Kay’s Review of BBC’s Watership Down

I’ve been looking forward to the BBC’s take on Watership Down for a good two or so years before it came out, along with most of the Watershed Down Facebook fan group. So when we finally got the release date for over Christmas earlier this year that was rad!

I watched the series on the 22nd and 23rd December. The new take on the classic story seems to be met with very mixed reviews, so I just wanted to talk about what I liked and what I didn’t.

Things I liked

  • Hazel and Bigwig’s relationship, and the emphasis the first half of the series had on Bigwig’s reluctance to call Hazel his chief. It was a big part of the book and I felt they brought that across really well.
  • Cowslip’s warren – I think they did this better than the first movie. Cowslip was very true to the book character in my opinion, he was as eccentric and as shrewd as I wanted his character to be, and we got to see more of the warren and it was better explained as to why warren was shady. I was watching the argument with Fiver and Bigwig and I was saying to Terry ‘Any moment now his smug ass is getting snared…’ And true enough, it was just like the book and this entire section was just wonderfully done.
  • The casting – I really liked the casting. Including the change of accent they gave Kehaar. Kehaar the seagull has a very distinct voice and accent in both the book and first movie, and it was surprise when this version didn’t follow suit. But he was very much the same character, just Scottish for a change. I really liked cocky Kehaar.
  • Fiver’s visions. So these were different, we saw more clearly what was going on in his head, and I liked this. In the first movie we saw less of what Fiver was actually seeing.
  • Sam Smith’s theme song for the movie was awesome, but of course I was going to think that. If I’m honest, I expect had anyone else in the world done the theme I’d have joined the side of the people sad that ‘Bright Eyes’ was not reintroduced to the story.
  • Efrafa – We saw SO MUCH more Efrafa in this version. I guess that’s the perk of having three hours as opposed to the 70 or so minutes the first movie had. But that extra time allowed us to get to know those characters better, and we even got an insight in to General Woundwort’s backstory.
  • El-ahrairah and Inlé – The animation when they told the story of El-ahrairah was spot on and the perfect introduction to the movie. I was nervous when the movie started, having seen the animation and waiting two years for this to come out, I really didn’t want to be too disappointed. When the story of El-ahrairah finished playing I remember doing a sigh of relief and turning to Terry to go ‘Okay this is great.” Likewise the lore of the book was handled really nicely, the way the black rabbit of Inlé came in to the story and the use of Lapine was really well done. It didn’t feel dumbed down for a younger audience or those who hadn’t read the book. I guess some of the Lapine might have confused viewers who weren’t familiar, but I loved it.

Things I didn’t like

  • The story strayed a fair bit towards the second half of the new series, with some completely different events. No boat escape, Strawberry in Efrafa and Fiver being took in to the farm. Granted having that happen to Fiver ended up fitting really well after the other changes. But I do think the second half was a weird level of different compared to the first half.
  • The animation. We gotta mention this, because I haven’t spoken to anyone who wasn’t just a little bit disappointed with the animation. This was advertised as being a fairly high budget project, and with the great star line up, finally seeing the actual movie was a little disappointing on this front, because it was way under average for what you expect a 3D animated movie to look like these days. That said, it didn’t distract me nearly as much as I thought it would in the end. Because the movie made up for it by being scripted really well and I was far more happy to just be hearing one of my favourite stories be retold than to sit there letting the dodgy animation ruin it for me.
  • Hazel telling Bigwig to call him Chief to Woundwort. In the book/first movie, the moment where Bigwig announces that he is defending the warren for *his* chief is such a big deal, because the enemy rabbits all believed Bigwig was the chief until that moment. And it shows the development of Bigwig’s character from hotheaded-fighter to kickass soldier bunny. I don’t know why they decided to have Hazel tell Bigwig to say it, it was odd and took a lot away from one of the best moments in the story.
  • Not including Hazel’s conversation with Frith. In the story, there’s a really well known moment where Hazel is running the farm dog up to Watership Down to scare away the Efrafa rabbits. On his way Hazel prays to Frith to spare his warren for his own life. The conversation doesn’t return anything because Frith tells him ‘What is, is what must be’. And everything turns out fine anyway, but I think this scene should have been included.
  • Pointless romance story-arcs. I didn’t see the point in coupling up the characters the way it did.

I was a little worried about the gender-swapping they did of Strawberry. Because in the book all the rabbits who originally discover Watership Down are all male, and they swapped Strawberry to give more of a balance. The reason I was worried about this change was because it’s very much a big part of the book when the characters get to Watership Down that there are no does, and so they can’t ensure the warren outlives them. In the end the gender swap didn’t affect the story at all and it was still a ‘we need more does’ situation, and Strawberry turned out to be one of the better characters in this version.

I’ve said a lot of things about why this version was better than the 1970s movie. But I still prefer the old movie, because it’s just a classic. I don’t really care about the gore levels in either version of the story, that doesn’t come in to it for me. The original movie surpasses this one because of the way it makes you feel. You watch the original movie, and the combination of beautiful animation and music takes you right in to rural Britain, and it’s that mood that the new movie just couldn’t replicate for me. The original movie has way more emotion in the final scene and I don’t really think they ever could have beat it.

Waterstones released a special edition of the book recently too, which arrived today! So I’m re-reading now. I hope there might be another take on the story at some point, it’s one of my favourites and I’m glad for any re-telling which might put the story in the hands of more people.

Author: Kay

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