I had not read the book since I was eleven. Picking it up and putting it down within a couple weeks, I had reread it. It is a story about the exodus of a band of common folk; one of the members of the group has prophetic visions of doom and blood coming to their home. Thus, they set out. Along their journey to a safer land, they face many dangers: raging waters, wild animals, a death cult, miles of dangerous countryside, a totalitarian regime that governs its citizens like slaves, a warlord that comes to conquer their way of life. Throughout the book the heroes are shot, hung, mauled, and imprisoned. It is a tale of danger, hope, and vision. It is also a tale about rabbits.
Watership Down: a book that has been famous for many decades already. It is in no need of my endorsement, and you readers have surely heard of it. I hope you’ve even read it. It was a deep pleasure to discover as a boy, and upon my return to it I was entertained as profoundly as before. Watership Down is truly an odd little book, which is why I think it’s easily enjoyed by adults and children. In fact, it was its transcendence of age that caused the author, Richard Adams, some trouble when first submitting it to publishers. In the introduction to Watership’s 2005 paperback edition, Adams recountswhy the manuscript was repeatedly refused, on the grounds that, “Older children wouldn’t like it because it is about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it is written in an adult style.” Like most successful authors, Adams stayed true to his tale and kept going, adding, “I refused to alter the draft in any way, and went on knocking on doors.”
The book went on to great fame and acclaim, and was adapted as an animated film in 1978. Some deem the cartoon a cult classic, others aren’t aware of its existence. I’m not particularly fond of it myself; as a story it feels uneven and unfocused, but I write this article to address more recent information. Last night I learned that Watership Down will be adapted yet again to film, produced by Netflix and the BBC. As with any ensuing cinematic rendering of a book I hold dear, I have mixed feelings about the announcement. Before I continue, I would clarify my belief that terrible movies do nothing to damage the source material, as some people protest. If a book is good, it remains good. I’m not worried about that, and there are more than enough examples of this occurrence; the Narnia films are hardly classics (and hardly Narnian), and I still adore the seven chronicles by C. S. Lewis. Worse still, years before the 2005 Disney version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a script floating around where the Pevensie children were Americans, and Edmund wanted the White Witch to conjure up a hamburger for him, rather than Turkish delight, all because someone in the writing process had said, “Kids won’t get it. We need to make it relatable to them.” Clearly, this is the logic of true creators. Relatability, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Older kids think rabbits are babyish, younger kids won’t understand it, so Richard Adams compromised and wrote whatever the publishers told him to, as did Faulkner before him, and Twain, and Melville, and Milton. Except not.
When it comes to adaptations, we readers often feel both excited and discouraged by the prospect of the book coming to life on screen. Even when our tastes overlap, we humans experience everything to a unique degree; when we read, we imagine what we are reading, and we see the characters and scenery the way only our minds can see it. Films override that; they make the visuals of the book an absolute. There, Aragorn looks like Viggo Mortensen in a wig, he doesn’t appear how you imagined him. This too is something I hardly care about, if the depiction is close enough to the author’s descriptions. I care, most deeply, about the book being presented on screen. I am as close to a purist as they come, depending on the source material. My reasoning is this: studios are willing to spend millions of dollars to create films about (rabbits, elves, dragons, etc.) because the author has given them the idea to do so. The author has come up with something brilliant, endearing, exciting, all by himself. He has attracted a following due to the quality of his own ingenuity, so successfully that a studio takes notice, and says, “Let’s shoot it. Get the rights.” So when I read a book, I am imagining it in my own way, my own colors in my mind, but I am imagining the events contained within. The story is what I watch in my head. I do not add a thing. There are many books (like Watership Down) which are easy to visualize cinematically, and this again speaks to the skill of Richard Adams. I watch rabbits trek across a field; I do not supplement a monstrous cow stampeding in their path for the sake of excitement. I’m already captivated by what I’m reading, as are thousands of other readers when they open the book.
Yet time and again, the studio brings in screenwriters, and the screenwriters examine the book; they pick it up, they read it (sometimes I don’t think they make it this far), and then they begin to write their script; somewhere in all of this, these screenwriters say to themselves, “You know, this book is cute and all, but I’m going to make it even better. So-and-so may be a beloved author with a timeless story that is enjoyed all over the world, but wait till they see my ideas.” It’s arrogance, or maybe more innocently, it’s resignation. Hollywood writers are fond of explaining that books are books and movies are movies, and the changes are inevitable. In some cases I think they’re correct, some books are too long or too complicated to adapt to the letter, but this same attitude tends to give lesser talents the defeatist license to go ahead and pull machete from sheath and have at the crummy book, integrity be damned. Rarely do such adaptations prove successful, or if they do, it’s because the book’s audience is fairly faded, or the book is so old that people have already seen a dozen different renditions and don’t mind a fresh take on it.
I’m not a complete purist. Not every single line and moment and breath of the story should be put to film. Certain events may need some moving around to tighten the pacing. Game of Thrones is a near perfect example; the books are brilliant but chaotically digressive tales, growing more unfocused with every new plotline, and in watching the HBO series I find myself agreeing with nine out of ten changes the showrunners make. Films are films, books are books, I don’t deny that. But some films are purely films, written to be films. If we’re to make a movie of a book, let’s honor the book, not give an excuse for every far-cry alteration.
As one final tragic example, I remember watching the first part of the recent Hobbit trilogy back in 2012. Again, I’d been anticipating it for years, my childhood friend had come to town so we could see it together, I’d reread The Hobbit the previous summer and written a fantasy novel as a result of its inspiration—and the movie began. I remember afterwards describing my experience, “It was as though I had read The Hobbit in one night, and fallen asleep, and had a dream where my brain was trying to report what I’d read, and whenever the dream became too accurate, a kangaroo would suddenly appear, and I would only want to wake up.”
Sometime in the near future I hope to discuss the Watership Down adaptation further, but this is enough for now. The BBC and Netflix have an overall decent track record, the series is said to be 4 hours long (which should allow for a complete telling of the tale), and the cast looks passable. Here’s to hope and disappointment. And the simple fact that no matter who tries to retell a story and how abysmally it is told, the book remains.