Film Diary: Watership Down (Martin Rosen, 1979)
Monday, 22 September 2008
To my shame it’s only four years since I read Watership Down for the first time (it was one of the very first books I obtained through Bookcrossing.) For more than a quarter of a century before that, the thought of a book or a film about anthropomorphic bunnies made me a bit queasy. But I loved the book because it was dark and not in the least sentimental, and had a great deal to say about the human condition and the state of the world.
It took until now to see the film, and then only prompted by the fact that Tom Ewing’s excellent Popular blog had reached 1979 and Art Garfunkel’s strikingly dark and moving song Bright Eyes, taken from the soundtrack. The song is woven into the fabric of the film but I was a little surprised to find that it didn’t dominate as I’d feared. Instead there’s a score by Malcolm Williamson that owes a great deal to Vaughan Williams, and that’s apt because what this film does most beautifully is to evoke the countryside of he Hampshire/Berkshire borders perfectly. So lovingly has the background been created in watercolour that sometimes it was easy to forget that this was an animation. Nor was it in the least idealised. This is a countryside complete with electricity pylons and full of hidden dangers: badgers and foxes, hawks, humans with snares, and other rabbits less than cuddly of demeanour.
A hefty novel – 500 pages in this case – is always difficult to translate into a manageable film, let alone an animation, but this film remains remarkably true to teh original. Some minor things have been changed, a lot has been missed out, but nothing has been lost. It’s understandable that the horrors of the Efrafa warren are focused on, and I thought it was a shame that the effete and over-sophisticated rabbits of Cowslip’s warren were glossed over (although I actively disliked this bit of the novel – it came across to me as anti-intellectual, although I did get the point.) But it keeps the dark flavour of the novel intact.
It’s about as far from Disney as you can get, but it’s none the worse for that.