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Watership Down

When people think of rabbits, they tend to think of soft, furry harmless things that hop about in meadows, eat grass and hand out chocolates on Easter. People who have pet rabbits can attest to their occasional bad attitudes and willingness to scratch you with their claws. People who have read or seen the film adaptation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down will tell you rabbits are so frickin’ badass it hurts. Watership Down is the story of a runt named Fiver and his older brother Hazel along with a handful of other rabbits and their journey across the lands of England to escape the destruction of their warren and begin life anew. But the story doesn’t just end there, especially not when a rival warren lead by the brutal and cruel dictator General Woundwort has anything to say to that. Richard Adams was inspired by a book The Private Life of the Rabbit by a British naturalist named Ronald Lockley, which details the various aspects of rabbit life and physiology and incorporated this into his own epic tale. While most of the characters in the book tend to not be too distinct, it is only because there are characters who are so memorable as to overshadow the others. Hazel soon becomes leader of the group and it is through him primarily that the story is told. He knows who to take the advice of others and is more than willing to try things that are new or unusual for rabbits in the hopes of using it to the greatest advantage for his warren. Fiver is more of a shamanic character with visions and ties to the spiritual word which is expressed mostly through premonition (it is his initial feelings of misgiving that cause him to warn Hazel about the imminent destruction of their home warren). Bigwig is more of a rough and burly sort of fellow, tough and serious on the outside but with the proverbial heart of gold and a strength and tenacity that is almost unparalleled among the fictional world. Blackberry is the most intelligent of the rabbits and it’s his grasp of physics and mechanics that enables the rabbits to pull off some of their major feats.

Watership Down

left to right: Pipkin, Bigwig, Dandelion, Hazel, Blackberry, and Fiver

The story begins with Fiver’s warning to Hazel and then fleeing the imminent destruction of their warren at the hands of men who bought the acre of land and want to develop it. Escaping only days before with a handful of other rabbits, they flee through some woods before coming upon a different warren. The rabbits here have a dark secret despite their well-fed and robust appearance. Despite this and a few other obstacles that they overcome throughout the journey, they’re able to find the land that Fiver had envisioned on the top of a hill in the downs known as Watership. They live peacefully and at ease until Hazel brings up the final hurdle they must overcome: in their haste to leave their old warren, they neglected to bring any does along with them. What follows is a stealth mission into the militaristic warren called Efrafra run by none other than General Woundwort. Rabbits here are overcrowded past capacity but none are allowed to leave their burrows except at designated feeding times. They’re scarred with marks that pertain to their unit (left-hind mark, or neck mark for example) and are as miserable a bunch of rabbits as anyone could lay eyes on. After a brilliant plan that almost didn’t succeed, the general mounts a full scale attack on their warren. I’ll not spoil the ending, but it’s every bit as clever a plan as their hero El-ahrairah would have devised.
Bigwig

Bigwig

The film tends to diverge only in that it omits certain small events and added a scene where a random background rabbit is eaten by a kestrel. But the gorgeous watercolor backgrounds and fantastic music make up for it in droves. Each rabbit character is drawn distinctly yet fairly realistically which adds to the characters. The semi-sequel Tales from Watership Down adds to some of the mythos and gives short stories concerning some of the descendants of the warren and other events after the conclusion of the original book. Disregard the animated series if you have any love for this property.

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