Since its publication in 1972, Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down has become a staple of the fantasy genre, with adaptations for film, radio, television and, with a new miniseries produced by Netflix and BBC One, a version for the streaming era. Adams likely never thought the stories he told to his young daughters would become an internationally acclaimed novel, but then again, few thought the novel would stir any type of excitement for children or adults when he first sought publication.
Watership Down, though technically pitched as a children’s novel, is far denser than what kids in the 1970s may have been accustomed. Roughly 600 pages, depending on edition, Watership Down focuses on a warren that’s about to be taken over by man, as they build, develop, and from the perspective of those living in the community, colonize. A band of rabbits from the aforementioned community plot their leave and in seeking out a new home are met with tyranny, religious fanaticism, and predators of varying shape and size.
Prior to the novel’s publication, Adams’ was turned down by four publishers and three agents who declined to take on his fantastical work. One publisher, Rex Collings, did, and thus opened the door (or rather, dug the rabbit hole) for the imaginations of adults and children. Like Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and the original Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, Watership Down was spun from careful worldbuilding, but instead of Adams creating an entirely new world, he lifted the veil to one that already existed.
What Adams wrote was radical: a children’s novel meant to be taken seriously. The reactions were mixed, especially in America. D. Keith Mano of National Review was noted for calling the boom formulaic. “This bunny squad could be a John Wayne platoon of GIs,” he said later in The Washington Post. Critic Richard Gilman of The New York Times, further noted the novel lacked any wit when compared to the likes of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and grappled consistently with the intended audience.
“I’m grateful for much of what he’s done, but I’m not going to look at rabbits differently from now on, as several English reviewers said they would,” Gilman wrote. “I won’t see them as being any more like me than I did before; I’ll still regard them as representatives of a mysterious otherness, unable to penetrate the opacity of their gaze, a bit dismayed by their breeding habits, liking their bounding gait and glad of but not inspired by the fact that they exist.”
Adams’ novel was also criticized for its gender politics by Selma G. Lanes in a 1974 piece from The New York Times. Lanes described the final two-thirds of the novel as, “a ruthless, single-minded and rather mean-spirited search for females — not because Watership Down’s males miss their companionship or yearn for love but rather to perpetuate the existing band,” fervently noting the lack of humanity extended to the female characters.
But upon reflecting on the novel, writer Alison Lurie, of The New York Review of Books, said of Watership Down, “What a relief to read of characters who have honor and courage and dignity, who will risk their lives for others, whose love for their families and friends and community is enduring and effective — even if they look like Flopsy, Mopsy, and Benjamin Bunny.” Readers aligned with Lurie; once published, Adams’ novel was an overwhelming success in the U.K. and eventually reached international acclaim.
Like any piece of relatively popular or lauded literature, it was only a matter of time before Watership Down was adapted to the screen. A 1978 film feature has different legacy than the book: mainly, being the one of the most frightening animated films, leaving parents of curious children only slightly less than traumatized by the grizzly images and melancholy. Directed by Martin Rosen (The Plague Dogs), this first adaptation left a mark on audiences who gambled on its cartoon aesthetic — most notably, Guillermo del Toro.
In an interview for The Criterion Collection, del Toro describes how, at the age of 13, he was, “leaving behind my childhood and entering my teen years and [Watership Down] was sort of a rite of passage.” Through the drama and realism depicted in Rosen’s film, del Toro had an epiphany: Animation was not just a mode of communicating stories for children. As del Toro later explicates on, animals have been used to mirror socio-economic-political issues throughout history, but outside of works that utilize animals to mimic a human reality, like Orwell’s Animal Farm or the graphic novel Maus, Adams created a world with those same issues without the timely mimicry.
With acclaimed works like Pan’s Labyrinth and last year’s The Shape of Water, del Toro is a spinner of fairy tales for troubled times, and examinations of the form that transgress tropes and push boundaries. It’s no wonder why del Toro is so drawn to Adams’ work and subsequently by Rosen’s adaptation; the visceral experiences in examining both works don’t fall between children’s literature or adult parable, the binary that so much early criticism adhered to.
The problem of identifying for whom the text was “meant for” continues in the Netflix adaptation. The miniseries, now available on the streaming platform, feels like a skeleton. The source material commentary — translated faithfully in the 1978 film — isn’t fleshed out, and the animation is far more like a PC game than the technological advancements seen recently. It’s safe, mainly because it tries to be accessible to both adults and children.
Because the critical reception Watership Down’s various incarnations has been so well archived, there’s a likelihood those critical responses had an influence on where director Noam Murro and writer Tom Bidwell would take the miniseries. There are some much needed modern interpretations, with female characters given much more agency and crucial roles in the action; a dose of humanity Lanes was looking for. But the miniseries never, as the avid rabbits do, digs deep enough for the audience. It’s entertaining to see where Bidwell departs from the source material in favor of something new, but vexed by an inconsistent history of reception, this incarnation of Watership Down never chooses between being a fairy tale for adults or a mature fantasy for children. Rather, it stays safely in the middle, evading any sort of distinction.
Del Toro summed up the film and the source material best when he discussed Watership Down as a departure from childhood — an active transition between two worlds. With realism and the continuity of various themes, Richard Adams’ novel did not yield to comfort. Lifting the veil on an existing world that mimicked the one of humans, the warren of rabbits dealt with cruelty, triumph, and pain. Meditating on the criticism of the source material, especially following the visual realism of the animated film, Adams’ left an ambiguous novel rife with interpretation and in search of a specific audience.
But with the various incarnations seeking out who the material “belongs” to, the animated series and new miniseries have lost the complicated identity Adams’ created. The act of revisiting Watership Down will likely never end with its universal themes, compelling narrative and ultimately polarizing style. The way the source material is interpreted, vying to gain the same critical result as the novel, will be a long, tumultuous journey that a warren of rabbits once endured.
Julia is an entertainment writer with featured work at The Playlist, Film School Rejects, HelloGiggles, PopSugar, The Young Folks, and Screen Rant.