“Watership Down”: An Adult Animal Story

When I was a child, some of the earliest media I was introduced to were the children’s books written by Beatrix Potter and the 90s animated miniseries which adapted them; later in childhood I was similarly exposed to Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, which felt like a continuation of this calm watercolor world of woodland creatures. The 1978 film adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down seems to me to inhabit the same aesthetic; the fact that it is intended exclusively for adult audiences makes it my favorite iteration within this pastoral British nature fantasy genre. When I was a child I needed the reality of nature as a violent struggle for survival to be sanitized; now I need to confront it. The familiar coziness of the film makes these difficult truths easier to digest. At the time of my writing this, it is perhaps my favorite traditionally animated movie.

This mixture of nursery-rhyme aesthetics and adult subject matter which makes me fond of Watership Down has also been the main obstacle to its popularity. Because people have difficulty imagining adults watching an animated movie about rabbits as entertainment, it’s easier for them to imagine that Watership Down is traumatically violent because it was unsuccessfully attempting to be a children’s film. This public conception of the film is reinforced by the sad fact that many ignorant parents and teachers did introduce it to their children as a children’s film. But this central aesthetic dissonance is not the only obstacle to the movie’s rehabilitation.

Watership Down is a genius concept which runs into trouble in its execution. I have not read the novel, yet I understand the acclaim it’s received: a serious work of literature set firmly in the animal world is the sort of idea so brilliant that it puts to shame every other writer who didn’t do it sooner. Yet watching the film, I am glad I am not reading the book. Adams’ story contains flaws which would be harder to excuse if not for the beauty of the sensory feast which the cinematic medium enables the director (Martin Rosen) and the composer (Angela Morley, a trans woman whose score lends a psychedelic quality to the classical orchestral conventions it works within) to provide.

Watership Down at first seems more realistic than its counterparts. Its rabbits do not wear clothes, animal society is not as intermingled with human society as it is in Wind in the Willows or Fantastic Mr. Fox, nor does it resemble human society as much or soften nature with cute vaudevillian moments a la Disney. Rather, Adams uses his knowledge of warrens to imagine an alien world of rabbit customs, and it is here that the film’s devotion to realistically portraying the natural world must inevitably give way to speculation. That Adams’ imagination is so apparently conservative is a difficult element to contend with for young left-leaning movie lovers like myself trying to enjoy this film. Even if his politics were different, there is an obnoxious arrogance to creating a fantasy which allows one to confirm the human power structures one favors as part of the natural order. Yet I believe it is worthwhile to engage with Adams’ flawed perspective, given those flaws are kept in mind. In this light, Watership Down is an opportunity to, through empathizing with animal consciousness while pondering the movie’s political allegories, recognize ourselves as animals. We still exist within the grand natural struggle to survive, except now that struggle involves solving the problem of social organization. Seen this way, though one need not agree with Adams’ answers, his messy approach of using animals to address politics becomes not merely a valuable part of Watership Down’s genius but a necessary one, because we are interested in the questions he is asking.

Watership Down is an entertaining movie because it is ultimately an adventure story. A group of rabbits leave their community to find a place where they can start their own. The central political narrative in the film is their conflict with the neighboring warren of Efrafa, portrayed as a highly regimented militaristic totalitarian dystopia; thus the central political sentiment of Watership Down is Adams’ fear of the similar authoritarian governments which he saw as gaining prevalence in the modern world. This fear is complicated when one examines the three warrens Efrafa is contrasted with, particularly the warren our heroes live in at the beginning of the film. Our heroes’ original warren shares several of Efrafa’s troublesome features — namely, an intimidating police force deriving authority from a stubborn corrupt aging leader — yet is portrayed as preferable to Efrafa because it is slightly less strict. This implication that oppressive hierarchies of this sort repeatedly develop within nature, automatically and independently of one another, indicates Adams may be as attracted to the aesthetics of authoritarianism as he is repelled. Considering his service in the British military during World War II, this perspective makes sense: in Adams’ mind, the problem is not the structures of authority themselves, but whether or not those in authority have good values. This explains how Watership Down can use the rabbit dystopia of Efrafa as a vessel for moderate-right fears of Nazis and Soviets while simultaneously aesthetically celebrating (especially when the score makes use of regal brassy melodies) the noble glory of the ideal “good kingdom.”

What Watership Down sees as the defining difference between a good state and a bad state is established in its central narrative of the new warren’s creation. The central protagonist, Hazel, is shown as an example of a good leader. He is appointed to this position for his intelligence, yet this is not the only reason. The second most important figure in the new warren is Fiver, characterized by the shamanic role he holds in the warren as a result of his mystic instincts. Hazel is the only leader who respects Fiver’s gift; I believe this represents a quality within Hazel central to Adams’ conception of the good state: valuing spirituality.

This becomes more clear when one considers one of the warrens used in the film as a negative example. “We have plenty of empty burrows, if that’s what you need,” says the rabbit Cowslip when he invites our heroes to his warren; this is a beautiful first hint that there is something wrong. Eventually it is revealed that a farmer is leaving food for the warren so that he may trap the rabbits, and the atmosphere of this segment of the story appropriately reflects this idea of subtle, deceptive danger in contrast to the more overt threats the rabbits face in the film. More interesting, though, is how this warren seems to represent how a moderate religious conservative like Adams might view the modern liberal world’s abandonment of religious tradition. In Watership Down, the rabbits have their own a rabbit religion; when this comes up in conversation, Cowslip scoffs at the traditional myths as fairy tales, favoring instead a system of belief more akin to rabbit nihilism. To leave the path of higher meaning belief provides is to become lost and trapped by material seductions.

I am drawn to the rabbit religion of Watership Down because it seems like a perfect synthesis of my parents’ Abrahamic monotheism and my Paganism; the way the rabbits talk about their God feels Abrahamic to me, yet as in Paganism, the religion is centered around earth and nature, in which death is accepted as part of the cycle of life. Whenever a rabbit dies, all the nearby rabbits mutter a solemn prayer: “My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today.” To be honest, I am a sucker for this kind of playful world-building. Yes, there are elements of Watership Down which disagree with me, namely its misogyny: the only reason our heroes need rabbits of the opposite sex in their warren is to mate, and while this may be how animals view each other, it’s unsettling to see gender treated so crudely while religion and politics are so anthropomorphized. Though the agency given to the character Hyzenthlay (the leader of the revolutionary movement within the dystopian warren) reduces some of the damage, it’s frustrating that Adams’ patriarchal perspective prevented him from telling the same story with the genders swapped, which would have been more scientifically accurate since rabbits are matriarchal. As frustrated as I am with Adams’ belief that nature is as regressive as he is (when the opposite is usually true), I’ve realized that the perspective of Watership Down doesn’t bother me because it feels like a common ground between my world and my parents’ world. People like Adams cling to tradition because they have a desire for spiritual meaning, and I relate to that desire for spiritual meaning even if I don’t agree with the tradition they derive meaning from. I hope that if stories like this are a bridge, that the bridge will work both ways.

Cinema is the church of the future. New film analysis essays every Sunday.

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