“Watership Down”: For the Book Fan to Cry…

When I learned that BBC are making a new adaptation of my actual favorite book of all time as a limited series (therefore, no need to cut out anything) with amazing voice cast (McAvoy, Hoult, Boyega, Kaluuya, Kingsley as the Big Bad…) and as a digital animation (just as I imagined it), I was overjoyed.

The actual Watership Down
Bonus points for this happening the year I had visited the actual, real-life Watership Down in Hampshire, UK.

Unfortunately, despite all that was working for it, this 4-hours long adaptation of my favorite book ever left me disappointed.

It doesn’t look bad, as I didn’t expect some ground breaking animation from a made-for-TV series by BBC (also, I just came back from seeing “Spiderman Into the Spider-Verse” in cinema, so no animation in the world would satisfy me on just the aesthethic level), it has pretty decent music (and a beautiful credits song performed by Sam Smith) and I liked the design of Efrafa – even if it was much different from the book, omitting the Efrafa’s philosophy from the book had opened the possibility of placing it somewhere that wasn’t just another set of burrows in the ground, and was clearly distinct from any other warrens. Plus, I don’t know if it was intentional, but the image of train tracks leading straight to two red brick chimneys invoked a pretty clear – if horrid – connotations…

It all starts pretty well. There’s the obligatory “all the world will be your enemy” intro of the Blessing of El-Ahrairah animated in a different style – exatly as the Michael Rosen’s 1978 movie of the book – and the first two episodes follow the story pretty well, streamlining as needed, adding maybe one or two chase sequences, but it was all harmless enough.

The problems begin in episode three, where the story begins deviating from the book in ways that are as confusing as they are needless. Bigwig’s mission in the book was pretty straightforward and I completely miss the point of changing it as they did in the series. The ingenious method of escape was discarded completely with nothing remarkable put there instead, and Fiver’s detour to the nearby town chasing a red car makes completely no narrative sense.

More serious problems the miniseries has are with the characters. Even if they were pretty hard to distinguish visually – an area where traditional 2D animation will always have advantage over CGI – they were also given a makeover in their goals and motivations. There is understandably fewer characters, so some traits were mixed around, like Dandelion’s role of the storyteller was given to Bluebell, who admittedly was also quite the storyteller in the book as well, so that’s not much of a problem. Especially since Dandelion’s other defining skill from the book – his speed unusual even for a rabbit – is kept and explicitly shown in the series… except when it would be the most useful in the finale. Also, why was Keehar changed into an ungrateful and unreliable Scotsman? Why are Hawkbit and Dandelion always competing for affection of the does? And while we’re on that, why is there so many clear pairing between males and female characters? Why there is so much love in the air? This seriously bugs me, because the book was always realistic in the relationships between rabbits is pure biology, not related to romantic love at all.

But it gets even worse with the main characters. The main driving personal conflict is between Hazel and Bigwig over who is the true leader, and within Hazel himself over the same thing. From the very beginning it’s prominent even more than in the book, but the cardinal and unforgivable sin of the BBC miniseries is that the payoff of this plot thread – the most epic, badass and jaw-dropping line of the book, one that brings tears to my eyes when I just recall it right now – is completely and utterly robbed of its impact by changing it from a moment of genuine self-realization to a pre-planned trick to confuse the enemies. I mean, who the hell wrote this script this way? Did they even read the book? Have they UNDERSTAND the book? Have they read the same book as I have?

This is just baffling. This and other changes from the book are so confusing. Even some that I liked at first, like making Strawberry a doe, was robbed of its potential (making the whole point of her being so much better at digging that bucks, even if well-intentioned as a compliment for women as being just better than men – because they are – cancels the excellent point in the book that bucks don’t dig not because they are unable to, but because it has always been done for them by, of course, the does).

It could have been so much better…

But then, I’m thinking, maybe “Watership Down” is going the same road of adaptations as my other favorite book, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” has and still is? Starting with an uncompromising 1970/80s movie (well, David Lynch had to compromise a lot with his 1984 movie, but the deleted scenes suggest that had he got his way we could truly have something amazing) through a disappointing miniseries full of inexplicable changes and a budget too small to bear the task and who knows, maybe third time would be the charm?

You can read this and other reviews on my Letterboxd profile.

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