The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, December 31, 2018

"Bunnies! Bunnies, It Must Be Bunnies!": Return to Watership Down

Er, no. Sorry, Anya. Let's try again:

Rather, I was thinking of the late Richard Adams's Watership Down, adapted by Netflix and BBC 1 recently in a splendidly dark, faithful manner (with, admittedly, a little nip here, a little tuck there). None of the changes are terribly plot-altering, although one rabbit who survived in the original gets a heroic death in the adaptation.

Now, if you were, as I was, a child in the 1970s, and had, as I did, a passion for books, odds are that you read Watership Down before you were ready for it. Or, if you were a little bit younger, you were traumatized by the 1978 animated movie. (Oddly,I missed the film, even though Watership was a favorite book. Still haven't seen it.) I remember the suspense, and the need to see what happened next driving me on, and on--even when the legends of El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle broke the momentum. From Fiver's first prophetic vision, until the bittersweet ending, I was stuck to this book until I finished it. Like Dracula and The Three Musketeers, Watership Down transported me into a bigger world than a Long Island boyhood would lead you to imagine. Throw in T.H. White and Mark Twain, and you have a portrait of the Anglocat as young, er, boy, actually.

So, as you can imagine, I watched this adaptation with considerable interest.

I'm going to start by emphasizing the wonderful work done by the script and the cast--distilling Adams's long novel into four hour long episodes and keeping almost all of it intact is a remarkable feat. The storyline doesn't skip any of the major set-pieces, and the cast build the relationships between our heroes (and our villains) swiftly. Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), James McEvoy (Hazel, his older brother), and John Boyega (Bigwig) are the three stalwarts who do the main lifting among the Sandleford rabbits, though the ingenious Blackberry (a very good Miles Jupp), and the inimitable Olivia Coleman as Strawberry also shine. At first, Hazel and Bigwig are in tension over who should lead, with Bigwig thinking the notion of "Hazel-rah" to be ridiculous--until Bigwig's distrust in Fiver, and thus in Hazel, nearly leads to his death. From then on, these three very different characters form a mutually loyal troika, determined to protect the members of their new warren.

As a fan of Peter Capaldi (of course as the Doctor, but check out The Thick of It, or even more compellingly, The Hour), I was delighted to see him as the irascible, but ultimately friendly gull Kehaar. Yes, Capaldi's Scottishness is a long way from Kehaar's Eastern European accent in the novel--but Capaldi captures the defensiveness, the vulnerability of the injured bird with comedic brio, and ultimately, his affection for his furry friends. At the beginning of the last episode, Kehaar gets his "crowning moment of awesome" when he swoops down on General Woundwort to remind him of just why rabbits fear birds, especially large angry ones.

Speaking of Woundwort, Ben Kingsley does a fine job with our Mad Efrafan leader, and brings a complexity and a rage to the part that is truly formidable. Bigwig's climactic battle with Woundwort, and our last glimpse of the General are. . . perfect.

Fiver is not given what Adams gave as his climactic moment--eerily expressing sorrow for Vervain's and the invader's imminent death, and drive them to retreat or surrender by his calm certainty--but a variant on Hazel's big moment. Any more would spoil a lovely moment so...go watch it yourselves.

Some have criticized the animation. I am tempted to reply with Bigwig's response to Woundwort in the Honeycomb, but will simply say: Seriously? Yes, it's imperfect, but it works, and the script, the vocal talents of superb actors, and the storytelling had me 15 minutes in.

But then, the book has held me much longer.

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