“The primroses were over” is still one of my favourite opening lines of any novel. Watership Down is one of those books that engenders great affection in its readership. If encountered at the right age, it’s an immersive and enchanting experience that leaves a lifelong impression. I remember a friend lending me J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which I wanted to like, but I just couldn’t get into. I did like the map at the beginning, though. It was around this time I came across the classic paperback edition of Watership Down. It, too, had a map at the beginning and I remember starting to read it in WH Smith where I’d been left to browse whilst my parents went shopping elsewhere. Upon their return, they found me standing there totally engrossed. I was around 12 years old.
Rex Collings first published the book in 1972 with a pressing of just 2,500 copies. This was after author Richard Adams had been touting it around for some time and had received at least seven rejections from bigger publishers. Adams’s much-loved story about the epic journey of a band of misfit rabbits across the English countryside was his debut novel, and quite unlike anything that had gone before; a naturalistic animal story written in a mature prose style.
The mainstream publishing industry is still renowned for being risk-averse and rarely try anything new. They had no established audience to market Watership Down to. We can see now that it did indeed have predecessors, but it’s more aligned with Homer’s classical Greek poems, the Viking sagas, and epic fantasy than Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit or Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. It won the prestigious Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
When writer-producer Martin Rosen decided to adapt Watership Down into a film, he was faced with similar resistance from the movie industry. It was deemed too risky for any major studio, so it took him a while to gather enough independent investors to even consider putting it into production. He didn’t even know how he was going to transcribe such a book to the screen. Rosen explored and quickly dismissed the idea of live-action with costumes and prosthetics, so began consulting puppet performers (imagining a kind of Jim Henson approach) but soon realised this was another non-starter. Eventually, he settled on the idea of animation but knew his decision would mean preconceptions that Watership Down was a cartoon for children. He needed to find a fresh approach to the medium.
Rosen’s troubles had begun when the book was foisted upon him by a friend, fellow producer Tom Pevsner (of James Bond fame), who’d read the book whilst they were both scouting locations in India and believed it had great potential. Though initially sceptical, Rosen was quickly entranced and found himself caring deeply about the rabbit characters and the natural world they lived in. As soon as he was back in the UK, he contacted Richard Adams and pursued the film rights, despite the author’s reluctance. Adams thought his story would be impossible to film—an opinion that Rosen would repeatedly run into over the next few years!
Working in consultation with Adams at the initial development stage, they saw book sales steadily climb past 3 million sales with no sign of slowing. Both Rosen and Adams were very clear that they operated in different media and Adams appreciated that Rosen’s approach to making a film would be different to his writing of a novel.
With almost unanimously positive reviews, the novel was rapidly establishing itself as a UK bestseller and, shortly after securing the film rights, was published in the US to a more mixed reception… but it soon caught on. It stayed in the New York Times’ bestseller chart for eight months straight, peaking at number 1. World sales steadily built up and it was soon well on its way to selling more than 50 million copies in 18 different languages and would become the all-time best-selling title for Penguin Books. Rosen soon found that he could attract investors more easily!
The adaptation got off to a rocky start, though, beginning with the replacement of its initial director John Hubley; a veteran animator who’d worked as a background artist on a few Walt Disney classics including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). In 1949 he’d created the character Mr Magoo, before he was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for refusing to cooperate with their communist ‘witch-hunt’. This effectively restricted him to only working on independent and foreign productions. In 1975 he began work as director on Watership Down, a venture that was suitably foreign and independent. After developing his initial concept and storyboard for the film, it became apparent that his ideas were at odds with those of Martin Rosen. He had also completed the ‘creation myth’ sequences and these survived into the final cut. Production was, of course, disrupted until Martin Rosen stepped up as director in his place, with Tony Guy as his director of animation. Sadly, Hubley died before the film’s completion.
This wasn’t the only hiccup in the schedule. The music had been in the hands of Malcolm Williamson, but when the deadline to lay down the soundtrack arrived all he had to show was the prelude and main title. Being ‘Master of the Queen’s Music’ at the time, it seems he’d diverted his energies into composing two major works for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. The cost of hiring the symphony orchestra, recording studio and mixing technicians might have been a loss the production couldn’t bear. But as luck would have it, a friend of Martin Rosen’s needed an orchestra and studios at just the right time and was able to cover the costs. That friend was Jeff Wayne, who put the set-up to good use recording part of his War of the Worlds rock opera.
So, Angela Morley took over as the composer for Watership Down, reportedly scoring the complete soundtrack in less than three weeks. Her two previous film scores, The Little Prince (1974) and The Slipper and the Rose (1976) had both been Oscar-nominated. It may have been a rush job, but the music is highly effective and integral to the storytelling, with recurring phrases creating a network of emotional cues that cross-reference narrative events throughout.
Despite interruptions in production, Rosen tenaciously steered his project toward completion over a period of nearly four years, preferring to take the extra time rather than compromise on his vision for the production. It was to be the first major animated movie to be produced in the UK for some time and attracted a waiting list of high calibre artists from around London and beyond.
This was Rosen’s first time as director and he had no experience of animation so, by default, he brought a fresh approach to the process. He hired a dilapidated warehouse, appropriately enough in Warren Street, and had all the animators based there, working together in parallel.
It was more usual to have different departments working on the separate elements, one after another. First, there would be the concept artists and character designers, then one group of animators would produce “line-tests” (pretty much the entire film in outline, with minimal detail and no colouring). When the full-length line-test is completed, then the background artists and keyframe animators move in. Assistant animators would then fill-in the repeat cells between main gestures. This art would next go to the trace and paint department for colouring and finishing. Then, the artwork would be photographed to produce the final animated sequences.
With Rosen’s far more organic set-up, the character animators could talk to the background artists (in fact some were one and the same) and as they drew their scenes, they could go to talk to the trace-and-paint artists who could also feedback and discuss colours and adapt the storyboards as they went. Sequences could be re-thought and improved as they were being put together.
Rosen pushed for the rabbits to be drawn as anatomically accurate as possible but had to compromise, to some extent, to make the individual characters recognisable. If they were too realistic they wouldn’t stand out against the naturalistic backgrounds depicting the real world, but he was keen to avoid caricature and over-exaggeration.
Animation audiences were used to seeing unnaturally large eyes with lots of expressive white, often on disproportionately large heads and faces. Traditionally, things were overdone to communicate emotions in a completely different way to how a live actor would—the wild expressions and often over-enunciated dialogue were unreal and suit certain types of stories just fine. But that’s not the route he wanted to take with Watership Down. To compensate for the lack of expressive exaggeration, he decided not to use lesser-known voice actors, but splashed out on a high-calibre cast of British talent and recorded it almost in the style of a radio play before setting the animators to work…
Due to budget and time constraints, different artists worked on different backgrounds. This could have resulted in an incongruous clash of styles. As it turned out, the various environments do end up having markedly different atmospheres. The burrows of the home warren at Sandleford look and feel different to those at Cowslip’s warren, or in Efrafa. The fields and downs feel very different from the farmyard. The woods, rivers and railway bridges all have their very own vibe. They’re as convincingly different as the real locations they are based on. The poetic resonance with the English countryside that Adams captured in his prose was something that Rosen was keen to convey and so he sent artists on research trips to sketch and record the real locations at the right time of day and in the correct seasons. They eventually settled on a very naturalistic, pastel and watercolour style that contributed a unique atmosphere to the painted environment.
Editor Terry Rawlings camped out for a day and a night on the West Sussex downs to record a natural ‘wildtrack’. He collected authentic sounds of the wind through the trees and grass, the actual rivers mentioned in the book, cars passing on the right road and trains on the real railway bridge.
Many animators of note worked on the project. Peter Turner, a trace and paint supervisor, was an influential figure who had a hand in the British animation revival on television in the early 1970s. He went on to do camerawork for Christmas classic The Snowman (1982) and When the Wind Blows (1986). He’d taught a new generation of animators at Newport College of Art with fellow tutor Henry Lutman, who at the same time was devising new computerised motion control technology that would let Superman fly, also in 1978.
With hindsight, 1978 was a landmark year in animation. Watership Down wasn’t the only ambitious animated adaptation to be released. Ralph Bakshi, who earned some industry notoriety with the first X-rated animated feature in the history of cinema, Fritz the Cat (1972), also brought his version of The Lord of the Rings (1978) to the big screen: another epic quest story deemed impossible to film. He made a serious though less successful attempt, resulting in a distinctive new look for animation. But to keep the costs down and capture complex battle scenes he ‘cheated’ by using the rotoscope technique to trace live-action footage onto animation cells.
Remember, this was long before anime introduced its more grown-up tone, Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli wasn’t to be founded for another seven years and it would be at least a decade before Japanese animation would break into the international market with Akira (1988). A handful of very early animated films had been aimed at adult audiences—those were mainly training films and some wartime propaganda. There was Animal Farm (1954), the first feature-length animation produced in Britain, but the medium had been effectively claimed by Disney ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and perceived as ‘kids stuff’ ever since.
You know you’re watching something just a bit weird and wonderful when the film opens with a creation myth from the point of view of rabbits, complete with a god, Frith (Michael Hordern), and a saviour-messiah figure in El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies. This is told in a naïve folk-art style and transitions the viewer from our world into the animated version inhabited by Hazel (John Hurt), a sleek young buck, and his brother Fiver (Richard Briers), a runt with the powers of premonition.
Fiver foresees the destruction of their warren and they feel strongly enough to warn their Chief Rabbit (Ralph Richardson) of impending doom. When he doesn’t believe them, the two brothers set off with a small band of other young bucks and misfits to find a far-off ‘promised land’. Their rag-tag (and bobtail—sorry couldn’t resist) band is joined by Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), a dissatisfied member of the warren’s elite enforcers known as the Owsla.
Thus begins a fabulous hero-quest of Biblical proportions. Except it isn’t a single hero like Moses leading his people. If anything, the tale’s overarching message is one of cooperation and team-work winning-out. Just like Star Trek’s Kirk, Spock, and Bones are incomplete individuals and rely on each other’s traits to become one fully functioning ‘human’ (Kirk’s emotion, Spock’s intelligence, Bones’ compassion) so we have Hazel’s nurturing, Fiver’s intuition, and Bigwig’s bravery. Not one of them would stand a chance of survival without the others.
Richard Adams warned against reading too much into the symbolism of the story, maintaining that it was written as an adventure and not a big metaphor. The story had started out with a set of linked stories he told to his two daughters on long car journeys. But he spent so much time in the Watership world that he certainly would have considered secondary meanings and what particular elements may represent. He fought in WWII and then went on to have a career in the Civil Service, not becoming an author until he was in his fifties. With that background, I think it’s quite obvious that some of the themes are exploring different structures of society, politics and government. The rabbit world reflects our own—otherwise, how could we identify with it so much?
Hazel’s band of migrant bucks are outsiders, rebels, and refugees in search of a new homeland. Their journey introduces us to a warren led by Cowslip (Denholm Elliott), where the rabbits lead comfortable complacent lives but are regularly culled by men who surround their warren with snares. There are no rebels or outsiders in their community. They are complicit in their own oppression, resigned to their fate, and believe that sacrificing the individual—quite literally—is an acceptable trade-off for an easy life.
Are they a compressed model of capitalism? They’re pathologically submissive and allow others to suffer so long as they’re warm and well-fed. I mean this is a huge allegory that could be discussing the exploitation of ‘the other’ at many levels: turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Third World that provides luxuries for the affluent few, desperately clinging to our comforts at the expense of the global environment. However you choose to look at it, Cowslip and his rabbits are all that Hazel and his friends are not.
They journey on and later come across the sprawling, overcrowded warren of Efrafa, ruled by the despot General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). Is this a version of Stalinist Communism or a Fascist Dictatorship? Both those totalitarian systems start to look very much alike when they become extreme enough.
One of the film’s strength is that it refuses to soft-pedal its themes. Just like the original book, it isn’t aimed at children, despite it being in the child-friendly medium of animation. For the time, this was unexpected, and audiences were shocked by much of the scary content. Even at the first few screenings, some parents were already complaining about the dark and violent scenes. Though interestingly the kids weren’t—I suppose they were used to it from fairy tales and, dare I say it, Disney films, which often had frightening characters and scenes for no good reason. The witch in Snow White was responsible for the nightmares of a generation, and when the mountain cracked open to release hordes of fiery-eyed, bat-winged demons in Fantasia, traumatised toddlers were carried out of the cinemas in tears.
Even when the film was completed, Rosen couldn’t find a distributor and had to do his own leg-work to arrange those first few screenings. It was down to his investors to come up with the extra funds to do this and they managed to get it playing in five key London cinemas. There was very little associated publicity, and yet it was instantly one of the top three films at the London box office. Then he started receiving interest from distributors and it was finally taken on by CIC.
In a masterstroke of publicity, Rosen pushed for “Bright Eyes” to be released as a single. The song, written by Mike Batt and sung by Art Garfunkel, has since become synonymous with the film… but at the time, the CBS record label was unconvinced of its chart potential and didn’t assign any promotional budget to its release. Without plugging, it stood little chance of significant sales, until Martin Rosen was invited onto the Terry Wogan radio show to talk about the film and took a copy along with him. Wogan played it and the next week it topped the UK charts, where it held the top position for five consecutive weeks and became the biggest-selling single of 1979.
With obstacles at every stage, Rosen and his team ploughed on and against the odds made what has since been recognised as one of the great achievements in animation, with Total Film listing it in their top 50 Greatest British Films of All Time. It’s said that Rosen’s investors were paid back dividends of around 5000%.
At the time, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) passed it as certificate U, suitable for all. Reportedly, they’ve received complaints from parents every year since its release four decades ago. Although there was no PG rating back then, they’ve recently stated that if it were re-submitted today that’s what it would merit.
It’s power to affect its audience hasn’t diminished over the intervening decades. A 2016 Easter Sunday screening by Channel 5 resulted in a Twitter-storm of indignation from distressed parents of distressed children. They were still assuming it would be a cutesy Easter Bunny film where all the rabbits looked like Thumper’s great-grandchildren (I know, with rabbits that would be great-great-great, etc.) but even the sad death of Bambi’s mother couldn’t have prepared them for Watership Down’s hard-hitting content.
Richard Adams went on to write 20 more books. None were as important or successful as Watership Down, which he revisited in 1996 with a belated sequel in the form of a book of linked short stories including further fabled adventures of El-ahrairah and his faithful sidekick, Rabscuttle, and vignettes from life on Watership Down for the rabbits—including a bout of myxomatosis and Hyzenthlay sharing the role of the warren’s chief rabbit with her mate, Hazel.
Martin Rosen adapted Adam’s third novel, The Plague Dogs into a 1982 film. It was even more distressing than Watership Down and employed a good proportion of the same production team and animators. The film was another staggering achievement of animation with a similar naturalist approach and was actually more accessible than the book, but far too emotionally harrowing to be as big a success.
He returned to Watership Down in 1999 for a three-season animated series for television which was, perhaps, more child-friendly. He covered much more of the material he had left out of the film due to the constraints of duration. He even added an extra backstory for General Woundwort that made him a far more sympathetic villain, almost an anti-hero and spent much more time with the rabbits of Cowslip’s warren and the Efrafans. The third season went off at a tangent and took a much darker turn once more…
40 years on and Watership Down seems as fresh and effective as ever. Alongside the slicker digital animation that we’ve grown used to, its hands-on organic approach to traditional cell-animation presents a refreshing and somehow more ‘realistic’ contrast that only adds to its appeal.
Which makes one wonder what the imminent miniseries slated for broadcast by the BBC this Christmas season, will add to the story. All we know is it’s going to be digitally animated and features the voices of John Boyega, Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton, Gemma Chan, James McAvoy, Ben Kingsley, Peter Capaldi, Rosamund Pike, Taron Egerton, Olivia Colman, and Tom Wilkinson. It will also feature a new song, “Fire on Fire”, to be sung by Sam Smith. The series is directed by Noam Murro, who brought us 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), so there’s no reason at this point to expect a less traumatic treatment!
Once again, I’m reminded of my 12-year-old self, reading Watership Down in a newsagent… and I can’t wait for Christmas!
Voices & Crew
director: Martin Rosen (John Hubley, uncredited).
writer: Martin Rosen (based on the novel by Richard Adams).
starring: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Simon Cadell, Harry Andrews & Zero Mostel.