A natural storyteller, Richard Adams had been making up bedtime stories for his daughters for years before the fateful car ride that spawned Watership Down. Alas, sometime before 1972, Juliet and Rosamond Adams demanded of their father something new for the trip from their home in London's Islington district to the Royal Shakespeare Company1. Adams, with plenty of knowledge and experience to draw from as a well-educated former parachutist for the Royal Army Service Corps, delivered. Over the course of the three hour ride, Adams came up with the backbone of the now-classic adventure tale: Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, and their treacherous journey.
Over bedtime sessions and further rides, he continued to flesh it out, elaborating without betraying the story's simple and universal themes. He based many of his characters on people he'd known in the service and used real locations from the English countryside as the settings 2. Eventually, the story became so long and good that his daughters implored him to write it down. Adams, of course, obliged. After many rejections, Watership Down was finally picked up by Rex Collings and published in 1972 to rave reviews and great popularity – ultimately becoming the bestselling book in Penguin's entire collection and winning several major awards. The book quickly worked its way into the very cultural fiber of the United Kingdom. Not, however, without the help of Martin Rosen's 1978 animated adaptation, which has taken on an iconic status of its own.
Prior to Watership Down, Rosen had produced a couple of films – most notably, 1968's Women in Love, which even won two Academy Awards. There's no speculating as to what the American producer's career might have been had he not come across Adams' book, but one thing is for sure: Watership Down changed his life. According to Watership Down superfan Chris Boyce, the book was recommended to Rosen while scouting for shooting locations in India. Within a year, he had purchased the rights to the film and began to figure out how to make it 3.
Rosen hired American animator John Hubley to spearhead the project4. Often described as a “maverick,” Hubley had chased his experimental muse throughout an impressive career. Before he began work on Rosen's project, he animated for Disney in the early 40s, left during an animators' strike, and created Mr. Magoo. Unfortunately, Rosen fired Hubley after a year, leaving behind a storyboard, a few commissioned songs, and very little usable material. His ambitions had, perhaps, exceeded budgetary limitations. The opening sequence, which is in a starkly different style than the rest of the film, is commonly attributed to him 5.
Rosen found himself out a year, a good amount of money, a script, and a director. Impressively, he assumed the roles of both writer and director and got to work. Rosen worked quickly and efficiently. He wrote the script as the production went along. He commissioned a score from Master of the Queen's Music Malcolm Williamson. When Williamson didn't compose fast enough, Rosen replaced him with Angela Morley. He cut two of the three original Mike Batt songs. (The one that survived, Bright Eyes, became a number one hit.) He hired a cast of BBC greats and Shakespearean vets including John Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne, and Harry Andrews to voice the characters6. What he came out with may not have broken any new ground in animation, but it did achieve his goal: to effectively bring the story of Watership Down to the big screen 7. That by itself would have been quite a feat. However, considering that Rosen had neither written nor directed before and that this was his first animated film, Watership Down was a runaway success. Audiences and critics agreed. Rosen befriended Adams and adapted his third novel, The Plague Dogs, in 1982. He produced a Watership Down animated TV series in 2001.
Since its release, there has been an ongoing discussion of whether or not Watership Down is for children. After all, considering that we're dealing with anthropomorphic woodland creatures here, there's quite a bit of blood, death, and mouth foam. Even the film's promotional poster, which depicts the dark silhouette of a snared and panicked Bigwig, is scary. (As if the presence of the words “sung by Art Garfunkel” wasn't scary enough in 1972.) That nasty stuff has led many to blacklist Watership Down as a very serious adult affair or worse. Others can't get past the talking rabbits. If it has talking rabbits, or talking animals of any sort, really, then they think it must be for children. Without ignoring its roots as something a father cooked up for his daughters, the best way to look at it is as the rare story that is not only passably appropriate for everyone, but invaluable to people of all ages. Such is the power of fantasy. As Adams put it, “it's a book, and anyone who wants to read it can read it. 8” Watership Down does not pander, and that may be its greatest strength.
2 Yes, Watership Down is a real place, and you can even trace the rabbits' route there.
3 A film is not a book - Watership Down comes to the screen , Chris Boyce, 2004; website: http://realwatershipdown.org/mywd.htm
4 Fun fact: John Hubley is the father of Georgia Hubley, drummer for Yo La Tengo.
5 Australian production designer Luciana Arrighi may have had a hand in the Aboriginal style of this scene as well. The Hubley-Arrighi ratio is debated by Watership fans: http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/?p=949
6 Not to mention the United States' own comic hero Zero Mostel, who made his last film appearance here as Kehaar the gull
7 Not that it would be fair to describe the film as “utilitarian” or anything. It depicts the characters lovingly and the Berkshire country beautifully, with the lush green grass and deep blue water that I can, as an unfortunately untraveled Yank, only imagine it deserves.