…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!
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!
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.
…and it’s definitely a lot better than you’d expect an animated kid’s show based on a franchise about dinosaurs eating people would be.
This iteration of the much-beloved Jurassic Park franchise follows six teenagers who win a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the new adventure camp on Isla Nublar. They include Darius Bowman, the resident dinosaur expert of the group; Brooklynn, a travel vlogger; Kenji Kon, the oldest of the group and something of an upper-class twit; Sammy Gutierrez, an extroverted farmer’s daughter whose family farm supplies meat to the park; Yasmina Fadoula, an introverted athlete; and Ben Pincus, a hypochondriac worrywart.
Unfortunately, the events of Jurassic World happen off-camera, and the teens find themselves having to survive in the tropical ruins of the park as the Indominus rex’s rampage unleashes all the dinosaurs from their paddocks.
Like many fellow Jurassic Park fans, I had reservations about the series when I first heard about it. However, even before the Indomius breaks out in episode 4, the kids (usually Darius and Kenji) end up getting themselves in danger several times through their own childish stupidity. While plenty suspenseful, these scenes did wear on me a bit as they seemed to establish the characters lacking any common sense.
But as the Indominus attack brings the plot into conjunction with Jurassic World’s plot, the kids are forced to use their wits to survive as the few adults left on their part of the island are eaten alive right in front of them. Yes, that happens on this “kid’s show.” One incident in episode 5 even has them getting abandoned by a paranoid and psychotic scientist named Eddie, who immediately gets eaten by the Indominus shortly afterward.
The show definitely knows how to raise stakes in a very effective manner. In episode 6, they are relieved to have survived going over a waterfall… until they realize that they are in the Mosasaurus lagoon. In episode 7, the group braves a pterosaur attack and narrowly avoids having their monorail run off the tracks… only for Ben to fall out of the train when a Pteranodon smashes into it. And then finally, Season One ends as the monorail brings them to the docks, and the group finally scares off the Carnotaurus that has been chasing them throughout the season… only to find that the ferry left without them. Later on, in Season Two, they meet a trio of adults who call themselves eco-tourists and say they have a way off the island… only to discover that they have much darker intentions for the dinosaurs.
Suffice it to say, this series is right up there with the best of the films when it comes to dino terror. But the other aspects of the series are good as well. The dinosaurs look absolutely gorgeous. The designs of the human characters got some flack for clashing too much with the dinosaur designs. I don’t feel like they did all that much. The only problem I had on that front was Sammy’s design, which makes her look Asian even though she’s supposed to be Hispanic.
Speaking of the human characters, this might be my favorite human cast in the franchise since the original film (and this is coming from someone who actually likes the Jurassic World films so far). They quickly managed to grow out of their reckless first impression from the first three episodes and grow increasingly resourceful and clever, especially Ben, whose character arc I refuse to spoil here. The voice cast is excellent, featuring such names as Jenny Ortega as Brooklynn, Jameela Jamil and Glen Powell as the kids’ beleaguered counselors, and even Bradley Whitford as the duplicitous “eco-tourist” Mitch in Season Two.
The story also deserves credit for not descending into fanservice when it dovetails into the Jurassic World plot beats. It could have easily turned into something of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-type affair where the film’s plot plays out while the series characters sporadically interact with it. Fortunately though, the story here is able to stand on its own.
And finally, the musical score is just as good as the films, even if such big names as John Williams and Michael Giacchino aren’t there to helm it this time.
Basically, this series is probably one of the best things to come out of the franchise in a long time. Definitely check this one out on Netflix if you have the time. Even if you hate the Jurassic World films, I have a feeling this series might win you over. And I’m giving this one a 9/10.