The zeitgeist is a funny thing. Richard Adams’ 1972 novel Watership Down has long been one of my favorite books (until I discovered Tolkien, it was my very favorite book). While not an obscure choice by any stretch, I’m not used to seeing Adams’ heroic rabbits plastered all over my social media feeds. Something, however, must be in the air because lately that seems to be the case.
First, some context. For any of you who haven’t read my blog post from last month on the 1977 animated film adaptation of Watership Down, and how it relates to adaptation theory, you can check that out here. This was written in response to Dr. Corey Olsen’s free class on Watership Down (the novel) and my subsequent re-viewing of the film. You can download Professor Olsen’s lectures as video or audio files for free here (or in iTunes University).
Now, for the more random stuff. Black Dragon Press – a London-based printer – recently released a series of prints by illustrator Peter Diamond based on the novel. These two alternating book covers are based on variations of the Lapine terms “Ni-Frith” (or noon) and “Fu-Inle” (after moonrise). They’re really beautiful.
Also recently released (February 24, 2015) is the new Criterion Collection edition of the Watership Down film. This new hi-def remaster of the film is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, Hulu Plus, and iTunes, and includes new features like an interview with Guillermo del Toro on the film’s importance in the history of animation, storyboards, and an interview with director Martin Rosen. Criterion is a really fantastic collection of classic films, so if you feel the need to have this on your shelf (which I suppose some of you must) this is the edition to get.
Just yesterday, Nerdist.com released an article on the Watership Down film in their Schlock & Awe series. Blogger Kyle Anderson writes about the non-Disney strain of animation in the 70’s and 80’s and cites the film as a key text in that movement, putting it up there with the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Ralph Bakshi, and Don Bluth. Unsurprisingly, Anderson focuses on the “shocking” elements of the film – its violence and intensity. I won’t get into exactly why I think this does a disservice to the book – for that, you can read my blog post linked above and listen to the final lecture in Professor Olsen’s series. However, you can certainly see from the article why the film was revelatory in its day, in respect to the history of animation, and why many appreciate it.
Most surprisingly, the BBC just announced that it has in development a new CGI adaptation of the book. I certainly hope the filmmakers have a better grasp on the story than the Radio Times editors, as this article lists Thumper as one of the main characters (twice). Assuming they haven’t messed up any other facts, the article states that the script is still in development. No personnel – director, writer, cast – are announced at this time. Lest we forget, there was also the more recent UK-based Watership Down TV series, produced by ITV and broadcast on their children’s channel CITV, which Cartoon Brew calls a more “neutered” version of the story. (In fact, that site titles their article “BBC Plans to Improve Watership Down with CGI,” which I take to be ironic but I think is actually telling). It remains to be seen where on the scale of brutality the new BBC version will fall, but I for one would be interested to see a different take on the adaptation. Sarah Doran’s piece for the Radio Times is a perfectly example of just how misunderstood the story has become, thanks largely to the film. In any case, this new venture is sure to bring more attention and press to Adams’ original novel, which is categorically a good thing.
Finally and (for me) most interestingly, my friend and co-Mythgardian Dom Nardi wrote a response to my blog called “To Adapt or Not to Adapt?” He doesn’t focus much on Watership Down, but he does raise some fantastic questions about the adaptation process and why some stories might be easier to adapt than others. In particular he raises a great point about stories with big thematic and philosophical ideas being more easily translatable than those which focus on more intimate details like characterization which are harder to grasp and do justice in a filmed medium. He cites the cinematic adaptations of Jurassic Park and the works of Stephen King and Philip K. Dick as great examples of it, and I have to agree. Neither of us are purists, and I would even agree that the film adaptations of King’s books in particular are superior to their literary source material. I will certainly concede that some books are more suited for adaptation than others, and that regardless of the book the filmmaker would do well to settle on a particular approach that suits the story being told. I don’t think this need stop us from criticizing adaptations where they fail, but it’s worth keeping in mind when trying to determine exactly why a film did or didn’t work.
All told, it’s been a big couple of months for Watership Down enthusiasts (which are legion, I’m sure). If you’ve never read the original novel, do yourself a favor and jump on the bunny bandwagon before the inevitable craze really gets rolling.