnapping” some of his subjects. Here, Hazel and Fiver introduce themselves to Woundwort before Bigwig and, aware of Efrafa’s vicious and bloodthirsty reputation, ask Woundwort which he prefers: War or peace? Life or death? He tells Hazel and Fiver to reveal the location of their warren or be executed, and the two are only saved when Fiver has a vision of Woundwort’s past that enrages but also intrigues the General. We don’t get any sense that Woundwort is doing this because he thinks he’s protecting rabbits from men and elil. Here he seems to be doing it simply because he’s a power-hungry bully.
In any case, the central conflict for the next two seasons is the rabbits trying to keep Woundwort from finding Watership Down. They accomplish this way too easily, considering that the distances between the warrens have obviously been shrunk down from what they were in the book. The rabbits even find a cave system under the Down at one point that they use as a secret passage to and from Efrafa, meaning that the rival warren is literally just down the hill from them!
Another change related to Efrafa that definitely wasn’t for the better was what the writers did with Hyzenthlay, or Primrose, as the writers renamed her. Hyzenthlay is a clever and cunning rabbit who proves her leadership capabilities by helping Bigwig orchestrate the breakout from Efrafa, has visions similar to Fiver’s, and is later promoted to co-chief rabbit alongside Hazel. On the other hand, Primrose often comes across as selfish and manipulative, especially when she drags Hazel on an adventure to her old warren, Redstone, in episode nine, even after Fiver has a vision that the warren is empty. They find it to be true, except for the aging former Owsla Captain Broom. While it is nice to hear Richard Briers (Fiver’s voice actor from the film) again, I’ll admit that the character doesn’t really do much, even when he’s given more screentime in season three.
Also, one more thing about Efrafa that really bugs me in the show: Whenever the series comes back to Efrafa, there are these animalistic noises that sound nothing like its rabbit inhabitants echoing through the runs. Where are these sounds coming from? Is there a portal to the Amazon rainforest hidden somewhere? Did Woundwort make a deal with Bunny Satan, and the sounds are the devil’s minions watching over him to make sure he keeps up his end of the bargain? Seriously, what the hell are they?! I know it’s the sound designers trying way too hard to show us how eeeeeevil Efrafa is, but I feel like there were far more subtle ways to accomplish it.
If there is one thing that the writers of the series improved on compared to the film, though, it would be Cowslip’s warren. This version of the story has Captain Holly leading Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver back to the warren to retrieve his friend Pimpernel. Once there, the group slowly starts getting seduced by the “easy life” offered by the rabbits’ seemingly symbiotic relationship with the local farmer… until Bigwig nearly dies in a snare, and the rabbits quickly put two and two together.
With the show dedicating a whole 20+ minute episode to the Warren of the Snares, as opposed to the five minutes the film gave us, we get to see the true existential horror of Cowslip’s warren, which still carries its potency even if they aren’t allowed to show blood during Bigwig’s strangulation. Indeed, the only time blood shows up at all in the series is when Hazel gets shot during the hutch rabbit breakout in episode six, whereas all the rabbit fights only leave red scratches that don’t bleed.
Also helping the creepy atmosphere is how Cowslip, voiced by Stephen Fry in this version, is portrayed. Toward the end of the episode, after the Watership rabbits confront Cowslip, Cowslip reveals how insane living under the shadow of the shining wires has turned him. “They won’t get me! They might get others, but never me!” he cries after Hazel tells him he doesn’t need to surrender to the wires and backs slowly into a burrow, laughing like a hyena. The Watershippers book it out of there, along with Strawberry, tired of living under the shadow of the wires.
In all, the series so far is a relatively faithful adaptation of the book, even if the writers somewhat butchered the original tone to appeal to a more general audience. The characters are enjoyable, the voice cast is good, and the story is fairly consistent, even if the main villain’s motivations are somewhat muddled. I’ll give season one a 7/10.
In the first episode, season Two starts well enough with Pipkin becoming a prisoner in Efrafa, with Woundwort using him as a bargaining chip to get Hazel and company to surrender. However, things become complicated when Woundwort starts bonding with Pipkin over their shared backstory of losing their parents to a weasel, even coming to view Pipkin as something of a son to him.
One would think something like this would develop into a significant plot thread given how much of a disruption it would be to the two warrens’ dynamic. But this is not to be, since their relationship is practically forgotten about after Pipkin stops Bigwig from killing Woundwort at the end of the episode. Indeed, the only time it comes up again is in the series finale twenty-five episodes later, when Pipkin explains to Hazel and Primrose’s kittens why he thinks Woundwort is so driven to sow chaos and destruction wherever he goes.
Indeed, Season Two is often considered the worst season by most fans of the series, mostly because over half of the episodes can be regarded as filler episodes. Indeed, out of the thirteen episodes broadcast this season, eight (!) have little to nothing to do with the central conflict with Efrafa.
Some of these filler episodes are better than others. “The Orchard,” for instance, has Fiver befriending a lonely badger named Bark living in an apple orchard near Nuthanger Farm and even has a cute running gag where she keeps offering Fiver apples even long after he’s grown sick of them. The two-part Christmas special is also an enjoyable adventure, even if the idea of the rabbits having a solstice holiday (hell, the thought of them having holidays at all) seems rather far-fetched. The writers could have easily had them go on this adventure without a Christmastime-type feast hanging over their heads.
More often than not, though, the plots for these filler episodes seem rather inane and contrived. There’s an episode where the rabbits travel with Kehaar to the “peeg vater” on what looks like the Cliffs of Dover, which should be impossible since the Cliffs are over 100 miles away from the Hampshire Downs. In another episode, a pair of con-artist rabbits arrive at Watership Down claiming to be messengers of Prince Rainbow, who manage to convince Pipkin he can fly, leading to predictable shenanigans. Another one manages to include the “leading a dog onto Watership Down” plot point from the novel. Instead of leading it onto Woundwort, however, it’s to chase away an escaped flock of sheep that are ruining the ecosystem on the Down.
All of this filler tends to make the actual plot feel far more dragged out than it should. One major flaw of the episode with Bark the badger is that it is plopped between two episodes where Captain Campion is being held prisoner in Efrafa under suspicion that he is spying for the Watershippers (he has been since the Season One finale, but the Efrafans don’t know that yet). That problem is resolved in the next episode where the Watership rabbits stage an elaborate plan inspired by “The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah” to make Vervain look insane so that Woundwort will let Campion off the hook. After that conflict is resolved, the series goes through five more filler episodes before the Efrafans finally find the cave system under the Down and attack in the second season finale.
However, there are several positives to this season that save from being a total loss. There’s an interesting subplot where two rabbits from Cowslip’s warren named Hickory and Marigold seek the Watership rabbits’ help in establishing a warren of their own. They settle in at the former Redstone warren but are almost taken by Efrafa when Cowslip and Woundwort briefly join forces. Captain Broom manages to scare the Efrafans away by convincing them that the “great sickness” that decimated his warren years ago is still active. This eventually leads to Campion’s arrest when Woundwort, enraged that Cowslip apparently lied to him, leads the Efrafans to attack the Warren of the Shining Wires, only for Campion to warn him of said wires. It’s a fairly well-executed subplot, even if hearing Hickory and Marigold speaking with American accents is somewhat jarring (Hickory is even voiced by Keifer Sutherland of all people).
The season finale is definitely the best episode of this season. Woundwort finally leads his army up the caves to attack the Watershippers, only to give up the attack after Campion seemingly sacrifices himself to save Woundwort from a falling boulder. It’s got the drama and stakes that any Watership Down adaptation worth its salt should have, even if, again, blood is absent for the benefit of the younger audience.
Overall, this season has some good ideas that expand nicely on the source material. But on the other, it has several filler episodes filled with inane and contrived ideas that definitely stretch the bounds of credulity. And I’m giving this season a 6/10 (it’s closer to a 5 than a 7).
Season Three has somewhat divided fans of the TV series due to the completely different direction that both the art style and writing took. A lot of fans tend to agree that the third season is undoubtedly the best thanks not only to the story being far more consistent and straightforward than the previous two seasons (with little to no filler to be seen) but also because the series took a much darker and more dramatic turn that brought it much closer to the original tone of the book (though still no blood, because kid show). On the other hand, others tend to dislike the characters’ redesigns, the fact that none of the celebrity voice actors returned (aside from Richard Briers), as well as some admittedly far-fetched story elements revolving around magic. While I mostly fall into the former camp, I still have plenty of problems with this season that keep me from ranking it any higher than “good.”
Perhaps we should start with the most obvious change one observes when watching the first episode of the season: the art style change.
The character designs became more angular, and the animation became much cleaner, although some animation slip-ups still occur from time to time, like this one from S3E11.
Another thing one might notice right away is the change in voice actors. As mentioned before, Richard Briers is still there voicing Captain Broom, although his voice sounds oddly deeper than in the previous seasons. But, sadly, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Jane Horrocks, and many others are gone, likely victims of budget cuts. Not that any of their replacements are bad (Woundwort’s new voice actor manages to make his own menacing spin on the character, even if his line delivery feels off at points), but their respective talents are definitely a big loss.
Let’s talk about the story. Efrafa finally falls in the first episode after Hazel gathers an army consisting of rabbits and several other animals that the Watershippers have befriended since coming to the Down, including Bark, the badger. Woundwort is presumed dead but comes back, eventually bringing his former toady Vervain back under his command. He briefly manages to take over Redstone Warren but is forced to leave when a human road crew plows it over to make room for a new highway (Hickory, Marigold, and co. manage to make it out just fine). Woundwort makes a bargain with Cowslip to attain the services of his seer, Silverweed, and he takes his followers to his former home, a warren called Darkhaven, where a group of warlike rabbits lives in a junkyard awaiting the arrival of the “Dark One.”
Much to his surprise, though, he finds his former captain of Owsla, Campion, waiting for him there. Campion has been secretly nursing himself back to health in the wilderness surrounding Watership Down, with only Pipkin knowing he’s there. Woundwort welcomes him back, much to Vervain’s chagrin. But little does he know that the Black Rabbit himself has tasked Campion with stopping Woundwort’s threat to the world of the living. He manages to liberate Silverweed from Darkhaven’s clutches and deliver him to the Watershippers, although he and Blackberry manage to escape suspicion for their role in this.
Oh yeah, speaking of Blackberry: By this time, the Watershippers have learned Pipkin’s secret, and Blackberry, who very suddenly fell in love with Campion during Woundwort’s invasion at the end of season two, is determined to bring him back to Watership Down. She ends up becoming a prisoner of war in Darkhaven instead, with a warrior doe named Spartina, chosen by Woundwort to spy on the Watershippers, using her as a chess piece to keep Campion in line. She threatens to have her companion Granite kill Blackberry if she doesn’t return by the next full moon.
But this plan is complicated by two factors. First, Blackberry ends up saving Granite’s life when he’s badly wounded by a falling rock, even though this is against Darkhaven law, and she nearly gets herself executed over it. He resolves to help her and Campion escape, but Woundwort catches them in the act and threatens to execute Blackberry himself if Campion doesn’t lead him to Watership Down. Second, Spartina ends up enraptured by Watership Down and even falls in love with Bigwig. Unfortunately, she is also marked for execution after Vervain catches her trying to break Campion and Blackberry out. And so Woundwort finally comes to Watership Down to wipe Hazel’s warren from existence forever.
But before we discuss how the series resolves this storyline, let’s examine where it succeeds and fails.
One element that I liked was that Pipkin finally showed signs of aging. The fact that he remained a kitten for two seasons that spanned across a year really doesn’t make sense when you consider that European rabbits usually reach sexual maturity at only three months. True, he’s technically still a kitten here, but he’s definitely more adolescent here than in previous seasons.
There’s also been a clear development in Vervain’s character here, as he’s grown slightly more of a backbone. For example, when Woundwort tries to attack a poacher that is menacing Redstone Warren and gets himself and Vervain captured, Vervain lets loose on Woundwort, berating him for likely getting them killed with his mindless pursuit of his “destiny.” Sadly, Woundwort’s delusions of grandeur are only reinforced when a police officer arrests the poacher and releases them. Vervain also shows visible disgust at the joy Woundwort and Cowslip take at watching Redstone fall to man’s bulldozers, not lifting a finger to help fellow rabbits in distress.
Darkhaven is a fascinating plot point, especially due to the hints we get to their past as escapees from “man’s hutches.” A part of me wonders if the Darkhaven rabbits’ backstory is like that of the rats in Don Bluth’s The Secret of Nimh, where they gained their large size, musculature, and aggressive temper from experiments that human scientists did on them. They work well as new enemies for the Watership rabbits, allowing the writers not to overextend the Efrafa subplot any more than they already had.
There are a few issues I have with several characters in this season. One example is Spartina, the Darkhaven rabbit with the most characterization. After Blackberry is taken as a hostage, Spartina gets her enrolled in a sort of class with the Speaker of the Past (a quasi-shamanistic character who teaches about the history of Darkhaven), so she doesn’t have to participate in the warren’s frequent fighting matches. When Blackberry asks Spartina why she’s helping her, the Darkhaven doe replies, “Because no one helped me when I came here.” You would think the writers would use this as a jumping-off point to discuss her backstory eventually, but nope! We never learn anything more about her past, even after she switches sides and joins Hazel and co. Speaking of which, her conversion is so sudden it almost induces whiplash. She spends most of episode 36 firmly supportive of Woundwort, gets enraptured by Watership Down’s beauty at the end, and then is entirely on the good guys’ side by the next episode. It’s enough to make you wonder if you missed an episode.
The romance between Campion and Blackberry also tends to be a sticking point for series fans, mainly because it came right the hell out of nowhere in the season two finale. Blackberry and Campion suddenly experience love at first sight when Campion warns Hazel that Vervain has found the cave system. When Campion seemingly dies under a large boulder, she mourns his death as if she’s known him for years, as does Campion whenever he’s around Pipkin. Sure, some of their moments together in the third season are kind of cute, but the way the writers set the whole situation up in the first place kind of makes it feel hollow, as if they were trying way too hard to find something for Blackberry to do since she did so little in the previous two seasons.
But both of those elements pale in comparison to the controversial way the writers decided to end the series, and to talk about that, we need to talk about season three’s magic subplot. One thing I didn’t mention in that plot summary up above is that Hannah the mouse, feeling useless because she has no way to help Hazel and the others, learns about hedge wizards from Yona, the local hedgehog, and ends up receiving magical powers from an ancient turtle that lives on an island in the middle of a lake. However, she ends up having it taken away from her by Silverweed at the end, so she doesn’t have to suffer the horrible fate he has foreseen for those who use the magic…
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, this is supposed to be about a bunch of normal-ass rabbits trying to make a living in the English countryside, right?” Well, yes, but remember, this is a kid’s show, and the only other way to resolve the final battle with Woundwort and his army would be a bloody brawl like in the book, and we can’t have that, no sir! So what better way than to have one of the rabbits do a ritual chant to summon the Black Rabbit of Inle to suck Woundwort and his soldiers through a portal to the spirit world, where that can’t harm a living soul ever again.
Granted, this wasn’t the only supernatural element that appeared in the series. There was also a subplot where Woundwort was using Silverweed to spy on Watership Down by having him exploit a psychic trick where he can see through someone Fiver’s eyes. Fiver later turns this trick back on him to help Blackberry and Campion break him out of Darkhaven. This seems a bit far-fetched compared to the book, but psychic abilities exist in both works, so I was willing to forgive it. However, the subplot with Hannah’s magic was a bridge too far from the source material’s realistic approach. It just felt like the writers trying too hard to distance themselves from any elements of the book they thought might make kids uncomfortable.
The way the ending of the last episode immediately following the Black Rabbit’s departure plays out also leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The episode goes on for literally only a minute afterward, with the other rabbits learning that Silverweed was rapidly aged by the magic he took from Hannah. He tells the other rabbits that he’s happy because Watership Down is finally safe, they return to their burrows without saying anything, and the whole series ends right there! As the Angry Video Game Nerd would say, “What a shitload of fuck!”
Also, the fortifications the rabbits make around Watership Down before Woundwort’s arrival feel way too sophisticated.
When I first watched the series back in my high school years, I thought it was a masterpiece of TV animation. Having seen shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Gravity Falls, and Fullmetal Alchemist since then, however… yeah, this series doesn’t hold a candle to those shows at all. The story often feels like it’s working against the source material, the violence that was so essential to its lasting impact has been excised, and the animation isn’t anything to write home about.
The Watership Down purists will definitely look down upon the show for these reasons, but it still has plenty to offer for less demanding fans. The characters are still likable, the stakes still feel real, the writers were clearly trying to avoid talking down to their audience, and the voice cast was excellent.
Also, the soundtrack made for the series by Mike Batt, the original writer of “Bright Eyes,” is absolutely gorgeous. The orchestral suite sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord of the Rings adaptation, with soaring tracks like “The Beginning Overture,” “On Watership Down,” and “Fantasia on a Flying Theme,” tense and harrowing tracks like “Military Theme and Development” and “Chase Adventure,” and the Christmas cheer of “Winter on Watership Down.” Be forewarned, though; some of these tracks tend to be overplayed in the series itself, most notably “Chase Adventure.”
There are also several new songs that Batt composed for the series. Batt himself performs “The View from a Hill,” Paul Carrack of Mike and the Mechanics fame performs “Winter Song,” and Cerys Matthews of the Welsh alternative band Catatonia performs “Thank You, Stars.” “Bright Eyes” also makes an appearance, this time performed by the late Stephen Gately of the Irish boyband Boyzone. All of these tracks are great folksy pop pieces worthy of the Watership Down legacy. However, I didn’t really find Gately’s version of “Bright Eyes” as emotionally impactful as Art Garfunkel’s version.
It’s not perfect, but if you’re willing to give the TV show a chance, you might find it was all worthwhile in the end. The show gets a 7/10; quite a bit of wasted potential, but it had a lot of heart and soul put into it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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 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
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.