Thursday, 6 July 2017

We Don't Go Back #53: Watership Down (1978)

A few months ago, there was this news report about how Channel 5 had gotten a mountain of complaints about having broadcast Watership Down on Easter Sunday, presumably from parents who'd not seen it themselves as kids, or had forgotten it, and who'd sat their adorable moppets in front of what they'd thought was an enchanting fable of bunny life. Crying children ensued. Obviously.

And I greeted this story with some bemusement (and amusement), especially when in a social media conversation, an American friend said something like, "What were they thinking, broadcasting that at a time when kids could see it?" To which my kneejerk response was, but it's a kids' film, it's only ever been broadcast on holiday afternoons since I was a kid, and anyway, the BBFC certified it as a U.

But it's more complicated than that.
I know now. A terrible thing is coming.
Quite apart from the BBFC's idiosyncratic ratings system, European children's media is neither as frightening nor as violent as it was in the 70s and 80s. Series like Running Scared, or Moondial, or the fuzzy felt version of The Moomins, or Timm Tyler, or The Singing Ringing Tree could not be made today. And this doesn't mean that contemporary kids' TV isn't as good, just that the best of it codes different sorts of maturity – I can't think of anything I saw as a kid that is quite as complex, referential or subversive as Horrible Histories, for example. But one thing kids' TV doesn't do anymore, not the way it did thirty, forty years ago, is fear.

But this is also a prime example of how my experience of the media that shaped my childhood – a welter of scary, strange TV and film, informed by The Dark Crystal, Jigsaw, Watership Down – isn't necessarily the experience of everyone of my age. Lots of people of my generation don't recall those things. They remember things like Roland Rat and Strawberry Shortcake and Bananarama and the choice between Black Jacks and Fruit Salads. And it's entirely possible that the people who grew up with those reference points, having kids of their own, might think "oh, it's that cartoon about the bunnies" and sit down pre-schoolers used to Charlie and Lola and Mr Bloom's Nursery in front of Watership Down, traumatising them.
Whenever they catch you, they will kill you.
Watership Down  had a strange genesis. Richard Adams' 1972 novel on which Martin Rosen's animation is based is one of those odd phenomena that happens increasingly less in the publishing world. It's absolutely not a children's book. You only need to open it to see that. In fact, the one genre it comes the closest to falling into is Big Map Fantasy, the post-Tolkien explosion of fat fantasy books about quests with maps in the front, your Thomas Covenants and Shannaras and Derynis, books that weren't marketed at kids, but weren't somehow thought to be the sort of thing "respectable" adults read either. Richard Adams wrote conventional Big Map Fantasy too (the best is Shardik, which is pretty decent as these things go) but Watership Down did something utterly unique: it turned a real area in Southern England into the site of an epic fantastical adventure, by making the imaginative leap that what are a few fields and meadows to us are the site of a momentous quest, beset with dangers, for rabbits.

And that's really clever, because that inspires the reader to think about frequently-trodden landscapes in a different, strange way. But it isn't a children's book. Chapter headings quote Xenophon and Yeats. It's dense, deals with biological necessities, cruelty, violence. It isn't a kids' book.

The film does a good job of getting the main points of the book, and while it is undoubtedly, unlike the book, intended for children, it doesn't hold back. It does not hide the violence of the novel.
He wouldn't come. He told me to stop talking about it.
A rabbit named Fiver, a runt (voiced by Richard Briers), stumbles across a cigarette butt next to a post, newly hammered into the ground, and this triggers a vision, of blood. He convinces his brother Hazel (John Hurt) that something terrible is going to happen. The elders of the warren don't believe them, but nonetheless Hazel decides to follow Fiver's intuition. He gathers a small band of rabbits – brave, tough Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), intelligent Blackberry (Simon Cadell), skittish Pipkin (Roy Kinnear) – who set off by night, escaping what they later discover is an apocalypse of fear and death as the field becomes the site of a redevelopment.
There's a fog on the horizon.
As the rabbits travel, they face all sorts of challenges, stray dogs, badgers, rats, foxes, farm cats, buckshot, and worse. A warren full of complacent, doom-laden rabbits led by a weird rabbit called Cowslip (Denholm Elliot) turns out to be a death trap – a man leaves out carrots for the rabbits, and they eat gratefully, but also the man snares the area, and the rabbits die. One of Hazel's group nearly falls prey.

But Hazel and his friends are exceptional. Fiver's psychic powers protect them again and again; Blackberry is uncommonly intelligent, working out how to cross a river and loose a snare; Bigwig is uncommonly brave and resourceful; Hazel himself is wise and empathic, befriending a wounded seagull named Kehaar (Zero Mostel), who turns out to be instrumental in the group's survival.

Eventually, Hazel's band set themselves up on Watership Down; there they realise that they have no does, and two females rescued from a farmyard hutch might not be enough.
The air turned bad. Runs blocked with dead bodies.
The rabbits have a society, governments, and even a sort of police, the owsla. The pecking order of social animals becomes a class system with its own injustices.  The original warren is complacent, conservative. Cowslip's warren is off-kilter, psychically diseased: the rabbits eat and die and don't talk about the dead; social cues have changed.

And then there's Efrafa. Efrafa is a warren surviving under a sort of militaristic fascism, its owsla run like secret police, its chief General Woundwort (Harry Andrews), an old, bloated tyrant, vicious and grizzled. Hazel and his group infiltrate Efrafa and sncourage a group of rabbits led by free-thinking Hyzenthlay (Hannah Gordon) to join them, but Woundwort will not let them go. The battle, increasingly bloody, takes on a mythic, spiritual quality.

The film Watership Down is as much folk horror as Children of the Stones or Stigma, and as much for its place in time as an artefact of the 70s as for how it portrays the countryside, as a place of violence and supernatural conflict.
My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend has stopped running.
The rabbits are essentially a sort of fair folk, small people who pass down a vibrant pagan mythology. They have gods: creator Frith (voiced by Michael Hordern), trickster/patron El-Ahrairah, and the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is death. Fiver is touched by the supernatural – his premonitions and visions always come true, and it is hinted that Hyzenthlay, too, has the gift. Their world is cruel and unforgiving:
Frith: All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you; but first they must catch you, Digger, Listener, Prince with the Swift Warning. Be cunning, and your people will never be destroyed. 
But their world has meaning, and their meaning infuses a familiar landscape with death and the divine, transforming the mundane into something pagan and bloody. Even Art Garfunkel's song, "Bright Eyes", now a cliché for rabbits on TV, is obviously about the spectre of death, a close companion, and thus for the rabbits, a friend. We see the Black Rabbit fulfilling his role, and the spirit of the dead returning to earth and plant.

Their world has meaning.
Be good, or the General will get you.
My heart has joined the thousand, for my friend stopped running today. 
Watership Down is as good as 70s British animation ever got, deceptively simple, with its distinct and appealing animated characters that blend seamlessly with images of sudden, bloody death. Yes, it's very much of its time, but that isn't because it's dated so much because of the pagan, bloody nature of its peril. Martin Rosen would follow Watership Down with an adaptation of Adams' bleak novel The Plague Dogs in 1982, but he would not direct another film; his only return to animation was an executive producer credit on the 1999 Watership Down TV series. I wonder why.

As for traumatising modern kids, well. I don't know. I showed Watership Down to my own children not long ago. They were bored by it. Win some, lose some, I suppose.

Is it a kind of a shadow, reaching into the night? Wandering over the hills unseen? Or is it a dream? Oh, what can it mean?

What it means is that the Kickstarter campaign for the book version of We Don't Go Back has now hit target. But it still has three whole weeks to go, and I would love to be able to fund those companion volumes I planned in the stretch goals. Seriously, this is the best time to get in there, with deals on multiple volumes and digital versions cheaper and sooner.

Artist Steven Horry (Image Comics' Double D)  has agreed to do spot illustrations and a cover that fits with the Room 207 Press house style, which is very exciting. More on that as events unfold.

4 comments:

  1. So help me, even looking at the stills has me crying. This is wonderful to read, and I am so never watching this movie again.

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  2. Very strange coincidence -- last night I was reading an article in Fortean Times about the deep strangeness and scariness of 70s kids' TV in England; which, like this piece, made a disclaimer that not all kids would probably remember it the same way -- that some kids would remember a 70s full of ABBA, not a 70s full of Penda's Fen and Children of the Stones. Depending on what their brains happened to tune into.

    (The article went on to discuss the musical mini-genre of Hauntology, which it described as being rooted in this particular kind of scary 70s children's world.)

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  3. I'm struggling to think in what context if you listen to the lyrics Bright Eyes could not be about death. I have something in my eye.

    The book is the only talking animal story that I can think of that feels convincingly like the characters are animals. (They're not remotely actual rabbits. But they feel like they are.)

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  4. My kids loved it, in fact they asked to watch it again after one of their own rabbits died. Good article.

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