Five years ago, Lost in Translation reviewed the animated adaptation of Watership Down. The film’s limitation was length, unable to get everything in from the original novel by Richard Adams. The art was gorgeous and the film covered most of the beats.
Watership Down, of course, is the story about a group of rabbits who search for a new home after their original warren is destroyed by men. The journey is hazardous, with weather, predators, man, and other rabbits providing dangers along the way. Hazel, the rabbit who gets the survivors together, does get to found Watership Down, the new warren.
In 2018, Netflix and the BBC co-produced a mini-series based on the novel, using CG animation. The cast includes Ncholas Hoult as Fiver, James McAvoy as Hazel, John Boyega as Bigwig, Freddie Fox as Captain Holly, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, Gemma Arterton as Clover, Rosamund Pike as the Black Rabbit, Peter Kapaldi as Kehaar the seagull, and Ben Kingsley as General Woundwort. The four-part mini-series is CG animated, with the rabbits given details to tell them apart beyond just voice. As with the the 1978 animated adaptation and even the original novel, the mini-series is not for young children; Netflix shows the rating as TV-PG.
The four parts of the mini-series break down logically. “The Journey” covers Fiver’s visions of the old warren’s destruction, the escape by a handful of rabbits, their encounter with a warren that has forgotten the old ways, and the founding of Watership Down well away from man. “The Raid” picks up with the problem the new warren has, a lack of does, and the work done to rectify that; Hiver going off to rescue hutch rabbits from a farm and another group going to a large warren to see if any it can spare any does and even bucks, with both enterprises failing. “The Escape” picks up with Clover, Fiver, and Bigwig finding a wounded Hazel, and Bigwig going to the large warren to rescue the Watership Down rabbits from General Woundwort. “The Siege” ends the series with General Woundwort’s assault on Watership Down and the valiant defense by Hazel and his rabbits.
The first thing the audience sees is a CG field so real, it triggers hay fever attacks. The animation is lush, the rabbits detailed with expressive faces while still being rabbits. Members of the Owsla, like Captain Holly and Bigwig, and characters injured in the run of the story all have scars appear. General Woundwort shows a lifetime of battles on his body. Like the animation in the 1978 film, the mini-series’ is lush and adds to the tone of scenes.
Casting is also well done. Ben Kingsley when he phones in a performance is worth watching; he is not phoning in his performance as General Woundwort. He provides a menace to the character without having to yell. The rest of the characters are also well cast, with Boyega bringing out Bigwig’s hotheadedness, McAvoy shows Hazel’s growing weariness with life as chief rabbit, and Hoult brings out Fiver’s nervousness and hesitation. Capaldi’s Kehaar sounds like the brash seagull the character is.
With a combined runtime of 203 minutes, the mini-series has more time to delve into the rabbit culture, from their beliefs to their day-to-day lives. The result is a more intense story, with the fate of Watership Down and its inhabitants unknown to audiences who haven’t read the book. The mini-series does cover the novel, keeping the perspective to what the rabbits know of the world, just like the original. The worldview presented is from the rabbits.
In the end, the series adapts the original well. The quest of the surviving rabbits from Stableford to find a new home remains intact, the highs and the lows. Richard Adams’ tale makes the transition from print to television intact, with the characters unchanged. The cast, crew, and writing staff of the mini-series put in an effort to keep true to the original novel, and the results show it.