Watership Down: “Take Me with You, Stream, on Your Dark Journey”

On Film / Essays — Feb 26, 2015
Watership Down

When the British Board of Film Classification gave Watership Down (1978) a U for Universal, it opined that, although it “may move children emotionally during the film’s duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story was broken.” It’s an opinion that has inspired a fair amount of derision over the years, and I understand why. This movie has troubled me ever since I first saw it—and I first saw it at twenty-one.

In most ways, Watership Down is a children’s movie of the classic shape. A group of lovable characters are forced into a perilous journey, come up against a terrifying enemy, win an unexpected ally, and join together for a triumph against all odds. Its tone is earnest and muted, its rhythms gentle, its setting an English countryside of watercolor hedgerows and meadows colored by flute and oboe. There’s violence in it, some blood, some pain, some brief but stabbing suspense. What’s most haunting about it, though, is also what sets it apart from nearly everything of its type: its sweet, sad wisdom about the nature of life in the shadow of death.

That wisdom comes straight from the original novel by Richard Adams. More than any other writer of talking-animal fantasies, Adams was committed to letting his animals be animals, to postulating what their life might feel like if they experienced it through a consciousness comparable to ours. His creatures don’t drive cars like Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad, they’re run over by them and left flat and bloody on the roadside. They then do their best to make sense of these murderous but indifferent hrududil (as cars are called in the “lapine” vocabulary Adams invented) based on what they know of the world, as we humans have always tried to do with our own symbols of death.

Adams’s speculations reached beyond the intellectually amusing and touched on the genuinely profound when he asked what existence must feel like to not only a thumbless, burrowing quadruped but also a prey animal. What myths would we create, what philosophies of reconciliation would we embrace, if we were fitted by evolution or God to be yummy morsels for countless other creatures, able to survive only by running, hiding, and breeding rapidly?

To me, the most impressive thing about Martin Rosen’s adaptation of the book is the fact that he did not sacrifice that essential question. It would have been the easiest and most tempting of elements for a moviemaker to abandon, especially a moviemaker eyeing a “family” market. He could have used death only as a threat to the hero, a resolution for the villain, a tear-jerking mechanism, or a way of raising the plot stakes, as movies typically (cynically, reductively) use it. But he was brave enough to let it be what it was in the novel: a defining element of existence, an ever-present note of melancholy, the sleep that rounds our lives.

Death is an emotional, visual, and philosophical presence in the story from the start. (Here’s where it gets hard to say anything without giving away the plot, but I’ll try to be careful.) The most memorable and unusual character, and the one who does the most to drive the plot forward, is a trembly little rabbit named Fiver, who has visions of “something bad” coming—visions that we see as a flow of dark blood across the green meadow. When he and his friends flee through the wooded night, we follow their journey through the eyes of prey; it’s not just that a badger bursts from the brush to threaten them but that they are grateful to see that it has blood on its lips, proving that it has just killed some other small creature, because otherwise “it would have been faster.” When the group’s only female is taken suddenly by a predator, all the rest can do is move on more quietly.

Their experiences subtly but steadily make us see the commonplaces of our own world as deadly dangers in theirs. That ordinary lump of roadkill in the foreground of the car scene reminds us disturbingly of our protagonists. The farm dog loose in the woods is no red-eyed Baskervillian monster but a goofy, floppy-tongued mutt who could well be the comic hero of some other cartoon. We catch on fast, however, that to our heroes, he represents a quick, bloody death.

And then there’s the movie’s one musical interlude, a central moment in the narrative, when the ghostly image of the Black Rabbit of Death appears in the sky, and Art Garfunkel sings a sweet pop song all about that most terrible of mysteries. “Is it a kind of dream / Floating out on the tide, / Following the river of death downstream? / Oh, is it a dream?”

What keeps all this from being simply depressing—what makes it comforting, even—is the three-minute myth at the very beginning, before the credit sequence, before the first wistful notes of the theme music, a sequence as necessary to the film that follows as it is tonally and aesthetically opposed to it. This seems likely to have been the gift of John Hubley, uncredited on the screen, who was hired to be a key part of the animation department or, possibly, the movie’s director (memories differ on who did what).

Hubley’s roots ran deep into the raucous soil of commercial American slapstick cartoons. He created Mr. Magoo. He also helped set the style (hip, jagged, smart-ass) of popular animation in the 1950s, and in the 1960s he broke out as one of the most idiosyncratic and expansively curious of independent animators. For the film’s opening, old-school funny-animal gags and Australian aboriginal art are pulled together in a telling of Adams’s lapine creation story that still hits with the freshness of a living myth. We laugh, but we also understand why the sun god Frith gave the rabbits “a thousand enemies,” why he made them speedsters and tricksters, why the Black Rabbit of Death is not only to be feared but also to be welcomed.

If it was Hubley’s, then it was one of the best pieces he ever directed—and also the last. Because it was to him that the Black Rabbit came, in the form of a heart attack, soon after he and Rosen parted company over assorted disagreements. Rosen, whose only screen credits until then had been as a producer, ultimately took over the writing and directing. The movie he finished may be somewhat less daring or personal than the one Hubley had helped start, but in many ways, I think it’s stronger for that.

Watership Down delivers all the stuff of a solid animated adventure. Its visual style is naturalistic, even cautious, but often quietly lovely. There’s clever interplay among the nervous Fiver, the gently heroic Hazel, and the blowhard Bigwig, and there’s some genuinely funny comedy involving Zero Mostel’s extravagantly accented seagull. The climactic battle is ingenious and exciting. General Woundwort is one of the truly scary cartoon villains. That solidity gives us a comfortable place to stand while the story opens up to less familiar terrain.

When I first saw the movie, my biggest disappointment was its hasty treatment of Cowslip’s warren, that haven of boundless carrots, empty burrows, and hints of unnamed wrongness that nearly snares our heroes early on. That is one of the best-developed episodes of Adams’s novel, one that leads us deep into an eerie culture of death and gives our heroes’ journey far more meaning, but here most of it was sacrificed to the conventional plot demands of popular cinema. Watching it again, though, I’m grateful that Rosen so clearly understood why losing the sequence entirely would have hurt still more. Although it’s only a brief pause between plot turns, Cowslip’s poem on the “dark journey” and “the silence” is the moment when we realize what this story is ultimately all about.

The Board of Film Classification drew a lot of heat for that U certificate, mostly from parents who learned the hard way that the idea that Watership Down could not trouble a child past the end of the movie was ridiculous. But there’s also something a little ridiculous in the implication that a family movie should aspire to tell a story that children will promptly forget. What is most troubling (and haunting and moving) about this film is that it asks us to spend time with those elements of existence that we will always find most troubling (and haunting and moving), and that we so rarely allow our children’s culture or our own entertainment to dwell on. Because as much as we try to cajole our kids into assisting us in our own denial, as much as we use their fantasy lives as pretexts to create our own neverlands where we can pretend to forget what we know about life and death, the truth is—they know too.

They understand very well what the brief lives of pets, the savage play of dogs and cats, and the meat on the family table signify. They know this whole thing is temporary. They know, and we know, that even the most arrogant, upright, thumb-wielding predators are no mightier than little Fiver and his friends when the Black Rabbit comes.

My wife and I read Watership Down with our son when he was ten, and soon after we finished, we showed him the movie. Twelve years later, he still says it’s his favorite novel, and he still feels the movie does well by it. He admires it most because its makers were “willing to be dark.”

That word dark is used a lot in movie talk, but usually to mean some combination of the self-consciously cynical and the manipulatively cruel. In the fantasy business, it’s worn as a badge of tough-mindedness and sophistication, although usually with that adolescent look-at-me-not-being-childlike pose. Few movies embrace the real dark the way this one does—the dark of night, of dreams, of sorrow and terror and peace. And, of course, it’s against that darkness that the light looks brightest. Which is why the bright moments of Watership Down can be so simple, so understated, and yet so transportive. It’s why the ending—which I won’t reveal but which you’ll know, long before the movie’s over, is inevitable and right—is as joyous as it is poignant.