Media Reviews

Media Review: May 2019 – Lightspeed Magazine

Watership Down
Based mostly on the novel by Richard Adams
Produced by 42, Biscuit Filmworks, BBC, and Netflix
Released December 2018

To say Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down is a formative affect is probably an enormous understatement, so naturally I was thrilled to study that Netflix and the BBC have been collaborating to remake the story as a miniseries. The brand new adaptation dropped late final yr, and whereas I found the results wanting, it did inspire me to revisit the story in depth. The experience rekindled my admiration for a basic while additionally enabling me to see the story from fascinating new angles.

Released in 1973, Watership Down was a singular and memorable work a few group of rabbits who, led by the charismatic Hazel and his peculiar little brother Fiver, set out throughout the south of England in quest of a brand new residence. When Fiver, who possesses a mysterious sixth sense, has a imaginative and prescient of Sandleford Warren’s imminent destruction, he and Hazel attempt to persuade the chief rabbit they should evacuate immediately and find a new place to reside. A lot of the rabbits of Sandleford, together with the chief, are too complacent to receive Fiver’s warning with something more than skepticism. Several are persuaded, nevertheless, and collectively, this small band escapes the pursuit of the “Owsla” (a lapine model of the police) to strike out on their own. Their aim: find a good, protected new house, which Fiver ultimately deduces must be atop the sloping heights of Watership Down. What follows is a cross-country adventure whereby an intrepid group of buddies works together to elude predators, keep away from shut calls with the risks of humankind, and outwit the oppressive regime of “Efrafa,” an authoritarian warren run by the vicious Common Woundwort.

Wikipedia describes the ebook as a “survival and adventure novel,” but make no mistake: This can be a fantasy. Actually, with its quest plot, band of adventurers, and the good-versus-evil battle at its core, it resonates as epic fantasy. The fact that the heroes are anthropomorphized animals doesn’t detract from that impression, especially when you get to know the various memorable members of Hazel and Fiver’s social gathering. Most essential, perhaps, is Bigwig, a former officer in Sandleford’s Owsla and the group’s most formidable fighter. But there are different great characters: clever Blackberry, whose fierce intelligence bails the group out of multiple scrapes; Dandelion, the quickest runner, whose tales maintain the group entertained in between adventures; Silver, another disgruntled former Owsla officer who informally serves as Bigwig’s second-in-command relating to combat obligation; and Pipkin, Fiver’s miniscule pal, who thrives underneath Hazel’s encouraging management. Certainly, the group features as one thing of a small, tactical army unit, with Hazel as its revered lieutenant. (In my version, the writer’s introduction admits: “I imagined Fiver’s brother, Hazel, as being rather like my commanding officer during the war. He himself was a gentle, modest man, but he had a shrewd, keen mind, able to perceive what needed doing and stick to it with authority.” Adams’ army background, which I wasn’t conscious of throughout my many teenaged re-reads of the novel, seems extremely apparent on reflection, and lends appreciable insight to the work’s characters, structure, worldbuilding, and themes.)

There’s extra depth to the fantasy backdrop than the straightforward premise of a band of animals dwelling out an invisible “secret history” beneath humanity’s very nose. The style really feel is deepened by Adams’ creative depiction of rabbit society, which comes with its personal language and mythology. The lapine vocabulary, while modest, comes with a certain Tolkienesque resonance. (In the event you ask me, at the very least one word, “tharn,” actually ought to seek out its method into widespread parlance—particularly lately!) In the meantime, the mythology contributes enormously to the story’s fantastical atmosphere. The rabbits see “Frith” (the sun) as the god of all things, while “El-ahrairah” serves because the rabbits’ trickster people hero. El-ahrairah’s tales, often advised by Dandelion, sometimes punctuate and comment on the narrative. That is straight-up style worldbuilding, and Adams executes it fairly nicely.

Re-reading the novel for this assessment, I spotted the issues my younger self wouldn’t have recognized: clumsy fourth-wall breaks, an oft-pedantic tone, and an sometimes flagging tempo, particularly through the El-ahrairah tales. (Essential as they are to the worldbuilding, they do generally tend to suck away the narrative momentum.) Lastly, there’s a fairly of-its-time, cavalier maleness to Watership Down, a difficult flaw to articulate within the context of this specific e-book. Let’s say this: In humanizing his animal characters, Adams walks the road between staying true to the science of actual rabbit conduct and taking liberties to imbue his rabbits with human traits. He does so quite effectively, but is uneven in his footing: It’s truthful to say that with regards to character, mannerisms, idiom, and agency, the novel’s bucks are extra humanized than its does—whose objectification is baked into the plot. Mitigating elements notwithstanding—i.e., the army parallels, the scientific analysis that influenced Adams’ worldbuilding, even the time it was written—the gender dynamics in Watership Down require a forgiving filter.

Nonetheless, by and enormous the many years haven’t diminished the novel’s magic for me. It nonetheless sings in its rich element, its eloquent voice, the profitable ensemble chemistry of its rabbit forged, and especially in its highly effective messaging. Watership Down stands as a stupendous rallying cry for teamwork, camaraderie, decency, and coexistence in the face of bullying, oppression, and authoritarianism. Much of this messaging comes out by way of Hazel’s management, which is correct, truthful, and commonsensical. The best way he seizes on the thought of befriending and cooperating with different animals, for example—most notably an eccentric seagull named Kehaar—is emblematic of its constructive messaging. There’s also a cleverly handled environmentalism to the novel, and not merely in the way it vilifies humanity for its dismissive, rapacious remedy of the earth. The more the rabbits act like people, the extra strife and distress is triggered; Adams suggests, with out ever hitting you over the top with it, that we’re all just animals who need to lead our lives, and by recognizing that and dealing together, all method of pain and struggling could possibly be prevented.

Watership Down’s success was enhanced, I think, by a principally trustworthy 1979 film adaptation from writer-director Martin Rosen. The passage of time has erased from my reminiscence whether or not the novel brought me to the movie or vice versa, but to me they are complementary experiences, equally formative. The animated film nonetheless holds up, I feel: a haunting, lovely, and infrequently terrifying interpretation of Adams’ vision that doesn’t draw back from the ebook’s darker subtexts, notably relating to the perils of authoritarianism. Characterized by excellent voice work, a profitable combination of humor, heart, and suspense, and a rousing, good musical rating by Angela Morley, it’s a streamlined and memorable movie, largely true to the spirit of the ebook. The movie does, nevertheless, slender down the forged, and the story is significantly condensed, dashing many memorable episodes that would have used more exploring.

In some ways, then, Watership Down was ripe for a reboot, both to broaden and flesh out the film’s brushstrokes, and to revisit the novel’s highly effective messages and themes, which couldn’t be extra timely in an era of looming local weather catastrophe and surging neofascism. Enter this most recent adaptation from Netflix and the BBC, which—to its credit score—aims to perform each of those aims. And there was each purpose for optimism that it will be superb. Animation has come a great distance because the late seventies, and the caliber of voice expertise recruited for the challenge suggests the story left its mark in the appearing world, because well-known performers seem to have lined proper up to take part. James McAvoy as Hazel. John Boyega as Bigwig. Peter Capaldi as Kehaar. Daniel Kaluuya, Nicholas Hoult, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Colman, Rosamund Pike, Tom Wilkinson, Gemma Arterton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Mackenzie Crook, Rory Kinnear. This is critical A-list firepower in the forged.

The collection begins promisingly, hitting the fitting emotional and tonal beats in the early going. And the cinematography is, at occasions, quite beautiful. Nevertheless it shortly becomes clear that one thing isn’t fairly gelling. At first, it struck me that it may be the fashion of the animation. It does a mediocre job, I feel, of visually differentiating the various characters—a big drawback because it introduces so many more than the original movie does. Nor does the animation lend itself to forcing action. The pressing, heart-pumping adventures of the ebook fall surprisingly flat on this rendering, especially in comparison towards Rosen’s movie. That film’s art is extra modest, perhaps, but in addition extra sure-handed at conjuring temper. Its depiction of Fiver’s chilling visions, the horrors of Sandleford’s destruction, and the brutality of Efrafa are extra creatively evoked, and the battle scenes are shockingly effective, particularly for a cartoon. The brand new Watership Down lacks these strengths; its look, which verges on the photoreal, by some means diminishes both the mystique and the sense of menace. Finally, although, I don’t consider the animation is the first drawback. In some methods, the look is sort of efficient. For instance, I favored the decision to situate Efrafa within the ruins of brick buildings, which contributes a prison-like environment to Woundwort’s oppressive territory. It might all have been made to work.

Through the third episode, it struck me: The brand new collection, faced with a plethora of modernizing decisions, makes too many incorrect ones. A few of its decisions are comprehensible and straightforward to get behind: gender-swapping Strawberry, for example, or enhancing the position of Hyzenthlay. However the bulk of them founder on the rocks, especially the extra blatantly political ones: the best way the fatalists of Cowslip’s warren are painted as blinkered spiritual zealots, or the moderately obvious #metoo uprising of the Efrafan does. They are good ideas, badly executed. Others decisions feel like seasoned screenwriters grasping for market-tested beats: extraneous romantic subplots (Hazel and Clover, Hyzenthlay and Holly), or the pseudo-amusing romantic rivalry between Dandelion and Hawkbit. Perhaps the worst selections, nevertheless, got here in the realm of characterization; the collection basically misjudges the importance of many outstanding gamers within the unique. Definitely not every character wanted to be right here, in fact—alas, poor Speedwell, nonetheless no adaptation love for you. However with all these great actors at your disposal, why would you remove Silver and Pipkin completely, in favor of inventing random Efrafran Owsla? Or diminish the roles of Blackberry, Dandelion, and the scrappy, tragic Blackavar (Henry Goodman)? It all seems like assets misdirected.

Obviously, I’m pretty hooked up to Watership Down, but I’m also a pragmatist, usually sanguine concerning the realities of efficiently adapting a e-book. Modifications are often necessary to make literature work in a visual medium. Alas, this adaptation makes too many arbitrary selections and not enough strategic ones, managing to elongate the story but in addition make it smaller. Still, I suppose it has its moments, and all that sensible voice talent, and hey, it inspired me to return to the originals, which proved to be an illuminating and entertaining exercise. For that cause, I’m definitely glad I watched the brand new collection, and hopefully it’ll function a gateway for brand spanking new readers. All in all, though, undoubtedly not my favourite Watership Down.

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