When I read that there's a new film adaptation of Watership Down coming out soon, my first thought was 'why?' I’d seen the 1978 animated film and it’s magnificent.
Well, the makers at the BBC and Netflix have insisted that their version won't be as grim and harrowingly violent as the original. And anyone who has seen the 1978 version of Richard Adams’ classic novel will know that it is quite grim and extremely violent. I sometimes wonder how many people- unacquainted with the novel- went into that film thinking, ‘Ooh! A movie about bunnies!’ What they walked away thinking is anyone’s guess…
Watership Down is a complex and deep story told simply. In it, we encounter the world of a group of rabbits living in the English countryside. We are introduced to their language and their rich mythology and culture.
We meet Fiver, a seer, who has an apocalyptic vision of destruction and blood.
Sure enough, soon their warren is wiped out by human developers and Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, and the rest of the group begin a journey in search of another.
It’s a story of survival, violence, power struggles, faith, tradition, strange visions, and the place of death in the midst of life.
The film is animated with simple line drawings and watercolours, looking at times fantastic and at others quite realistic, reinforcing the impression that we’re in the rabbits’ world and are seeing things from their cultural perspective entirely.
Their life is rich, but also dangerous, dark, and difficult.
Some analysis has seen the plot of the book and film, with its epic journey and hope for a hero, nodding to Homer's Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid; I also see echoes of the history and current reality of indigenous peoples- lives and cultures that are rich and detailed, but difficult and precarious at the best of times, now compounded by the arrival of unstoppable and destructive forces, incapable of communication with them and utterly uncaring, simply destroying the original way of life to suit their own.
Whatever it is, it’s not just a ‘movie about bunnies’…
Beyond thinking that a re-make is unnecessary, when I read the announcement that this version will be considerably less violent, again, I immediately thought, 'why?'
Look, I agree that the original can be very hard going, it’s not for everyone, and even though I firmly believe it is suitable for children, I think parents should be cautious about showing it to their kids.
But that said, I think the grim and violent aspects absolutely need to be there, as much as the hope and humour need to be there.
The interesting thing is, my parents didn’t ‘allow’ me to see it; I stumbled across it on TV. I wonder how many kids like me encountered Watership Down in the same way. Because even though it has undoubtedly haunted me and a whole generation of kids who also stumbled across it on TV, I don't think that's a bad thing.
It’s actually a great way to discover things. Kids need to ‘stumble upon’ something like Watership Down, and I think we that did are the better for it.
Discovering- ‘stumbling upon’- something all on your own, something complex and just slightly above or below where you are at the moment, is tremendously important to a young person’s development as an individual.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not talking about things that are illegal, harmful, or clearly intended for adults.
But Watership Down- as it was written, and as it was filmed- is for children. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) gave it a ‘U’ certificate, blood, guts, gore, and all…
Parents, teachers, and clergy can all try to tell us that life is sometimes difficult, unfair, and filled with as much despair as there is joy, but there’s nothing like stumbling onto a film like Watership Down all on your own, a parable with all those elements in it in spades, to spark those thoughts in a young mind.
Trying to sanitize it, make it more palatable, less jarring, and you do the work and its intended young audience a disservice.
In the biblical text St. Paul exhorts his readers:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever things are of good report; think on these things.
Not everything that is true is lovely;
Not everything that is honest is necessarily fun to think about;
Not everything that is pure is good for you;
Not everything of good report is pleasant.
Looked at through this theological ‘lens’, Watership Down is true, and the themes it deals with are ‘true’. Rendering it innocuous makes it just that little bit less true.
So, personally, I would never- ever- consciously show the 1978 Watership Down to my 13 year-old daughter; she is far too sensitive to the pain of living things…
… but neither do I want her to see a sanitized version. I’d rather she missed out on it entirely.
If she ever does see it, I want her to ‘stumble’ across it, like many of us did.
I want it to be a revelation;
Not entirely understood, perhaps not entirely enjoyed;
Demanding complex thought and self-reflection.
She will know a small bit more about truth, honesty, justice, and purity…
And I think she'll hold it closer for having ‘stumbled upon’ it…