PG, but infamously not PG in content. This is one of those films that was notorious for traumatizing children with its visceral imagery, primarily on the gore that is associated with rabbits mauling each other. It's pretty brutal, despite the fact that I hear that the remake from Netflix is far more tame than this version.
DIRECTOR: Martin Rosen
Oh man, I'm so stressed out in my life right now. I'm not sure if writing blogs right now would make me feel remarkably productive or make me even more stressed out. But for the sake of my memory, I should write this as quickly as I can. I would like to also confess that I'm reading the book while writing this blog. I started reading the book first and then decided to watch the movie simultaneously. I know, many of you may be screaming "Blasphemy." It should be the book first and nothing else for most people out there. But I also wanted to really understand the book and my mind tends to wander. Having a roadmap while reading isn't the worst thing in the world.
This movie has a reputation. I mean, the book also has that reputation, but I think a lot of its horror comes from the film itself. I can't imagine what it would have been like watching this movie in 1978. Animation, as a whole, during the '60s and '70s was far more intense than what we get today. Kids were probably used to a fair share of horrifying imagery. But Watership Down takes it to a new level. Writing this blog has brought to my attention that kids' movies are meant to traumatize before they heal. We think of Disney films as these cute little movies, but they get really dark before anything positive can come of it. Watership Down isn't technically a piece of adults, I guess. Richard Adams swore that this wasn't a work of allegory. It was just a story about rabbits to him. But the structure of Watership Down, if it was analyzed by the books, follows the structure of a children's movie but has the tone of a much more mature work. Perhaps it's because the story is oh-so-very British and stodgy throughout, but the movie never gets beyond its aesthetic choice to be a children's movie. It's gory and raw. It looks like a subgenre of animation that we just don't see anymore.
Maybe I shouldn't have read Adams's comments about Watership Down. The reason I'm all about Watership Down right now is because I'm thinking of adding it to my curriculum. But when I know that there is no deeper meaning to anything I'm watching, Adams's comment about being a story about rabbits is disheartening. There's the philosophy that the author loses ownership of the work once it is out of his hands. I suppose that I'm embracing that statement aggressively at this moment. I can't let Watership Down follow Adams's attitude towards the piece. I have to imagine that Adams, at surface level, is critical of man's dominion over the planet, especially focusing on environmental issues. The men are treated as acts of God, wiping away civilizations without even realizing that they are doing that. I know that Adams holds that attitude. But I don't like the idea of the rabbits just being rabbits. Adams imbues his rabbits with wholly human characteristics. These rabbits are built around archetypes and, as such, should be treated as one would analyze these archetypes.
It's odd to think of this as a story that is fundamentally locked into fauna. I mean, the movie is a bunch of dudes. While reading, I couldn't help but hear "Hazel" and "Fiver" as female, because of their traditionally female names and heteronormative traits. But there is the whole subplot with freeing the does simply for procreation. (It should be pointed out that I'm actively deciding what I think about the story while writing this. If it doesn't come across as cogent in any real way, there's a reason for that.) Without a doubt, Adams portrays the rabbits of Watership Down as heroic. They free themselves from the blindness of their nation, escaping to a world that respects the individual. But by making them all male and thinking only of procreation, there's something remarkably gross about the whole thing. For rabbits, without consciousness or a moral compass, there's nothing wrong with this narrative. But because each character is rooted in his sentience, there has to be some moral element to the decisions being made throughout the tale. Why does Adams save the does for later in the story? Is their plot point exclusively tied to their gender? Why wouldn't Hazel and Bigwig rescue ensnared rabbits that aren't women? That has to be a stronger link to the moral righteousness of a rescue plan.
Hazel is the Chief Rabbit because he sees the evils and blindness of the previous chief that would lead the rabbits to ruin. Because Hazel has the good sense to listen to Fiver, an ignored and traumatized rabbit, he is able to allow the civilization of the warren to continue in Watership Down. There really isn't much of a moral dilemma for Hazel. Bigwig is another story, but I'm talking about Hazel here. The portrayal of the rescue of the does is seen as a heroic act. But I still don't understand why this moral good couldn't have happened at the first warren. Are the women characters unable to make decisions that would benefit themselves and their families? Stemming out of that, are all of the male rabbits that escaped single and without families? We know what happens to all of those rabbits thanks to Captain Holly's report. They all suffocate and die a horrible death. Hazel's gift of prophesy is correct, but that means that every woman and child in the warren is dead. Isn't that kind of on Hazel and Bigwig? Part of me has to be sympathetic. After all, there isn't so much a formal plan as much as there is just a decision to leave.
But Watership Down thrives because of its use of the villain. I'll go beyond saying "antagonist" because these are characters that are evil through and through. Looking at this external conflict, the rabbits are against society. Fiver literally sees bloody shadows creeping in over the horizon and much of it comes from an unfeeling universe, despite having quite the interactive God in this world. But the two villain characters are really effective. I want to start with Cowslip because I understand Cowslip better. Woundwort is a great, great villain. But Woundwort is also very arch. It's in Cowslip and Woundwort that we get the foundation for things like The Walking Dead. Cowslip isn't the villain in the traditional sense because he is simply a coward. He's the world of The Giver. He wants the status quo to continue because he has managed to navigate the waters that have killed the other rabbits. He is someone who has so embraced his own evil that he has rewritten it as the moral good. He knows that the other rabbits die in his warren, but he continues feeding man because it keeps him out of their crosshairs. Taking that element of "The Devil You Know" makes him scary.
But Wormwort, he's Negan and the Governor. I'm about 200 pages into a 480 page Watership Down, so I haven't really met Wormwort yet. The film doesn't give me much to work with in terms of why Wormwort acts the way he does. But there's the sense of totalitarianism. I can see why literary critics get upset with Richard Adams because Wormwort acts as such a lovely dictator character. Sure, his eye is oozing and he elicits disgust from his physique. But it is his quest for power unquestioned is so absolute that he elevates this story about rabbits leaving their bulldozed home into something else. It's not just about man (the rabbits) v. the elements. It's about the cannibalism of a species. It's knowing that the world could be a better place if the big fish in the small ponds would allow it. That's a haunting thought. The movie stresses that the God of Watership Down made the other creatures hungry for the flesh of rabbits, which is why it seems all that much more toxic that the big threat of the story is another rabbit.
I can't wait to find some time to read. I really want to finish the book. But the movie kept me ready for the progression of the book. I already see that there's a lot more that wasn't included, but the movie does an adequate job hitting the major beats.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.