On Christmas Eve, 2016, literature lost a true giant. Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, and Shardik, passed away. The loss didn’t hit me all that hard at the time, but I was having a difficult time processing Carrie Fisher’s death and Adams’s passing just barely registered. Now, a month later, I’ve had the chance to sit down and think about my experience with his books, and specifically with my favorite, Watership Down.
I came to this story the opposite way that I normally do: I saw the movie first. My family had just gotten hooked up with cable television and subscribed to HBO (oh my God!… movies that didn’t need to be rented!). It was through this channel that I found some of the classic 1970’s animated features: The Mouse and His Child, Animalympics, The Water Babies, and of course, that little film about the rabbits. In fact, I think Watership Down was one of the first (if not THE first) movie I watched on HBO.
Before going any further, I need to remind you that animation in the 1970’s (barring Disney) could be pretty dark. For example, The Mouse and His Child is about a toy mouse and his son who are joined at the hands. They’re being stalked by a rat, and at one point, he manages to knock them over, and then stands over them and beats them to pieces with a rock. That was in a G-rated movie. And then we turn to those fluffy bunnies, who at least got a PG rating in America, probably for those scenes where they tear each others’ throats out with their teeth. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t realize that’s what I’d be watching when they first told me about it and asked if I wanted to watch it. I remember about halfway through, during a scene where a rabbit is caught in a wire snare and start convulsing and bleeding from his mouth, my mom said “If this is upsetting you, you don’t have to watch it.”
But here’s the thing–I did want to watch it. Because it was more than just a bunch of violent rabbits. These creatures had their own language, mythology, and culture. The characters were vivid. The story was compelling. And I wanted more. Alas, this was long before the BBC began making the half-hour animated TV series that followed the rabbits after the end of the movie’s major events. All I could get was the novel, so that’s what I got. I picked up the book and read it, as a ten year old. That was my first exposure to that kind of prose, lyrical and poetic. There were stories of El-ahrairah, the rabbit trickster figure. The characters were even richer. The plot was deeper. I had found a world.
More than that, though, was the fact that the story stayed with me. Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Hyzenthlay, Blackavar, and the others had found a place in my psyche and dug their own little warren where they have lived ever since. It seems to be the same for many who love this story. The most common response to the news of Adams’s death was “My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today”, which is the rabbit response to death. It was my response too.
I’ve been planning to re-watch the movie, and to re-read the book. In troubling times, it’s good to know that old friends still await between the pages, ready to welcome you home.