Richard Adams’s Watership Down is one of my favourite books. In fact, it is one of only a very small handful of novels to actually make me cry (during the final couple of pages). I also enjoyed the 1978 animated film, which captures the mood of the text very well.
However, it is also true that many, many people from my generation consider Watership Down (the book and more notoriously the film) to be one of the most singularly traumatic experiences of their childhood – and not in a good way! A recent article on film critic Mark Kermode’s blog discussing U certificate films featured a comment from one person who described Watership Down as a “one way ticket to post traumatic stress disorder” without any hint of irony.
I agree the film should not have been rated U, even by 1978 standards. An “A” classification (PG these days) would have been more appropriate. There are enough strongly disturbing images in the film – including nightmarish visions of the warren apocalypse and the bloody mauled rabbits – to make a U classification a misguided decision at best. To this day the BBFC receive annual complaints about Watership Down. However, because the film has never been resubmitted, it still has a U rating.
But such controversy should not, in my opinion, detract from what is an altogether remarkable book. Adams’ stunningly vivid descriptions of the English countryside – at rabbit level – are among the best in all of English literature. The smells, textures and tastes of every leaf, twig and acorn are conveyed with remarkable skill.
Furthermore the story – about a group of rabbits fleeing their warren when one of their number foresees destruction at the hands of property developers – had a profound impact on me as a child. The second half of the book in particular, where they happen upon a Soviet Union-esque warren led by villainous General Woundwort, really made me think about the nature of freedom, and why it is worth fighting for. Yes, there are traumatic moments throughout, but they vital to the story.
Ultimately Watership Down is not a very specific allegory, unlike Orwell’s Animal Farm. Woundwort’s warren could just as easily represent Nazi Germany or any number of oppressive totalitarian regimes. But the book was something of a gateway drug to Orwell, and as such retains my greatest affections.
Why then did so many others of my generation not have a similar experience? Whenever I mention Watership Down to anyone my age, almost without exception they turn pale and speak as though recalling the deaths of their comrades on the front lines in Vietnam. Surely there must be others out there that don’t just see Watership Down as a book or film that massively upset them as a child, but as a story that helped shape their morality and view of the world.
Or am I alone in this?