I never read the Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down, and I didn’t actually know anything about it before I watched the new animated BBC/Netflix limited series adaptation. The main reason I watched the series was because I saw it had rabbits in it and was rated PG, so I figured it was a go to watch with my kids.
After watching the series (click here for that) I watched the 1978 Watership Down film (available on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon and iTunes). I found both to be good (and disturbing!) in their own way.
What is Watership Down about? A lot more than a bunch of bunnies. The story centers around a group of anthropomorphized rabbits that lives in a community about to be destroyed by human construction. But this is not at all a lighthearted Over the Hedge-type story. These rabbits have their own folklore, idioms, hierarchy and culture. And their world is anything but bright and jokey.
Fiver is a rabbit who has strange visions of the future. His vision of their home being destroyed leads him and his brother, Hazel, and eventually several other rabbits, off on a search for a safe new home. Along the way, the rabbits encounter dangers in the form of other animals, humans, and darkest of all, other rabbits who are rather on the evil side.
Watership Down is kind of dark and scary. As I watched the series with my kids, I wondered at times if it was too scary or violent for them. My 4-year-old declared that he loved it and didn’t seemed fazed, but he’s exposed to talk of animal death on a pretty regular basis (since we have farming family members).
That being said, there’s definitely a fair amount of animal violence, and I’ve heard of adults being legitimately scared by it. Personally, I found the stellar computer animation of the series to make it that much easier to get invested, scared, and possibly disturbed by the Watership Down series. So I was hesitant to let my kids watch the 1978 Watership Down film.
I looked up the IMDB Parent’s Guide details (one of the few times I’ve actually used that section for my kids, instead of myself!), and my husband even told me he saw it in a YouTube compilation of most disturbing cartoon movies. But I decided to cautiously start it with the kids and turn it off it if it got too scary.
And my 4-year-old loved the movie, too. The violence in the film seemed a little heavier than the series, objectively speaking — more blood onscreen, discussion of a rabbit’s ears being ripped to shreds. But the old-style animation of the film made it seem much less realistic, and it was harder to feel the disturbing-ness like you can from the computer animation of the series. There is also a bit of mild language in both the series and the film, as well as the mythological aspect with references to their god Frith, that could be a little confusing for young Catholics.
So, which Watership Down is better? Having never read the book myself, I can’t say which adaptation stays closer to its source. But I do like the computer animated series better. The realistic look of it serves to pull you in pretty strongly to its plot and the plight of the interesting characters. One my favorite aspects in the series is the side character Bigwig. He starts out as kind of a hot-headed, blowhard bruiser of rabbit. But by the end, he’s grown and developed into a noble, heroic sort of guy — er, rabbit.
The film version doesn’t have as much of this character arc and is a little slimmer when it comes to character development in general. Both the film and the series are good — compelling, interesting, and very unique as non-comedy animated fare. But to me, the series feels like the more fleshed out and engrossing version.