The new version of Watership Down was one of the most anticipated television events this Christmas season. It boasted a prestigious voice cast with some of the hottest mainstream talents around and expensive CGI. Alas, it seems most of that budget went on hiring the trendy cast rather than VFX development and, for many, the animation was a big disappointment widely criticised as more 1990s CBBC than Pixar.
I wasn’t as bothered by the animation style as some were. I agree the rabbits seemed a little stiff and stilted and looked more like stuffed hares, however. The character design fell into that uncanny valley—where they’re not stylised or impressionistic, but fall short of achieving convincing realism, so end up looking a bit creepy. But the lighting and environments were splendid. At the heart of Richard Adams’ much-loved novel is a ‘loveletter’ to the English countryside, and I think the rendering of the backgrounds went some way toward capturing that. The sequences in the fog were quite beautiful and Fiver’s prophetic visions well realised. Perhaps it’s this aspect that earned it a nomination for the International Animated Film Association Award for Outstanding Achievement for Animated Effects?
What irked me the most about Watership Down was the marketing, which quoted interviews from that unnecessarily starry cast. They emphasised that this was not a remake of the 1978 feature film, but an adaptation of the original novel. For any of the millions who’ve actually read the book, this is clearly not true!
Martin Rosen’s far superior Watership Down (1978) was a labour of love driven by genuine affection and respect for the source material. He even worked with the author in the initial stages. Although the story was necessarily condensed to fit the feature film format, it tried to convey the poetic essence of the landscape and characters and is far, far more faithful to the book. The remake seems to be much closer to a reinterpretation of the ’78 movie, but with added bickering and character conflicts that are purely the invention of screenwriter Tom Bidwell. It’s painfully obvious that he’s more used to writing for EastEnders and other soaps!
Just like the ’78 film, the opening recaps the rabbit creation story of Frith (James Faulkner) and El-ahrairah (Taron Egerton), this time told rather effectively in shadow-puppet style. The parts where Fiver (Nicholas Hoult) has a vision of the field full of blood is also nicely done, shown only by the reflections in his eyes. But the scene where he and his brother Hazel (James McAvoy) visit their warren’s chief rabbit, Threarah (Tom Wilkinson) is almost following the same storyboard as the movie.
For me, the first distant alarm bells went off during the sequence just after the band of rabbits set out on their quest for a new home and make their way through woodland strange to them. There should’ve been a dog loose in the woods that they have to escape from using a piece of floating wood as a raft. This sequence includes two key plot points that are essential for the story’s last act. The miniseries neglects to include the all-important dog and weirdly replaced it with a group of rabbits from their home warren, who are aggressively and irrationally pursuing them. (I would point Bidwell to Adam’s acknowledgement in the original publication in which he advised anyone interested in understanding aspects of Lapine behaviour, such as the migration of yearlings, should look to R.M Lockley’s definitive book The Private Life of the Rabbit.) The point of the raft—here it’s a dustbin lid—is that the rabbits remember this method of escape and later use to miraculously escape the Efrafan’s and confound their despotic leader, General Woundwort (Ben Kingsley). In this version their eventual escape from the overcrowded and oppressive warren of Efrafa, isn’t nearly so clever.
In his favour, Bidwell included more of rabbit’s Lapine language which should have pleased fans of the book. He added more of the supporting characters, too, but I don’t understand the logic of including these and then swapping around their attributes and messing with their personalities. Their prominence would only have been appreciated by fans of the book, but how they were treated would only annoy those same fans! And I’m not talking about the usual merging of several characters into one for dramatic convenience. It’s the actual dynamics and outcomes that are way off-mark, especially the core relationship between the brothers Hazel and Fiver. Generally, incongruous bickering is mistaken for character development. It really appears that Bidwell either didn’t read the book, didn’t understand it, or had contempt for it.
Just one instance would be the sequence where the rabbits, overnighting in a ruined church, are attacked by crows, one of which the butched-up Bigwig (John Boyega) kills rather brutally. Now, in the book, this skirmish is with a group of rats and is only alluded to briefly. For the ’78 film, Rosen exploited the dramatic potential and depicted the fight in the film. It’s also included rather prominently in Bidwell’s version, but here crows are substituted in place of the rats from the original book. The fact that Richard Adams went to great lengths to research animal interactions and behaviour (rats are territorial and will defend their patch) is completely disregarded. Perhaps the animators couldn’t do rats? Having said that, the church and crows are nicely Gothic, but unrealistic and unnecessary.
The miniseries ends up being neither one thing nor the other. It seems the novel was considered simply as ‘a serving suggestion’. So, we don’t get a definitive version, and yet it isn’t an inventive reimagining either. To really do the novel justice, it could have been even longer, something like Peter Jackson’s epic interpretation of The Lord of the Rings (2001-03). With an overall runtime of 180-minutes compared to the 1978 film’s 90, it drags in places and doesn’t use the extra time to develop relationships between the characters nearly as well. I’d go as far as saying that, more often than not, it gets them totally wrong. I mean the character of Kehaar the gull (Peter Capaldi) is a high point—in the book and Rosen’s film we see his character develop and change as his friendship with Bigwig grows. Here, we only know this because he calls Bigwig a pal right near the end. The miniseries often falls back on telling, rather than showing us.
Some characters have far more to do in this version and Clover (Gemma Arterton), the escaped hutch rabbit, takes on a pivotal role. She steals chunks of the story originally carried by Fiver and Hyzenthlay (Anne-Marie Duff) whilst introducing a more prominent romantic relationship with Hazel. Dandelion (Daniel Rigby) is the storyteller in the book, here Bluebell (Daniel Kaluuya) takes on that role with no discernible reason for the changeover. Captain Holly (Freddie Fox) gets to do much of Bigwig’s work. And Pipkin has ceased to exist.
Probably the best-realised episode was that of Cowslip’s Warren and the snare, which although memorable really was a bit rushed in the ’78 film version. It was also great to have more of the story within Efrafa—the totalitarian warren ruled by General Woundwort. The concentration camp visual references really added to the sense of foreboding. But again, Bidwell takes too many liberties with the characters and mixes up the narrative that had been so smoothly laid out by Adams. In this case, veering well away from the original to a point where it becomes more of a reboot; a confused reinterpretation rather than an adaptation. The climactic escape from Efrafa on a raft isn’t included at all. Instead, they simply go through a village. Not sure why!
It may not come across here but, overall, I did enjoy the miniseries. For me, it was a Christmas highlight. Although it was ultimately unsatisfying. Many of its shortcomings could have been excused if it had been a lovingly adapted version with a low budget. Sadly, with a budget in the region of £20M, it was neither of those things. And I can’t leave it there without commenting on the song. The only major pitfall of the ’78 film was the mawkish song “Bright Eyes” by Art Garfunkel, but it was a huge hit and over the years I’ve mellowed on it… I really can’t imagine ever saying the same for Sam Smith’s damp squib of a song “Fire on Fire”.
Cast & Crew
director: Noam Murro.
writer: Tom Bidwell (based on the novel by Richard Adams).
starring: James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega, Ben Kingsley, Tom Wilkinson, Gemma Arterton, Peter Capaldi, Olivia Colman, Mackenzie Crook & Anne-Marie Duff.