I first read Watership Down when I was fourteen years old. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, and I read it while away from home for two weeks at cello camp. I’ve read Watership Down at least once every two years since then. I’m thirty-one now. Do the math.
To say I know the story of Watership Down is an understatement. I love the story. I live and breathe the story. I think about those rabbits more often than is probably healthy. The rabbits of Watership Down are very real to me. I grew up with those rabbits. I’ve loved each and every one of those rabbits for over half of my life. I sometimes speak Lapine, the rabbit language Richard Adams created for the book, in my everyday life.
It sounds crazy, I know, to talk about fictional rabbits as if they are meaningful, and yet, I know I’m not alone. Because when I pass by someone at the story, and I notice El-ahrairah tattooed on their arm, and I stop and say, “Is that a Watership Down tattoo?” something changes between us. It’s like finding a sister in a sea of strangers. It’s like magic that I can’t get anywhere else.
I’m not part of the Marvel/DC fandom. I don’t care about Star Wars or Star Trek. I love Jane Austen and Harry Potter, but their reach is too vast. Too many people claim that same love. It doesn’t feel as special.
Watership Down, though. Watership Down is special.
So, it was with great trepidation that I finally decided to watch the mini-series. I’ve seen the film from the 1970’s, a couple times in fact, and I have all the same complaints that everyone has. It tells the story, but it doesn’t capture the heart and soul of the novel. I thought the mini-series would do better.
Actually, when the mini-series was first announced, I was excited. I really looked forward to seeing what BBC and Netflix could pull off. Then, as the release date got closer, I started feeling that anxiety in the pit of my stomach that there was no way it could match the magic of the book.
And I was right. It didn’t.
Let’s start with things the mini-series did well.
The opening tells the story of how Frith (God) bestowed his gifts on El-ahrairah, and it sets the tone beautifully for the entire story.
The closing scene, when Hazel sits next to the Black Rabbit of Inlé and watches Bluebell begin the story of Hazelrah’s adventures to Watership Down is perfect, and here’s why. Bluebell begins his story with the opening lines of the book, Watership Down. Well done. Readers will recognize the line about the primroses. It’s meaningful to them.
General Woundwort, the villain, the emotionless rabbit leader of the enemy warren, Efrafa, was portrayed exactly how I imagined him. Our first view of him, at the closing scene of episode one, sent shivers down my spine. Woundwort is, in my opinion, one of the best villains ever written. He has his reasons, he has his methods, he truly believes in his cause, and he is relentless in getting his way. He is terrifying, and he’s a rabbit! The mini-series did an excellent job of making Woundwort come to life in all the most terrifying ways.
The portrayal of humans as destroyers of the natural world is one of the major themes of the book, and one the mini-series took very seriously. Humans are the cause of most of the rabbits’ hardships, and their desire to get away from the humans is the driving force that leads them to Watership Down in the first place. That was well done.
However, no matter what they did right, they did far more wrong. To the point where it took away from the story.
My biggest complaint was the loss of all the folklore! I get it, I get it, they only have so much time to work with, but please, to lose those cutaway scenes of the Prince with a Thousand Enemies and his leading his rabbits on all those wonderful tricks? That was hard to bear.
At one point, one of the Watership Down rabbits accuses an Efrafan of “lacking animality.” Essentially, the offending rabbit was acting too human. Humans kill and destroy and not to feed themselves like the elil, but simply for fun and pleasure. However, I would suggest that none of the rabbits in the mini-series had proper animality. Too many human thoughts, feelings, emotions were given to these creatures. To the point where, it almost felt like the story would have been better told if they had just simply changed all the rabbits into humans and adapted it somehow. The love stories between some of the rabbits were annoying, the petty rivalry between Hawkbit and Dandelion, which was supposed to be funny just irritated me. I could have done without most of the silliness that got added in to make the rabbits more human, and therefore, I suspect, easier to empathize with. But I didn’t need help empathizing with the rabbits. I’ve read the book. I already love them.
The characters were all mixed up. Bluebell was some strange mixture of Pipkin (who got completely written out of the mini-series) and Dandelion which dropped Dandelion down to annoyingly chatty guy, instead of brilliant storyteller who also runs very fast. Hazel’s self-doubt and constant need of reassurance from Fiver was overdone. Fiver’s reluctance to use his powers of Sight felt like an unnecessary obstacle in a world already filled with obstacles. Kehaar, the seagull, was so temperamental, he never had a chance to form a bond with any of the rabbits, which defeats the purpose of his most crucial scene. Clover had an extraordinarily large role to play, which I will touch on later. And then we come to Hyzenthlay, Bigwig, and Holly.
Bigwig was done a complete disservice in the mini-series. In the book, he starts off as an Owsla bully, but he grows so much and so quickly. He is a loyal soldier to the end. He lays his life on the line multiple times for his Chief Rabbit and he does it without a second thought. In the book, Bigwig shows intense fear when faced with the prospect of going into Efrafa to free the does, and when he is there, he’s almost completely overwhelmed with the enormity of this task. In the book, Bigwig develops an intense friendship with Kaheer, the seagull. But in the mini-series, he’s simply a bully who constantly undermines Hazel’s decisions and seems completely unfazed about the idea of entering Efrafa, and seems more angry than fearful while he’s there.
Which brings me to Hyzenthlay, the doe who befriends Bigwig while in Efrafa and helps him form a plot to escape with the rest of the does. In the book, Hyzenthlay may seem like an unimportant character, but she is the voice of calm, feminine wisdom. And she is so clever. When asked why her opinion should not matter in Efrafa, she simply responds, “I’m a doe.” What a kicker for 1970’s feminism! Hyzenthlay is a feminist in rabbit form! She knows she’s smarter than half the bucks she has to deal with, and she plays that system to her advantage. And she never breaks under Efrafan rule. Never. I love Hyzenthlay. I want to be Hyzenthlay! But the mini-series messed up her story. She never really befriends Bigwig, instead she befriends Holly, who becomes her great love interest (more on that later). She never has a chance to show her wits and her cunning and her never ending defiance. Instead she’s a sweet pretty rabbit, who rose up against Efrafa, failed, and was broken by the Owsla. In fact, her escape from Efrafa was more to do with Bigwig trying to do Holly a favor than any of her own actual cunning, with the exception of one scene when she tricks another rabbit into spreading false information. But it wasn’t enough.
In fact, Clover, the hutch rabbit Hazel frees from a nearby farm, became more of the book-Hyzenthlay than the mini-series Hyzenthlay. She was the one who rallied the does inside Efrafa, she was on the one who plotted the escape with Bigwig. She was the one who kept everyone’s spirits up when all hope was lost. But in the book, she’s just supposed to be a dull hutch rabbit who has a few babies. And while I admire the executives for wanting to give the female rabbits a larger role, and in general to give females in film everywhere a larger role, I was disappointed with how much of the story they changed for what felt like an unnecessary concession to women everywhere. I would rather have had the story told correctly.
Finally, Hyzenthlay’s romance with Captain Holly. In the Watership Down sequel, Tales from Watership Down, Richard Adams writes that Hyzenthlay ends up mating with Hazel, and becomes almost an equal ruler to him in running the warren. Co-chief rabbis, and proof that Hyzenthlay is every bit as wise and strong as I mentioned in my previous point. However, this is one instance where I disagree with the author. In my heart, I see Hyzenthlay as mating with Bigwig. I think his hot-heatedness, his fierceness, that fighter instinct in his heart would be perfectly balanced by her gentle femininity, and her wisdom, and her soft-spokeness. And the time they shared in Efrafa would have solidified a bond that no other rabbit could have come between. Except, the mini-series changed the story of their time in Efrafa so much that a match between Bigwig and Hyzenthlay would have been preposterous. So they matched her with Holly, and in truth, Holly in the mini-series was more like Bigwig from the book than even Bigwig was. So much so that I was actually thrilled to see that the produces matched Hyzenthlay with her rightful match. Except, it was the wrong rabbit, except it was the right rabbit, so on so forth.
Essentially, the mark of a good book to film adaptation isn’t necessarily whether the film matches the book word for word, scene by scene, but rather whether the film can capture the true essense of the book. And in that sense, I feel like the mini-series was close, closer than the movie from 1978, but it still wasn’t exactly right. Not because it took away the rabbit’s folklore, not because it changed too much of the story, not even because I didn’t get to hear some of my absolute favorite lines, “Siflay hraka u embleer rah!” but because I didn’t feel for the rabbits in the mini-series like I felt for the rabbits in the book.
Which makes me wonder, can any film adaption do what books can do? Maybe they can’t. Maybe it takes the many hours of emersion in a story that comes from reading it to truly love a book.
My parting thoughts: If you haven’t read Watership Down, you absolutely should.