The Warren Is Empty: Watership Down At 40

40 years on it seems as though the animated film adaptation of the Richard Adams novel has lost none of its power to disturb; nor, says Gary Budden, its allegorical potential where its creator claimed there was none

The 1978 animated film Watership Down, directed by Martin Rosen, looms larger in the collective psyche than even the mega-selling 1972 novel by Richard Adams on which it is based. It is certainly what we picture when discussing the famous story of the rabbits of Sandleford Warren, fleeing the destruction of their home. It’s a story with provocative elements that make the film so compelling: the rabbit Fiver’s apocalyptic and psychedelic visions, the bloody violence of the owsla and General Woundwort, the (alleged) allegories of totalitarian power structures.

Rosen’s film continues to elicit strong reactions – as recently as 2016, there was online outcry from a group of parents, presumably lacking remote controls, outraged at Channel 5’s decision to air the U-certificate film at 2:25pm on Easter Sunday. Cosy and comforting, they suggested, is not the film’s vibe. It possesses a radical edge that perhaps none of its creators intended.

Written the same year as the film’s release was an essay titled ‘Epic Pooh’ by the writer Michael Moorcock, famous for his science-fiction and fantasy novels that upended many established genre tropes in the Elric books amongst others. The essay is an attack on what Moorcock saw as the mollifying and comforting aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, suggesting they share a tone with A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh books (themselves seeing a renewed interest in cinematic form with saccharine offerings like this year’s Christopher Robin). Moorcock suggests the novel Watership Down shares this tone:

"The sort of prose most often identified with ‘high’ fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies. It is soft."

Which sounds like exactly what the outraged Channel 5 viewers wanted and expected from the film shown that Easter afternoon. They received something else, and were incensed.

As neither a fan of Tolkien or Lewis, I agree with Moorcock on the essential point about this inherent conservatism lurking in much English fantastic literature, for both children and adults; give me the work of Robert Holdstock, Susan Cooper or Alan Garner any day.

In ‘Epic Pooh’ he describes Richard Adams’ work as:

"A sort of Pooh-fights-back fiction… which substitutes animals for human protagonists, contains a familiar set of middle-class Anglican Tory undertones (all these books seem to be written with a slight lisp) and is certainly already more corrupt than Tolkien."

The message is clear enough. Watership Down, in prose form at least, is part of the conservative, coddling English literature beloved by the Tory-voting petit bourgeoisie.

I find the novel much more engaging than Lewis and Tolkien. I enjoy the lapine mythology Adams creates, which is enjoyably strange and realistic, with memorable like El-ahrairah and the god Frith. Admittedly it’s not too far from the silliness of much sub-Tolkien fantasy, but remains distinct from it. And crucially – Adams has said this himself – the book is not one solely intended for children; but neither, according to its author, does it have any agenda or allegorical value.

In a 2007 interview with BBC Berkshire he states:

“I don’t think there’s any pro or anti-society in Watership Down, it’s simply a tale. If I tell a tale there has to be some baddies as well as some goodies and there are several baddies in Watership Down. It’s only a made-up story, it’s in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls.”

A very disappointing thing for an author to say (when is anything ever ‘only’ a story?), but whatever the case, clearly no one told the director Martin Rosen. It’s worth remembering Rosen also adapted Adam’s The Plague Dogs into an animated film even more harrowing and melancholy than its more famous predecessor. Perhaps because I was listening to a lot of Conflict and Propagandhi at the time, I only ever saw it as an animal rights film. To Moorcock, the novel displays "an almost paranoid conservative misanthropism"; misanthropy, of course, is something shared by both conservatives and the animal rights movement. Disgust at humanity is a driving force behind much extreme and heavy music, also.

Watership Down had long lurked in my tangled memory of childhood viewings, where the feelings provoked remained much longer than recollection of the plot or characters. The film was fondly remembered, but had the reputation of being terrifying and troubling. It was not really a kids’ film. But kids’ television in the 70s was like that, right? So, for a long time I dismissed it as a thing for children, as enjoyable and forgettable in adult life as The Animals Of Farthing Wood and The Wind In The Willows. A weird, but in the end comforting, tale of England, its countryside and the anthropomorphised animals who live there.

Watership Down suggest rabbits are an integral part of natural Britain, under threat from encroachments of humanity into the idealised Berkshire landscape. Only, of course, rabbits are not integral at all. Depending on how far back you want to take things, they have as little ‘right’ to be here as more recent invasive species such as Japanese knotweed, mink or the signal crayfish. The question of what we view as belonging to the land versus what is alien, and why we do so, is a troubling and intriguing one.

The film certainly cements the rabbits’ essential Englishness – the melancholy intonations from John Hurt, Richard Briers and Nigel Hawthorne make the film as English as, well, John Hurt, Richard Briers and Nigel Hawthorne.

But to suggest that the film is comforting or twee flies in the face of received wisdom. There are regular jokey pieces claiming the film traumatised a generation of young viewers, and a recent new adaptation by the BBC promised to tone down the violence and more troubling elements – which, of course, admits that these elements were there to begin with. Executive producer of the new series, Rory Aitken, is quoted as saying, "While we won’t shy away from the darkness in the book, visually it won’t be as brutal and scarring."

The creators of the 1978 version created something brutal and strange, with genuine radical elements. Through the character of Fiver, we are presented with a lurking apocalyptic threat, and unnerving visions of fields of blood. The action is set in a world of violence and restrictive power systems. Think of the rabbit Cowslip and the strangely placid warren the rabbits discover – these animals are well fed, healthy, content to a degree. Every now and then one of their number simply disappears. This is the Warren Of Snares. No one talks about the disappearances; it is the price to pay for a form of peace.

For anyone to claim this does not have allegorical resonance is wilfully ignoring what is in front of their eyes.

I am not the only one to have come to this conclusion. It is my love of underground UK punk and hardcore that drew me back to Watership Down via the band Fall Of Efrafa, who existed between 2005 and 2009. An explicitly anti-fascist, atheist, vegan, animal rights crust punk band from Brighton whose work was conceptualised around the mythology present in Watership Down. Efrafa is the rabbit colony ruled by the authoritarian General Woundwort, who oppresses any dissent. It’s glaringly obvious why this story might resonate with people possessing punk and anti-fascist politics. Fall of Efrafa released a trilogy of albums known as The Warren Of Snares: Owlsa, Elil and Inle, influenced by bands like Agalloch, Tragedy, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Discharge, His Hero Is Gone and Neurosis; a crushingly heavy mix of crust, post rock, doom metal and hardcore punk. The records are a direct attack on dictatorial systems, on organised religion, and mankind’s destructive practises. All fairly standard stuff for a political punk band then; hardly ‘mouth-music’.

In a 2008 interview with the band, discussing Watership Down’s influence:

"It is a metaphorical tale about a group of refugee rabbits fleeing from a warren destroyed by man. Throughout the book, the rabbits encounter different political institutions. The final of which is ‘efrafa’ a fascist warren that oppresses its own people, with particular reference to women as second class citizens. When we formed the band, we took this idea and applied it to our own narrative, the ‘efrafa’ representing the encroachment of man, and ‘owsla’ representing the natural world."

In Rosen’s film and the music of Fall Of Efrafa, the imagined English countryside around Sandleford is a place of vicious battles against established power structures, and against the crush of totalitarianism. It is not an imagined bucolic space of peace and happiness removed from modernity, but a place of intense ideological conflict and physical violence. The countryside here is not comforting.

Putting any political interpretation aside, there is a radicalism in simply how the film is presented – the melancholy ‘Bright Eyes’ by Art Garfunkel’s accompanying a rabbit’s death, the memorable (and yes, brutal and scarring) battle between General Woundwort and Bigwig, the aforementioned psychedelic apocalyptic visions of Fiver, the odd, pagan-flavoured Lapine mythology. There have been suggestions that the film is now too strong – a snowflake generation of parents too scared to toughen up their kids – but reviewers back in the 70s had the same reactions and objections as people do now.

The film, and the extreme music inspired by it, directly fed into the emerging concept of ‘landscape punk’ that I have a written about frequently (such as my piece in The Quietus last year, recently dug out and quoted by a few people in the wake of the Paul Kingsnorth ‘Elysium Found?’ furore). At a time when dividing lines are being drawn among writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers about the contested ideas relating to landscape, national identity, belonging, folk culture, and connections to ‘the land’, Watership Down feels relevant; as do the various interpretations people give it. Is the story just a story, as Richard Adams would have us believe? Is the film, like the novel, merely a comfort blanket for the English middle-classes in a rapidly changing world, as Moorcock suggests? But then, I ask myself, how did that story upset those parents unable to change the channel and inspire a trilogy of raging crust punk records.

Forty years on the film of Watership Down remains a talking point able to stoke up controversy. It is something of a curio, a psychedelic and violent adaptation of a novel that according to its creator meant nothing and is accused of originating from and promoting a wooly pastoral English conservatism.

Yet I think about the Warren Of Snares, and the price of contentedness, and I see something very different.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today