'Watership Down' Is a World of Rabbits in Darkness

Like all great films based on great literature, Watership Down does a fine job of not replacing, but rather complementing the source material.

Watership Down

Director: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (Uncredited)
Cast: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Simon Cadell, Harry Andrews, Zero Mostel
Length: 101 minutes
Studio: Nepenthe Productions
Year: 1978
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
MPAA Rating: PG
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2015-02-24

Watership Down tells the tale of a very dark journey. Although this is an animated film featuring cute rabbits as the main characters, this is far from a children’s movie, and considering the violence and horror to be found in this film, it is rather surprising that the MPAA passed it with a PG rating. This is not your standard Disney fare, but rather a terrifying and bloody action/adventure movie more akin to Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings than Bambi. If the original poster featuring a rabbit strangling to death on a trap isn’t enough to warn people “Don’t bring your kids!” I’m not sure what would have been sufficient.

The extras on the 2015 Criterion Collection DVD release prove that the making of the film Watership Down (1978), though certainly a labor of love, was in itself a dark journey. Producer and writer Martin Rosen, an American, fell deeply in love with the brilliant novel Watership Down (1972) and set about making the film version in England. With little support from the genius author of the novel, Richard Adams, Rosen brought together an amazing team of background artists and animators, flew over and filmed the very grounds that the story takes place on (and in). When the veteran star director John Hubley was hired, everything seemed to be blessed for the crew… until Hubley died on the job. This left Rosen, who had never directed before, to take the helm.

Magically, the experiment was a success. The unenviable task of “condensing” Adams’ incredible novel (it must be read to be believed) into something that would fit into a 101 minute motion picture is somehow managed skillfully by Rosen. Purists will certainly point out all that had to be excised from the story to adapt it into a motion picture. That said, this is a much more accurate adaptation than we get from most films with literary bases.

This story of Fiver (Richard Briers), the sensitive psychic runt of his litter, comes to life as his precognitive nightmares cause his brother Hazel (John Hurt) to lead an exodus from their warren to seek (literally) greener pastures. The truth behind Fiver’s visions proves to be as deadly as he fears, and the road that the running rabbits take is far from simple or easy. Facing predators, dangerous terrain, treachery, and the interference (and guns) of men, the Rabbits have it bad enough. But when the main villain, a monstrous and warlike warren leader named General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) presents himself, the story takes an even darker turn.

Hubley’s contributions are mostly seen in the opening, in which the mythology of the Lapine culture is laid out. This surreal sequence is at once minimalist (most of it takes place over a white background) and complex (the animals seen in this fable are ornate, tribal and other-worldly) as it introduces the deity Frith, the Black Rabbit (the embodiment of death who acts as both friend and foe) and the rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah (the prince with a thousand enemies).

Rosen’s Watership Down is a treat for the eyes. The painted backgrounds are lush and captivating, showing an incredible use of light and shadow. The rabbits themselves are realistic, modeled not upon humans (like Bugs Bunny or Roger Rabbit, for example), but live rabbits brought into the studio for copying. Sure they speak in human voices here, but this is only for the audience’s benefit. It is made clear that each creature has its own language and dialect and not every animal communicates the same. The natural movements of the characters benefit the realism of the overall work. When things get dark, the characterizations stay the same, but the backgrounds turn to a much more jagged and terrifying bleakness.

Dark, this film most certainly is, but Watership Down is hardly dark for darkness' sake. Rosen works hard to keep the voice of Adams as this film progresses through the tale. In place of much of the folklore that Adams created, Rosen inserts more graphic visions of Fiver and other surreal sequences. To an extent, this substitution is to the detriment (though not quite “downfall”) of this fine film. In some cases, plot points fizzle or are forgotten in favor of the main story. In others, comic relief is used to fill the gaps in an otherwise scary story.

To this end the gull Kehaar, who is treated as a capable foreigner in the novel, becomes a more comic character as voiced by Zero Mostel (in his final film appearance). That said, Rosen is careful never to allow Kehaar to cross the line between comedy and buffoonery. Similarly, the Art Garfunkel song “Bright Eyes” may seem, at first glance, to be somehow shoehorned into the plot to grant a hit song and, perhaps, appeal to a wider audience. However, this song is used sparingly in a strange fade-in/ fade-out way to accentuate one of Fiver’s most grueling quests. Noting that the lyrics are far from jovial (and are, in fact, about death), one can understand the choice, especially during this part of the film.

This Criterion Collection release is worthy of the film Watership Down and the name “Criterion” in most ways. With a film historian commentary, trailer, and documentaries (old and new) to back up this excellent film, one can truly say that the disc is worth owning. The recollections of the animators (from a 2005 documentary) are almost as engaging as the new 2014 interview with Rosen himself, during which he outlines the dark journey he endured to make this unique and engaging movie.

That said, if ever there was a film from Criterion that deserved an international audience, Watership Down is it. However, the audio track is the original English only. This could certainly be forgiven if there were subtitles in any language but English. There are none, not even Spanish, and for a 2015 DVD release from Criterion, this is a shocking omission.

Nevertheless, for American and British audiences, Watership Down still pleases. The film has never looked or sounded better than it does today thanks to Criterion. While the mostly wonderful film does suffer from a few omissions of its own, the tale is beautifully and completely told with an enticing beginning, exciting middle and satisfying end. Like all great films based on great literature, Watership Down does a fine job of not replacing, but rather complementing the source material and inviting its viewers to read (or re-read) the novel. Whether seeing the movie, reading the book or both, you will not regret the experience.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.