'Watership Down,' or How to Terrify Kids

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Why you should care

It’s as if a Norwegian death-metal band made up a bunny story.

Childhood fiction comes in many forms, some more traumatizing than others. Several generations of young’uns were first exposed to the reality of death by talking animals, with some learning that painful lesson from the rabbits of Watership Down. While there’s no one moment in Watership Down to equal that scene from Bambi, the film’s prophetic vision of a field running red with blood comes very close. Richard Adams’ book on which the film is based was first published in 1972, with Martin Rosen’s adaptation arriving in theaters six years later. The legacies of both have endured for decades, most recently in the form of a new DVD and Blu-ray restoration of the film courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

In an essay accompanying that release, author Gerard Jones writes that the movie “has troubled me ever since I first saw it — and I first saw it at twenty-one.” It’s easy to see why. The film is a fabulistic tale of a group of rabbits who flee their warren after one of their company is struck with a morbid prophecy of their impending doom. The story is rich in allegorical implications that make its violence all the more upsetting, with the talking bunnies also serving as mouthpieces for a number of heady ideas. Hazel, the de facto leader, is constantly struggling with whether to privilege his and his cohorts’ freedom or their safety; his brother Fiver’s hallucinatory visions imbue the proceedings with a primal feeling.

If you read the book just prior to viewing Criterion’s home-video upgrade, the commonalities and differences between the two iterations come into focus. Adams is not unlike Tolkien in the sense that his best-known work is aimed largely at children while not being alienating for adults; he also created a language to accompany that work. Both the bunnies and their language, called Lapine, are more easily understood on-screen: Elil is the collective name for all creatures who hunt and kill their kind; El-ahrairah is their folk hero, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies. Adams’ prose is more workmanlike than lyrical in the film: Thirty words on the page become the much simpler “They seem sad, like trees in November.” As with most else in the adaptation, it’s more succinct and streamlined than Adams’ original, yet his characters’ struggles feel more grueling and life-threatening over the course of 475 pages than they do in 90 minutes of screen time.

The hand-drawn, rough-around-the-edges style of animation that was in vogue at the time (see also: 1970’s adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth) serves the story well. There’s a tension between the idyllic setting and the blood-soaked violence carried out first in the story’s foreboding creation myth and then in the present. Happy ending notwithstanding, that tension is never fully resolved — many creatures go to their graves early, kicking and screaming their way into the afterlife.

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