How does the new Watership Down compare to the original?

We compare the original 1978 animation with the new version – has the story been changed?

Fiver (Nicholas Hoult) and Hazel (James McAvoy) ask Bigwig (John Boyega) if he can speak to The Threarah in Watership Down

Watership Down, the story that traumatised a generation, is back this Christmas.

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Richard Adams’ 1972 novel which was the inspiration for the 1978 animated film is being re-told in two lengthy episodes, with new animation techniques – and a whole new voice cast including Nicholas Hoult as the visionary rabbit Fiver and James McAvoy as the hero Hazel.

The new version is less troubling than the first film as we point out in our preview. But what are the main differences?

We’ve watched both closely and here are our findings…


The animation uses new techniques

Part of the reason the 1978 film was so frightening was the dark and oppressive visuals and sound. The simple animation allowed for fields to become drenched in red, and the eyes of seer runt rabbit Fiver to fill with blood when he had his terrifying visions. It leant the film an eerie nightmarish quality that has stayed with so many people over so many years. The new version is (obviously) more detailed, you can see the wind rush through the rabbits’ fur and the bucolic landscape is rendered in better detail. But while the 1970s film may have had backdrops that seemed to have been painted with all the skill and precision of a primary school play, that was what made it so frightening somehow. With greater detail comes less terror it seems.


A few scenes are changed, in particular the first flight from the Sandleford Warren…

When the rabbits first make their escape from the Sandleford Warren following Fiver’s visions they are forced to cross a river. In the 1970s animation they do so with relative ease. In the new version it follows a lengthy flight from the Owsla (essentially rabbit solders/policemen), an epic chase in which Bigwig is threatened by his former comrades. Soon after Violet is eaten by a hawk in the 1978 animation – that doesn’t happen in the new version which holds off the first death until much later in the story. It’s things like this that mean that the new version is more child-friendly.


…but Bigwig is a more terrifying creation in the new version

Bigwig, the Owsla rabbit who quits his job as one of the armed guards of the original troupe of rabbits and escapes with Fiver and Hazel, is the muscle of the gang of heroes. In the 1970s film he’s voiced by Michael Gragham Cox and seems softer and less menacing, deploying more languorous tones, than in the new adaption, where he’s voiced with gruff machismo by John Boyega. It’s one of the few notes in the new version which seems more scary and intimidating. I wouldn’t mess with modern day Bigwig.


Strawberry changes sex!

Olivia Colman voices Strawberry in Watership Down

In the book and the 1978 animation Strawberry, the rabbit who first encounters Hazel and co at Cowslip’s Warren (their first place of safety which turns out to be anything but) is a lazy but kind rabbit who knows his best chance of survival to join with Fiver and Hazel. But in the book and first film Cowslip is a male rabbit. In the new version Strawberry, voiced by Olivia Colman, is very much female, with the cast change serving an obvious plot point. Strawberry offers the gang the hope of breeding and starting a new warren community in Watership Down.


Sam Smith replaces Art Garfunkel

The new version doesn’t have the touching Art Garfunkel tune Bright Eyes, which we first hear when Hazel has been shot by the farmer (though survives). Here the new theme song Fire on Fire is by Sam Smith and somehow less haunting and memorable. The action of the 1978 film is accompanied by mournful strings for the incidental music. The tempo of the new version feels more upbeat – but with perhaps fewer toe-tapping tunes.


The bird

Kehaar, the gull who helps the heroic rabbits is a very different creation in the new version. In the animation he speaks with a bizarre and slightly unidentifiable Mitteleuropean twang and ‘ack ack’ sentences that seem designed to mimic the patterns of a seagull’s real sounds. In the new version Peter Capaldi plays Kehaar as a more fleshed out creation – bombastic self-centered and very greedy creation his accent is in Capaldi’s own Scots. He still helps the rabbits – but he’s just portrayed very differently and with a much greater emphasis on his comedy. In the 1978 cartoon Kehaar seems to swear at the rabbits at one point (“p*ss off” he clearly says) – something that would clearly be unthinkable in the tamer BBC teatime version.

In many other respects the story is much the same: Rabbits flee from warren and encounter all sorts of hazards along the way – from predators, fellow rabbits, dogs and men.

The new version may be less scary, there are certain tweaks and changes, but it’s not wildly different.

Or as Adams’ daughters Rosamond and Juliet, speaking to Radio Times this month put it, it’s also, essentially, “just a story about rabbits.”

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Watership Down starts on BBC1 on Saturday December 22 at 7pm and concludes on Sunday December 23 at 7.20pm