Tuesday 10 September 2013

Review: Watership Down

Ah, a real classic!
Watership Down was one of those movies that traumatised me (and many others) as a child with it's gruesomely graphic depictions of bunny-violence, and a downright disturbing and genuinely horrific tone overall.
Don't get me wrong, it was still a great and memorable story, but sheesh. Please don't show the film version to your young kids, guys.

I didn't actually get around to reading the original book until I was at university, but boy am I glad I did! Rather than being a harrowing tale of violence between fuzzy animals, the book is far lighter and easier to digest than the movie adaptation. It was the one novel that really sold me on Richard Adams as an author, and later led on to me reading my all-time favourite Maia.

This is genuinely a book for all ages. It has a wonderfully compelling moment-to-moment narrative, with our cast of bunnies embarking on their journey to find a new home after their original warren is destroyed, combined with a thoroughly charming and fleshed out world of fantasy seen through the eyes of an animal, and topped off with a pleasant scoop of intellectual subtext to boot!

Perhaps my favourite part of Watership Down is the richness of character the book has. It would have been very easy to make the bunnies in this story relatively simple anthropomorphic creatures who behave in more or less the same was as humans, but Richard Adams really pulls out the stops by creating an entire bunny culture and mythos to support his cast of characters. They have their own belief systems, language, rituals, and limitations (one particularly cute detail I enjoyed was learning that Adams' rabbits are unable to count higher than four). Just like in any well-executed tale of fantasy these details are woven into the narrative as and when they are appropriate, rather than bogging down the story in heavy exposition to get you up to speed with how everything works in bunny-land. It's a wonderful collection of detail and characterisation that lends the book a distinct sense of individuality and identity, making Watership Down a place you can genuinely lose yourself in despite its everyday setting in the real world.

Alongside the supporting details the book boasts a wonderful cast of characters that, while simple, fill exactly the variety of roles that I adore in a story like this. Amongst others you have the leader, the warrior, the thinker, the intuitive one, the stubborn one, the fallen hero, and, of course, the antagonist.

The Big Bad in this novel, General Woundwort, is one of my favourite villains in literature (in fact, I even wrote a university paper all about him!). Like the other bunnies he is characterised incredibly simply, but incredibly effectively. He's big and scary and dangerous, but he also has depth and a degree of sympathy to be felt towards him. Rather than just being the boogeyman of a fun childrens adventure, he feels like a real person (bunny, whatever) with motivations and reasoning behind his actions. Without spoiling too much, even his status as a villain is left slightly ambiguous up until the last moment. If you've read my Werewolf series Wild Instincts, a lot of what happens in that story is inspired by Watership Down, and one character in particular has more than a touch of General Woundwort in him!

Besides the story and characters, there's also a nice amount of literary subtext to be found in the novel (an unintentional amount, according to the author, but one can't help but feel that an intelligent writer like Adams tends to incorporate these ideas naturally). The idea of the hero's journey features prominently, along with an exploration of various social structures (anarchism, democracy, and dictatorship) seen in the different rabbit warrens the characters come into contact with over the course of the story. There are also connotations to Homer's Odyssey, and this thread of epic storytelling is a common one to be found amongst many of Richard Adams' works. Thankfully, again, none of these themes are handled too heavily, providing a pleasant accompaniment to the story rather than ever becoming the central focus of it.

Watership Down is a great example of everything I love in an easy, but memorable read. It's simple, elegant, effective, and just deep enough to suck you in without ever becoming too heavy. When a book can be just as compelling for young children and literary scholars alike, I think it's genuinely something special.
I will say that Watership Down never really made me feel those highs of emotion that some other books have, but that's hardly a detriment to the story considering its subject matter and audience.

It's a stellar read, and one of those books that I think everyone should have a copy of somewhere on their shelf.

I'd give Watership Down a bunny-licious Required-Reading Out Of Ten!

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