Friday, October 21, 2011

Watership Down (1978)


An excellent adaptation of a brilliant book.  So excellent, in fact, that I'm not surprised that it has yet to be re-made (though Wikipedia informs me that a new screenplay is in the works).  The filmmakers clearly had an affection and respect for the book that led them to adhere to it quite faithfully.  There are changes, of course--the book clocks in at over 400 pages and the movie is a mere 90 minutes long, so obviously it's not a word-for-word adaptation.

The spirit of the book is there, as are the characters readers have come to know and love--most notably Bigwig and Hazel, though Fiver, Pipkin, Dandelion, Blackberry, Blackavar, and Hyzenthlay make their presence known.  Woundwort is terrifying, and Cowslip is eerie and unsettling.  The voice work--largely provided by British stage and television actors--is excellent, and the score is memorable (not least because of the number one hit "Bright Eyes", sung by Art Garfunkel).

Certain events are skipped, or truncated, as you might expect, and we miss out on some of the characters from the book.  Strawberry is absent, as are his architectural contributions to Watership, and Blackavar, though courageous, never gets to share his military expertise.  There is no Bluebell, either--Kehaar provides what little comic relief there is in this otherwise somber film.  The rabbits never befriend a field mouse, and Hazel never gets to ride in a hrududu.  There is only one tale of El-ahrairah, and it is not told by Dandelion.

As with the book itself, the film was very nearly never made, and once completed, it struggled again in distribution--like the book, it was not immediately apparent to investors and distributors what the target demographic should be.  The content is considered too violent for younger children (a rabbit is strangled, and several more are violently killed by other animals), and the animation could lead older viewers to dismiss it as a kids' movie.  I first saw it as a fairly young child, and in hindsight I'm a bit surprised my parents allowed it.  Then again, I don't recall being particularly troubled by the film, so perhaps some of our concern about what children can or can't handle is ill-founded.

Still, if a second film is made, it will be interesting to see whether the content is rendered more "kid-friendly."  In my opinion, to sanitize this story is to render it pointless and to destroy all its charm and appeal.  The story is suspenseful and compelling precisely because the stakes are high.  The rabbits really are in danger--they have to be or the story (including the entire rabbit mythology on which they base their lives) is utterly destroyed and devolves into a bunch of sappy drivel.  If, however, they are faithful to the source material, it might be interesting to see what modern effects and technology--coupled with an actual budget--could produce by way of a film adaptation. But all the money and technology in the world won't make a better film if they're not dedicated to preserving the original story as told by Adams.

1 comment:

Palaeography on the rocks said...

anyone over eight who regards Watershed Down as worth reading needs their head examined. It is twee drivel.