Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen.
The Source Material
Richard Adams’ first novel, Watership Down, was published in 1972 in the U.K. The novel tells the story of a group of young male rabbits trying to find a new home after Fiver, a rabbit with extrasensory abilities, has a vision that they will all die if they stay put. The rabbits, led by Fiver’s older brother Hazel, traverse the fields of southern England trying to find a new place to settle down and start a warren. They must use courage, wits, and teamwork in order to survive the harsh reality of a prey animal.
The novel is based on the behaviors of real rabbits, though the animals can communicate via a unique language called Lapine. They also have a religion based around a series of myths involving Prince El-Ahrairah, the sun god Lord Frith, and the bunny grim reaper, the Black Rabbit of Inle.
The rabbits of Watership Down deal with themes of community, tyranny, environmentalism, mortality, and ethics. Each character is unique and has individual flaws and strengths, making the story easier to relate to. Their ordeal of finding a new home is an epic in the tradition of works like Homer’s Odyssey, in which the characters must behave heroically in order to complete their goals.
The novel is one that can be re-read numerous times, as the details of Lapine, the El-Ahrairah myths, and the culture of the rabbits is so well-developed.
Watership Down was made into an animated film of the same name, released in October 1978. The film follows the plot of the book fairly closely, detailing the travels of Hazel and company as they try to find a new home in the fields of Watership Down. The characters remain largely the same, though a handful of secondary characters are not mentioned by name or are removed altogether.
Featuring the voice talents of John Hurt, Roy Kinnear, Zero Mostel, Simon Cadel, and Nigel Hawthorne, Watership Down was a box office success. The film also features a song by Art Garfunkel, “Bright Eyes”, which became a hit single.
The film is rated PG for violence and language. The rating has been a source of controversy for years, as many parents believe the film is far too violent for children.
A Criterion edition of the film was released in 2015 with new interviews, featurettes, and a companion booklet. In an interview with director Guillermo Del Toro, the Hellboy and Pacific Rim director details what really impressed him in Watership Down:
“What was really powerful for me… it was not trying to just mirror sociopolitical concerns, it was creating a world with sociopolitical concerns.”
The film adaptation manages to touch on most of the important parts of the novel, and the characterizations of Hazel, Bigwig, General Woundwort, and the other rabbits are on point. The female rabbits, or does, are very minor in the novel, and are almost non-existent in the film. One of the rabbits in Efrafra, run by the tyrannical Woundwort, dies in the film but survives in the book. What few changes there are to the story are mostly for pacing. A few content changes were made to keep the film from being even more disturbing, such as the treatment of does in Efrafra and a side-story about a whole warren of does and baby bunnies being gassed to death by farmers.
In the novel, the rabbits often tell stories to one another about El-Ahrairah and his adventures before their time. He is a folk hero whose past stories of bravery and cunning helps them to continue on their often-perilous journey. These stories are absent from the film adaptation, removing the novel’s commitment to mythology and legend.
Watership Down has a lot working for it as a novel because it allows readers to learn Lapine through context clues, provides legends and history that shape the culture of the rabbits, and details the characters thoroughly. The film adaptation is still great, with a beautiful score, impressive animation for the time, and talented voice actors.
What separates the novel from the film is depth. The film adaptation, at 92 minutes, doesn’t allow viewers to get the same level of immersion in the world Richard Adams created. The film serves as a good starting point and introduction to the story and the characters, but the book provides a more rewarding experience.