Friday, 2 September 2011

Sweet bunnies in Watership Down

The recent book of the month for my reading group was Watership Down (published in 1972) by Richard Adams. I only read about 10% of it, so instead watched the 1978 animated film to gain the gist of the story. Turns out I wasn't the only one in the group, so our discussion was as much about the latter as the novel itself.

As far as the book goes, I enjoyed what I read, which covered the exodus of the rabbits from the warren (due to Fiver's prediction of doom) and the early part of their journey. Each short chapter deals with an obstacle or setback in their journey -- such as a river-crossing, or a near escape from a predator. Unusually for me, I rather enjoyed the omniscient viewpoint and dominant voice of the narrator/storyteller.

Watching the DVD was an interesting experience. The last time I watched it I was still in primary school, and the film scared me silly. I have these vivid memories of the vicious general rabbit and his nasty black minions, who chase the good guys through the fields and rip them to shreds when they are caught. My memories of these scenes are so horrific that I felt genuinely reluctant to re-watch the film (and I think it might have led to my not wanting to read the book, as well). Despite knowing logically that my 40-year-old self would not be scared, I was truly apprehensive to relive the experience.

Anyway, I forced myself to watch the movie, and of course it was nowhere near as violent and terrifying as I remembered. But I can definitely see why small children get frightened. The music in particular is very dramatic (in that corny 1970s way).

My adult take on the film is that it's a wee bit dated -- particularly in terms of the animation, which is almost too basic to be believed. And that "Bright Eyes" scene (sung by Art Garfunkle) -- where Fiver goes searching for his brother/leader-rabbit Hazel who's been shot in the leg by a local farmer -- is sooooooo corny.

Anyway, I gather the story of the film is pretty close to that of the book -- certainly the parts I read were. Although after reading the Wikipedia summary of the plot, it seems there are a few minor differences in the second half. This is where, having safely arrived at their new warren on Watership Down, the rabbits realise they have no female rabbits (doh!) and decide to seek some out. It involves initially negotiating (in the book) and then infiltrating a nearby warren (headed up by the evil General Woundwort) to steal away some of their females.

Overall, it's a simple story, so simple that many have gone searching for allegories in order to tease out deeper meaning. Maybe it's a political comment on styles of government -- contrasting the different leadership structure of the four warrens mentioned in the book. Others have identified religious symbolism. But apparently Adams intended none of this, saying it was just a story he made up during long car trips for his daughters.

Thus, at heart, it's a fairly basic and sweet "coming of age" story -- albeit with a fairly comprehensive rabbit mythology (told through folk tales) and vocabulary. My impression is that, despite the evil general and his minions, things happen a little too easily and conveniently for modern sensibilities. The main conflict is big and bold, but it's all too linear and predictable. Sweet bunnies aside, I'm afraid I don't really see what all the fuss is about.

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