Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Watership Down

I grew up watching the movie of Watership Down on HBO, over and over again. I was always moved by how serious and scary it was -- not like any animated film I'd seen. Roddy McDowall's performance as Fiver still haunts me. But people always sniffed, "The movie is nothing like the book -- the book is SO much better." So, finally, I got around to reading it. Or rather, listening to the audiobook, superbly performed by Ralph Cosham. And, you know what? It's really not that different than the movie. Oh, certainly, it's deeper, and there is more of it, but looking at it now, I'm amazed that the movie was able to capture as much of the tone and nature of the book as it did.

It's interesting to think about what makes Watership Down such a unique book. There are lots of books about animal worlds... but there is something very different about Watership. It's partly that the book is trying in no way to be a fantasy. It tries very, very hard to be a real story about real rabbits. Adams explains how he read several books about the lives of rabbits, so that he could capture the details of what they really do. But then, of course, it is a fantasy. The rabbits end up doing things that rabbits would never do. In essence, it is a book about "What does it mean to be a rabbit?" And the only way to explore that is to have the rabbits explore the boundary between rabbit-like behavior and human-like behavior. Because, ultimately, by having the positive space of the book be what it means to be a rabbit, the negative space becomes an exploration of what it means to be human. And so, this interesting fable becomes something much deeper. Not a heavy handed parable, like Animal Farm, but rather an exploration of rabbit and human nature that asks more questions than it answers.

A side note: one thing the movie doesn't really do is to explore the "rabbit language." Adams uses a lot of "rabbit words" which is a literary technique that mishandled can seem affected and make the dialog ridiculous. But he handles it artfully, and the small number of special rabbit-language words that are used help the reader feel part of the rabbit world.

One more side note: Ralph Cosham's performance is very, very good. There is a lot of multi-rabbit dialog, and his mastery of subtle changes of voice made it a deep and emotional experience -- it is one of those audiobooks that elevates the form by being arguably a better experience than simply reading the text ever could be.

Final final side note: One day I'm going to look at the final battle in both the Watership Down movie, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off side-by-side. I'm pretty sure they are shot for shot identical.

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