Author’s note: Thanks to Curtis Weyant for suggesting the title via Twitter, and thanks to Facebook friends Dominic Nardi and George Naylor for chatting about Watership Down with me and inspiring this post. For anyone who has not read or seen Watership Down, there will probably be spoilers, so fair warning.
First, a little background. I just re-watched the 1978 animated film adaptation of Watership Down, Richard Adams’ 1972 novel, in preparation for the final session of the Mythgard Academy’s course on the book which focuses on the film adaptation. As the title of Professor Corey Olsen’s lecture (“Wherein its Badness Consists”) suggests, Dr. Olsen is not overly fond of this film. The phrase “wherein its badness consists” comes from C.S. Lewis’ classic work of literary theory An Experiment in Criticism, and refers to the bad habit some critics have of ripping a piece of art to shreds without taking the time to understand what it is that they’re objecting to. Both Lewis and Olsen’s plea is for book readers and film-goers alike to put serious thought into what a particular work is trying to do and then whether or not it achieves it. I was eager to listen to this particular lecture, as I, too, am not overly fond of this particular adaptation, having seen it twice before, albeit many years ago.
But why not? After all, Watership Down is absolutely one of my favorite stories of all time. I first read it at the age of twelve, and while I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it there were certainly many years where I read it at least once a year. My original paperback copy is so worn that the edges of the pages are smoothed and rounded over. I love this story. So why don’t I love the film? After all, it’s regarded by many as a classic of its time, so it cannot easily be dismissed on the grounds of poor quality of film making. It was commercially and critically successful in its day and maintains an 81% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (86% with the audience). More than that, it actually achieves that rare adaptation thing of, you know, sticking rather closely to the book. From both a cinematic and a literary perspective, I should love this movie. I wanted to figure out for myself why I don’t. So I re-watched the movie (having re-read the book in the past few months) and am writing this before listening to Dr. Olsen’s discussion.
What I’m starting to conclude is that there are at least two schools of thought when it comes to adaptations of books into films. There are, surely, many more schools than two and many blurred lines, but for the sake of argument I’m going to focus on this one particular distinction. I think you could make the argument that which one of these schools you belong to determines what kind of expectations you, as a reader, bring to a film adaptation and will therefore largely determine your reaction to it. I should mention that I think these are largely aesthetic preferences, and not a case of right vs. wrong, so I don’t mean any disrespect to either school of thought. I can’t pretend I don’t have a preference myself, or that I don’t find it superior, but you could just as easily make a convincing argument for the opposing side.
For the first school, the analogy that sprang to mind is “paint by numbers.” In this school, the filmmaker and film consumer want the extended movie trailer for the book. The goal is faithful and accurate representation of events, and the cardinal sin is what many angry fans call “deviation.” Although in many things I find myself sympathetic with Hobbits, I can’t help but be reminded of Tolkien’s description of the kind of detailed genealogical books that they like:
…they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions.
Admittedly this quote is taken out of context, but I think this is a fair summary of what these kinds of readers want: A film which walks them through the events of the book with accuracy and respectfulness, telling them what they already know. While superior in textual faithfulness, these adaptations can sometimes be rather dull and uninspired. Watership Down belongs to this school (more on that in a moment), but some other examples that spring to mind are Ender’s Game and the first two Harry Potter films.
The other school essentially prioritizes the film experience over accurate faithfulness to the source material. Adherents of this school are willing to jettison book accuracy in favor of doing something more interesting on screen. For these, the cardinal sin is making a boring movie. Though this line of thought can easily be abused (see infamous “WTF?” adaptations such as Starship Troopers and Troy which share little in common with their source apart from their titles), when done well it can result in the rare movie that is better than the book it came from: The Shining, The Last of the Mohicans, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Adaptation. This is certainly the riskier path to take, and often ends up with book fans and book authors up in arms. (Steven King, for instance, still hasn’t forgiven Stanley Kubrick). Though creative and exciting, these adaptations can sometimes become outright disrespectful and violent to the original source.
To be completely fair, these schools are not entirely contradictory. There are those few, wonderful films which seem to do both at once, to be both faithful and interesting in their own right: The Princess Bride, Atonement, A Clockwork Orange. They seem to strike just the right balance, choosing just the right moments to stick to the text and to deviate. However, these are extremely rare cases and seem to have as much to do with the original book as to the talent of the adapter. These stories seem particular well suited to cinematic adaptation: Their plots are streamlined and easily visualized; Their dialogue is speakable and readily engaging; There are obvious places where “cutting” can be done without damaging the story or the characters. In these cases, very little actual adaptation is needed in order to make a memorable, powerful, and effective film.
Much as I am a book lover first and don’t like to see my babies ripped apart on the big screen, I am enough of a film lover to prefer the second school. I look forward to a film adaptation drawing my attention to things I hadn’t seen before, or asking me to read a story in a new light. For me, The Prisoner of Azkaban is by far the best of the Harry Potter films, even though it is, in many ways, the least coherent and the least accurate to its source. Steve Kloves’ script (or the film’s ruthless editors) make no attempt to connect the Black/Lupin/Pettigrew back-story to the Marauders Map, resulting in what must be (for non-book-readers) a completely nonsensical and damn near unfollowable plot. Director Alfonso Cuaron blatantly inserts random and pointless ideas like the shrunken heads. And yet the film is widely regarded as the best in the series. Why? Because it has brilliant ideas of its own, and the courage and conviction to carry them out. The actors deliver with Shakespearean passion. The visuals are evocative and moody. Cuaron adds subtle little touches of his own to further the themes, such as the repeated shots of the Whomping Willow (which both shows the passage of seasons and foreshadows its participation in the climax) and the Clock Tower (suggesting the role that time will play in the story). Taken as a film, Prisoner is much more successful than its slavish predecessors. (And any flaws it has are more than made up by re-reading the even more successful book). It treats Rowling’s novel as a jumping off point, not a blueprint.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films are interesting in this regard, because whereas both clearly belong to the second school of thought, they take slightly different stances within that school. LOTR, first and foremost, wants to be a good film. Its highest priority, at all times, is what will work on screen in a given moment. Often it is well served in this, as Tolkien’s detailed descriptions of landscape, architecture, and culture translate beautifully onto the camera. LOTR’s story, too, is largely very filmic. There are aspects of Jackson’s adaptation, however, that rankle among Tolkien’s fans, especially in places where the changes do violence to the “spirit” of Tolkien’s story: See for instance the changes made to Faramir and Treebeard’s characters or the loss of the Scouring of the Shire scenes at the end. LOTR will rightly be remembered as one of the best adaptations of its time, but for fans who want accurate book representation it can be a tough pill to swallow. The Hobbit, on the other hand, seems to have gotten so distracted by mining Tolkien’s sources for interesting material to adapt that it forgot to be a good film. In discussing its flaws, it struck me that most of the most common criticisms leveled at it (poor pacing, annoying overuse of CGI, overlong action scenes) are criticisms of the film as a film, not of its adaptive qualities at all. In fact, not only is virtually every scene from The Hobbit novel included (and rightly so, given that there were three whole movies) but a good deal more was taken from the LOTR appendices and Unfinished Tales. Jackson and his writers consistently (often over-zealously and clumsily) attempted to engage with the source material as much as possible, and indeed probably pulled in a few too many elements for their own good. They don’t so much deviate from the source as add to it.
The Hobbit films make a lot of mistakes, but at least they make interesting mistakes. They tried to bring something new and creative to the table. On the whole, I find this preferable as a viewer. These adapters don’t treat the source as a sacred text but as something to be engaged with. The problem with the first school of adaptation is that they are so afraid to make mistakes that they often don’t do anything interesting at all. They present the original story without comment, which — lacking the detail a novel brings — is usually a mistake. Which brings us to Watership Down. To its credit, the film manages to squeeze the main events of the fairly long and action-packed story into its hour and a half running time: The initial escape, the Warren of the Snares, Kehaar, Nuthanger Farm, Efrafa, the final confrontation with Woundwort and the dog chase. But this is the problem: In its attempt to fit everything in, it doesn’t take the time to flesh any of these scenes out or give them any kind of weight or thematic significance. The story becomes, rather than anything exciting or moving or mythic, a checklist of things to do before the end of the movie. For a telling example, see the encounter with the rats in the barn. The rabbits are sleeping, the rats turn up and attack, and an owl gets spooked and swoops down. Everyone runs around aimlessly for a few moments, until the rabbits finally shake off the remaining rats and continue on their way. No lines of dialogue are spoken. Gone is the significance of this scene from the book: That the rabbits are learning to work together, with Silver and Buckthorn taking rear guard as Bigwig leads the others out calmly. The episode is nominally retained, but without any sense of why it was significant or what difference it made, other than as an exciting interlude and a box to be checked. Surely this scene could have been cut to give more time and emphasis to one of the more important episodes, but every episode in this movie is treated with this same perfunctory haste, including the crucially important episodes in Efrafa and Nuthanger Farm.
The characters are treated with similar carelessness. The script completely eliminates the less well-developed characters: The Hawkbit-Speedwell-Acorn trifecta is gone, as are the far more interesting Thethuthinnang, Strawberry, and Bluebell. Okay, that’s fine. Secondary characters must sometimes be sacrificed to allow time to develop the main characters more fully. But the film doesn’t bother to do this, either. The character traits of our heroes are there merely to make them somewhat distinguishable, like the multicolored hoods of Tolkien’s dwarves: Blackberry is clever (although most of his actual ingenuities are cut), Pipkin is small and timid (and strangely rotund and old-sounding), Silver is… well, silver. These characteristics don’t particularly go anywhere or contribute to the story. The Watership rabbits work less like a team, and more like the anonymous rabble the film seemed to want to avoid when it cut the minor characters. Where is the sense that Blackberry can understand physics and human craftsmanship on a whole other level? Where is Pipkin’s fierce loyalty and courage despite his fear? Where is Silver’s reliable steadiness? Hazel is still a good leader, to be sure, but we don’t really see him cultivating the talent and skill within his group, which Dr. Olsen has convincingly argued is the secret to his heroism. Mostly he just tells the others what to do.
Take my favorite character from the book: Dandelion. Beyond his generally plucky personality and nervous energy, he stands out from the crowd in two respects: He’s the resident storyteller and the fastest runner. Film!Dandelion has precious few lines and no personality to speak of. His oratorical skill and speed are mentioned in passing by Hazel, but given no demonstration. All of Dandelion’s stories are cut. The only El-ahrairah story depicted is Frith’s creation of the animals, and that is told via prologue. The one request for a story from Dandelion is cut off by Cowslip’s poetry. He does get to lead the dog away from the farm, but the stiff and minimalist style of animation is such the scene lacks all urgency and danger. Nowhere is it made clear that Dandelion is literally the only character who could do this. He’s just one of the “runners.” His character traits serve the plot, but the plot doesn’t support his characterization. For all this film’s scary reputation, they couldn’t make Dandelion’s hairbreadth escape from the dog (one of the most thrilling and terrifying scenes in the book) remotely scary. See for example the part where he runs around in a circle for a moment, just because. If anything, the dog looks rather slow and nonthreatening. Now take a look at the image embedded on the upper left. This is a fan artist’s depiction of Dandelion’s chase via Deviant Art. Now that looks exciting! The orange sunset gives the scene the apocalyptic tone it deserves; The sharp angles of the dog’s and Dandelion’s bodies suggest their intense speed; Dandelion’s furrowed brow conveys his determination; The dog’s closeness shows the very real danger. The artist captures more dynamic movement and characterization in one still shot than the filmmakers did in the whole chase scene. Like the story’s events themselves, the film retains the skeletons of the characters but they remain fleshless.
The film must have achieved in making something scary, because I know several adults who, to this day, refuse to read the book after being (in their own words) traumatized by the experience of watching the film as children. I was not a particularly sensitive viewer as a child and often loved movies which other children my age found scary. I also did not watch this film as a young child but first saw it after reading the book, sometime in my early teens. As such, I have to do a fair amount of speculation about what children would have found frightening or disturbing. It seems to me that the climax is a good illustration. Rather than focus on the terror of Dandelion and Blackberry’s flight with the dog in pursuit, the film rather emphasizes the grotesque body horror of the dog’s attack on the warren, showing in graphic detail the gaping wounds and lifeless bodies of the stricken Efrafans. Where Adams spends his energy on Bigwig’s courageous stand against Woundwort and the supernatural fear of Fiver’s confrontations with the Owslafa, the film ignores Fiver almost entirely and depicts a bloody battle between Bigwig and Woundwort in gory detail. Adams wants us to focus on the fear and courage of our heroes, not the violence of the battle. When the dog finally does attack, Adams cuts to the inside of the warren where we can overhear the rabbits fleeing for their lives and Woundwort’s orders to stand and fight, imagining the carnage rather than seeing it. This is Ann Radcliff’s classic distinction of terror vs. horror, with Adams evoking the former and the film the latter. To quote Radcliff:
Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.
The filmmakers fundamentally misunderstand this distinction, and allow the Watership Down film to stray into some frankly disgusting gore and horror. I am not against making children’s stories scary, but the kind of scariness does matter. Some of what’s in the film is just plain disgusting. We should be waking kids up to the excitement of stories, not numbing or traumatizing them into disinterest. In the feature accompanying the DVD, director Martin Rosen described wanting to create a realistic rather than a cartoon world. That’s fine and good, but this distinction is not held with any consistency. The physical wounds, with their flowing blood and foam, are exaggerated for disturbing effect, not to create a sense of gritty “realism,” for Rosen readily abandons realism where it suits him. Characters such as Kehaar and Fiver frequently break into cartoonish and anthropomorphic physical comedy and ridiculous swooning. Abstract dream sequences are used to depict the destruction of the Sandleford Warren and Fiver’s search for Hazel after the raid. Realism, in this context, seems to mean naturalistic matte paintings and an excuse for lots of blood and guts.
I could keep going. I could talk about Blackaver’s pointless death or Fiver’s lack of involvement in the stand against the Efrafans. I could talk about Kehaar’s general goofiness, Cowslip’s limp-wristed and campy mannerisms, and how I missed Bluebell’s punning. But I think my point is that a faithful adaptation does not necessarily make a good adaptation. Or maybe, there’s more to faithfulness than simple depiction. On the surface level, Watership Down does everything right. It cuts as few scenes as possible and duly follows the letter of the book. It dares to go for that strange market which is not really for children or adults but for both. But that’s all it does. It depicts the story but without any sense of why the story is so successful. It brings nothing new to the table that I didn’t understand from reading the original story, and what is the point of telling a story in a new medium if not to show us something new? More than that, the film misses the point of what it does depict. To go back to my “paint by number analogy,” it stays within the lines but uses the wrong colors. Watership Down is a beautiful book. I came away from this movie with an impression of ugliness.
Update: It was a conversation with Dom Nardi on facebook that sparked this blog post. Check out his response!