Saturday, October 15, 2011

Watership Down, by Richard Adams


Man, I forgot how amazing this book is. The writing is fantastic, the story is compelling and suspenseful, the characters are incredibly empathetic and likeable, and Adams makes the reader really feel the terror of circumstances which, while hardly remarkable to humans, would undoubtedly be incredibly frightening and utterly overwhelming to rabbits.  The characters face adventure and violence with courage, fear, ingenuity, and determination.  It is always surprising a simple story about a bunch of rabbits can suck the reader in so thoroughly--and so quickly.  I find myself immersed in the story and invested in the characters almost from the opening page.  Even though the book is on the longish side (and includes several smaller story arcs), it is very readable and accessible to those at a variety of reading levels.

And the characters are amazingly well-developed and clearly differentiated. Hazel is quite possibly one of the best leaders in literature--he cares deeply about his followers and knows and uses their strengths with remarkable insight.  And each makes a unique (and necessary) contribution to the adventure. Bigwig is a perfect picture of brusque yet reliable, big-hearted courage--a true soldier.  Blackberry saves the rabbits time and again with his cleverness, Dandelion boosts their spirits with his stories, and Fiver guides their steps. Strawberry's knowledge of structure and design, Holly's discipline and patrolling prowess, even Pipkin's loyalty and trust--each rabbit is distinct and appreciated as such.

I must also confess a fondness for any book that bothers to include a unique linguistic element, and Adams 'lapine' language delights me.  His language is nowhere hear as fully developed as those in Tolkien or Lewis, but he still creates a linguistically consistent vocabulary for his characters.  Then, too, his rabbit mythology--again not as complex as Tolkien--is still intriguing and quite entertaining.

For those who find reading a chore, the 1978 film is actually an excellent adaptation of this classic (and Art Garfunkel does wonders with the music), but parents' should not be mislead by the animation--this is not a film for young children.  Animation was simply the best medium for telling the story. And the filmmakers tell it well--the animation is quite good, the story is faithfully told, and the voice work is fantastic.

The recent audiobook edition is also quite good, though it was a little jarring to hear Kehaar voiced as vaguely Swedish (I grew up hearing Zero Mostel's voicework from the animated film, which had  much more German/Polish/Eastern European flavor), though I don't know that one accent is more correct than another.  I was, however, struck by the similarities between the film Bigwig and Bigwig as voiced on the audiobook. 

In his introduction, Adams discusses the challenges of finding a publisher for this sort of in-between novel--it is a little complex for children (and includes some more mature themes), and publishers were worried that adults would not be willing to read a 500-plus page book about rabbits.  I am so grateful that a publisher finally saw this gem for what it is--one of the best books of the 20th century.  Love.

Bottom line:  This book rocks. Read it.

No comments: