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.