Netflix Captures the Doom and Dread of Watership Down
The series taps into the timeliness (and timelessness) of stories about oppressive political systems.
“In the beginning,” says a dream-reverberant voice in the first seconds of Netflix’s Watership Down, “Frith made the world. And he made the stars by scattering his droppings across the sky.” And in the beginning, Richard Adams, who was working at the time for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, told his children a story about some rabbits. Some of the rabbits were nice; some of the rabbits were nasty. And he wrote the story down, and a few years later, in 1972, it was published.
An unprecedented mash-up of eco-anxiety, homely bottom-of-the-garden anthropomorphism, real violence, and febrile mythmaking, Watership Down struck a nerve. Adams’s rabbits may have talked like they worked for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (“Well, I suppose we’d better go and see the Chief Rabbit …”), but they were wild. Wild! They ripped each other’s ears. They quivered in visionary throes. They devised oppressive political systems. They had a rabbit theology, rabbit jargon, and a distinctively rabbity, twitchy, neurologically extreme—you might even say paranoid—weltanschauung. “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies,” Lord Frith promises the first rabbit, the prime trickster bunny, El-ahrairah. “And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you.”
Netflix’s new animated miniseries has a daunting, shadowy forebear: the 1978 feature-length adaptation, also animated, that was written and directed by Martin Rosen. Trippy, brutal, and beautifully rendered, Rosen’s movie—the legend goes—was too much, freaking out all the little children with psychedelic gore. That’s not quite how I remember it: To an English schoolboy in the late ’70s, this world of small gray animals having prophetic seizures and slashing at each other with splintered claws was, if anything, comfortingly familiar. Nonetheless, its fearsome reputation persists.
But the thing about a story like this, a story in which a gang of rabbits is forced out of its warren by the bulldozers of greenbelt development and obliged to go on a harrowing adventure to find a new home, is that it doesn’t date. Is it even necessary to point out that, in the almost half a century since Adams first scattered his bunny droppings across the sky, this tale has sharpened in resonance? So all you have to do is tell it. And the Netflix version, made in collaboration with the BBC, tells it straight and very well.
The writer Tom Bidwell and the director Noam Murro stay loyal to the lines of Adams’s plot—the power struggles among the buck rabbits, the hunt for does—while maintaining contact with the spectral realm of rabbity nervousness and augury. The bad-trip visions of poor Fiver (Nicholas Hoult), the crew’s trembling, doom-obsessed seer (“I can feel the danger like a wire around my neck!”) are spectacular. Less dramatic but more stirring are the attempts of his brother Hazel (James McAvoy) to become a leader and—oh, poignant oxymoron—a brave rabbit. “The fear has taken hold of me,” Hazel tells Fiver. “It follows me, into my dreams. What if it breaks me?”
There’s been some grumbling about the quality of the animation. Looks great to me. The details are almost unsettling in their specificity and presence: every shining, twanging whisker; every knot in the fur. Broody sunset around a pylon; the half-light of a warren-tunnel, like being behind an eyeball. And the rabbits move like rabbits—that is, indolent or panicked, with nothing in between.
Of the copper-bottomed cast of voice actors, allow me to hail particularly John Boyega as the warlike and gruffly noble Bigwig, and Tom Wilkinson as the Threarah, chief rabbit of the condemned warren, munching on cabbage leaves and showing Hazel and Fiver his skeptical backside. “So you were saying,” rumbles the chief, “your brother senses things …” As for Rosamund Pike as the Black Rabbit, the consoling maternal Death Spirit that lifts all rabbits out of their fear and suffering—“You’ve been tired recently, haven’t you, old friend? Well, I can do something about that”—she made me cry like a little bunny.
So score yourself a nice muddy carrot, settle down, and enjoy this.