Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 5: The Netflix Series

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

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

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

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

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 But not only is the animation woefully outdated and stilted, but some of the directorial choices and changes that the writers made left me scratching my head.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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 4: Fall of Efrafa

Parasitic ape/Spills his black blood/Blotting out the sun/Wither to sallow flesh- Pity the Weak

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.

Background
We will not go quiet! We will not be restrained! We will not be slaves to an impotent regime!- Republic of Heaven

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.

No, not the “greed is good” guy!

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
Digger, dig deep! Feel for sights and sounds! Press your ear against the earth, upon the ground! Runner ride out, against the turning tide! The sun beats down upon the land set aside!- Last But Not Least

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
Frith lies still in charred soil/We silflay upon his bones/Dance in his carrion eyes/Tear his flesh with ideas/Bore within him like worms!- For El-ahrairah to Cry

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 accent of piety! The idiot prince! Pigheaded! Exalted and guilty as sin!- Woundwort

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.

Personal Thoughts

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.

Though not so much for the atheism stuff as much as for… other opinions he’s expressed in the past.

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!

Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 3: The TV Series

Title card for seasons one and two of the 1999 series (featuring from left to right: Pipkin, Bigwig, Hazel, Blackberry, and Fiver)

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).

With all of those changes, one might expect the series to be kiddie nonsense, 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 major 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.

Season One

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 the hardest sequence to make into family-friendly given the wholesale mass slaughter, but 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).

Pictured from left to right: Fiver, Pipkin, Bigwig, Blackberry, Hawkbit, Dandelion, Hazel

Right away, one may notice the changes that several of the characters have gone through. The main 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 a completely new personality. While described as “a rather slow and stupid rabbit” in the book, here he is a grouchy and sarcastic 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 extremely 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 confrontational 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.

Insert any Fluttershy related jokes here (Artwork by MetalPandora on DeviantArt)

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 clear 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.

Insert appropriate Internet memes here.

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 main 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!

As this map from the opening titles clearly illustrates.

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 smart 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?! Obviously, 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.

Also, Woundwort not blind eye is red, because villain.

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 hyaena. 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 fairly 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.

Season Two

Season Two starts well enough in the first episode 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 major 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 this season can be considered filler episodes. Indeed, out of the thirteen episodes broadcast this season, eight (!) have little to nothing to do with the main 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. There’s another episode where 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, only instead of leading onto Woundwort 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 (an enemy of Campion’s who’s leading the interrogation) 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.

There are several positives to this season that save from being a total loss, however. 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 rather jarring (Hickory is even voiced by Keifer Sutherland of all people).

Yes, that Keifer Sutherland.

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

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.

Courtesy of owsalfa.tumblr , featuring Campion, Spartina, Hawkbit, Dandelion, Fiver, and Hazel (compare to the S1E1 still I posted above)

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.

Uh, Silverweed, how are you doing that with your feet?

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 live 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 welcome 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 he was 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 switching sides and joining 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 fully 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, mostly 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 just 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 bad 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. She ends up having it taken away from her by Silverweed at the end, however, 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 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.

I’ve come to punish sinners and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of bubblegum.

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. The subplot with Hannah’s magic was a bridge too far from the source material’s realistic approach, however, and just felt like the writers distancing 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 just 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.

Seriously, where did they get those sharpened stakes of wood from? They can’t have been smart enough to make them themselves.
Final Thoughts

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 definitely 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 really isn’t something 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 likeable, 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 definitely 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 definitely had a lot of heart and soul put into it.

Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 2: The Movie

U.S. theatrical release poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is It Any Good, Though?

It most certainly is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Watership Down Retrospective Pt. 1: The Novels

First edition cover

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

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

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

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

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

The Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why It’s Worth Your Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcing the May Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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