Watership Down – the story that traumatised children of the 1970s is back.
But is the BBC/Netflix new animation as terrifying as the famously gory and violent 1978 film, a piece of cinema that has caused a whole generation (of which I am one) to never look at bunnies, or the British countryside, in the same way again?
In short, no.
Based once again on the 1972 book, the new version of course deploys all the up-to-date wizardry of modern animation techniques. It’s quite stunning at times – you can see the ruffles in the rabbits fur, the splashes of mud in their coats. But greater detail does not (thankfully for some children and nervous adults) mean greater gore.
Yes, there are some frightening scenes in the story of Fiver and Hazel and co’s flight from the safety of the Sandleford Warren and their many dangerous adventures on the way. Fiver’s vision of the destruction of their home at the start is depicted at great length, but mainly as a still montage, of fleeing animals, mud thrown up, the faint outline of spattered blood and terror in the eyes of the rabbits. But there are no eviscerated bunnies on show. Not to start with anyway.
Similarly, the one truly frightening scene in episode one – where the renegade rabbits are set upon by some crows – may frighten very young children but it’s relatively tame. The moment when Bigwig dispatches one of the birds, and so sees off the threat, isn’t shown in detail either. He lunges to deliver the killer blow and the next image is a thunderclap and lowering clouds – when we return all we see is a dead crow (or Corvil as they are known in the story).
Similarly, when the chance upon Cowslip’s warren where the rabbits there docilely accept regular deaths at the hand of the traps left by the nearby farmer, the feeling is more creepy than anything.
Yes, it’s here that Bigwig is caught in a snare and his struggles and chokes are quite drawn out. But it’s probably not too terrifying for children – especially as Bigwig lives to fight another day.
In fact, there are many more scenes of bucolic English countryside, based on the Hampshire landscape where Adams lovingly set his story, as there are suggestions of death and destruction.
All of which makes it about right that the BBC has said that the version is not appropriate for very young children. Its recommended age range of 8 and above feels sensible.
What may put younger children off is slight faults in the animation – it’s detailed (as I say above) but the way the rabbits move sometimes looks a little stilted compared with current animations.
Also, the complexity of the storytelling could deter some. Episode one begins with a long appraisal of the myth-making of Richard Adams’ universe – how rabbits were given speed to out run their many enemies by the god Frith, how Frith treated the foxes and the birds of prey. All of which is rather involving. And we hear a lot of Adams’ rabbit language, Lapine.
Life in the warren is also rather complex and it takes a while to get used to the dynamics – Blackberry, Hazel, Blackberry, Bigwig and the renegades, the military caste of Owsla guards they are fleeing and the Efrafa the General Woundwort mob, they meet later in the story.
Children are probably also unlikely to pick up on some of the references – like the “white blindness” in the story which is a threat hanging over the rabbits and (for grown-ups) a clear reference to the Myxomatosis disease which was encouraged across the British countryside in the 1950s in an attempt to keep rabbit numbers down.
The menace of the Efrafa led by General Woundwort (and voiced by Sexy Beast star Sir Ben Kingsley) is quite frightening. But in episode one they are glimpsed only fleetingly. There are some quite dark scenes in episode two, probably the most gruesome being the branding with a sharp claw of the captured rabbits. But it’s nothing to keep you cowering behind the sofa.
But yes, rabbits do die in this story and toward the middle of the yarn we do encounter the Black Rabbit of Inlé, the mythical Grim Reaper-type figure of the bunny world who takes rabbits off at their appointed time.
But what the BBC and scriptwriter Tom Bidwell have done is made a quite clear attempt to tone down the violence of this tale (tail?). Not to such an extent that the schedulers think its appropriate for Christmas Day, but it should be acceptable to more children than the 1978 film and it won’t cause as many nightmares.
I’ll certainly let my youngest daughter watch – and she turns 8 next July…
Watership Down begins on BBC1 on December 22 at 7pm