Watership Down is an animated film about one group of rabbits who struggle against the impossible odds that nature allows animals residing at the base of an aggressive food chain. It started life as a bedtime story for the children of its author, British WWII veteran Richard Adams, whose kids badgered him to write a book that eventually sold 50 million copies.
Following a small group of rabbits who flee their warren for greener pastures, the protagonists encounter some adventure and a great deal of death. The dangers they face come from humans who are oblivious to the destruction they cause, predators that require rabbits to survive, and other rabbits who fight desperately over precious land. The film is faithful to the book and the animation is handsomely done, the voice acting superb (including the great John Hurt as the dependable Hazel and the intimidating Harry Andrews as General Woundwort), and the pacing is brisk with not a moment wasted. It earns its place in our Films Tat Will Not Patronize Your Child series for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there are no wiseass characters here. The rabbits all speak, but they speak and behave in ways that are meant to mimic actual rabbit behavior (the author studied The Private Life of the Rabbit for this background). Fear, suspicion, and aggression are shown in natural ways that have frequently tragic consequences. Most animals in nature have an intuitive sense of approaching danger. One rabbit in the movie convinces a group to evacuate their home when one of them senses that the humans who were erecting a sign next to the warren were planning to destroy it.
Secondly and crucially, death is shown to be a way of life. Virtually anything that can be said about death has been said before, so it is curious how such a subject is stridently avoided with children. In a film for kids, characters may disappear or even die, but such events are rare, momentous, and brimming with meaning. In Watership Down, death is common, random, and brutally painful. The Black Rabbit of Death is less a deity than a constant companion to the rabbits who journey towards Watership Down. This is a lesson that is essential, particularly in an entitled culture where people never learn to deal with their own mortality, let alone their utter insignificance. Furthermore, animals tear each other to pieces. Bunnies may be cute, but those claws are not only for digging. Nature’s beauty is equaled only by its severity. Rats, cats, dogs, foxes, and rabbits are creatures who survive by killing – Watership Down does not dance around this issue, nor flinch and look away as a rabbit has its throat torn open pointlessly during a turf war.
The film’s moral tone emerges as comfort and sloth are ridiculed. During their journey, the rabbits find a warren filled with large rabbits that seemed both comfortable and fearful – they dined extravagantly on roots thrown out by a farmer, but are anything but happy. They dared not speak of the vast empty rooms or of missing friends, and were content to not move to a new home. It turns out the farmer was snaring the entire field, and the rabbits there decided to settle for a cushy life, expected death, and did nothing to avoid it. By consciously losing their will to survive, and accepting their circumstances, they became fatalistic and ultimately, unnatural. Struggling for survival, as well as adversity of any kind, serves to sharpen one’s skills – rabbits and humans alike may lose this at their peril.
The episodes of the film are ripe with allegory. The rival warren of Efrafa is clearly a reflection of the author’s experience in the war. This large warren is run by General Woundwort as a fascist utopia, with tight control of the rabbit population, movement, and breeding. Living in Efrafa has its advantages: it is well defended, hidden from human eyes, and its denizens are guaranteed safety and security. It is, however, devoid of freedom and hence there is no need for survival skills for those not in the elite class. Western society may shun the concept of fascism, but we are surrounded by people quite willing to exchange their freedom for security. Hence, the idea of wilfully living under fascist conditions will always remain a relevant concept.
Bravely for a book written in 1972, religion and nature are presented as being interchangeable. Now, I am not about to defend any religion or the existence of god in any form, but I like to see a new approach to old ideas. Religions are dogmatic and regimented, and abhor potential competitors. For this reason, nature and the natural sciences are vilified solely because they are based on information not taken from the bible or any other Church-approved text. Watership Down begins with a trippy, animated version of Genesis, as seen from a rabbit’s point of view. As expected, the rabbit is the favored creation of god (Frith) in a world populated by herbivores. With time, the rabbits multiply wildly, eating all the grass as they go. The other animals appeal to Frith, who admonishes the rabbits for being so greedy. Frith blesses the other animals with gifts particular to their species, making them all different, giving them a niche to exploit. For some of the animals, the gift is the claw and canine tooth, the tools of a carnivore. These predators run the land red with the blood of rabbits, which lack any adaptation to protect themselves in this Eden-turned-abattoir. Frith then blesses the rabbits with powerful legs and acute senses, the adaptive response to the threat of quick predators. Frith’s parting message to the rabbits resonates for all in the animal kingdom: “Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.” This tale of how the world began, and why rabbits and predators exist, are interchangeable as both a passage from the bible or a children’s version of evolutionary theory. Richard Adams is not a religious man, but he was loathe to slam the door entirely on the concept of god in favor of nature. He always had a deep love of the natural world and its systems, but understood that being pedantic would not be helpful in compelling people to feel a connection with nature. After all, people who are delusional enough to believe the earth is a few thousand years old are unlikely to attempt to understand scientific theory. Consider this fusion a way to coax those brought up in a strict religious tradition back to the land of reason. While this attempt by Adams to meld spiritual and physical philosophies is certainly not the final word on how to bridge the immense chasm between people of delusional faith and people of practical reality, it remains an engaging attempt.
There is a serious question afoot as to whether a god exists at all. The chief of the Watership Down rabbits utters a prayer to Frith, for protection of his people, and offers his life as a sacrifice. The response by Frith, as he imagines it, is the voice anyone hears when praying: “Whatever is, is what must be.” This indifference by an all-powerful god seriously calls into question whether there is any point in recognizing the existence of god at all. This prepares the mind of a child for a healthy discussion as to why people even believe in such things in the first place.
A continuation of this challenging, forthright stance means that nightmares are confronted head-on. Watership Down has no shortage of macabre imagery, and this is the stuff of which children’s dreams are made. The life of a child is filled with uncertainty, dread of the future or unknown, and trepidation about their own powerlessness. As they grow, progress through their education, and empower themselves through experiences that will leave them scarred but determined, these nightmares will recede somewhat. Until then, there is no choice but to confront those fears and understand them. One of the most frightening shots is of the hateful gaze of General Woundwort as he invades the Watership Down warren to slaughter every rabbit within it. Immediately after he opens the throat of one rabbit, he advances upon the rest, his mouth glistening with foam, a demonic vision. The response by these rabbits is to not only attack Woundwort, but run right over him, because fear is not a useful emotion. Bigwig, the rabbit who charges to a painful death without hesitation, notes to Woundwort “I told you once I was trying to impress you… I hope I have.”
Watership Down, in both written and cinematic form, is a mature work that retains its universal appeal decades after it first captured the world’s imagination. Most entertainment aimed at children is fairly simple and bloodless, as if the children themselves are kept in hermetically sealed chambers devoid of risk or chaos. The blood courses very close to the surface in this story, which is by design as messy and complex as any natural system. As a way to introduce children to adult concepts like the natural world, evolutionary theory, the concept of survival, political competition, and above all the lingering promise of death in a world filled with death, it is a work without peer.