Warning: These are not children’s movies.
I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 4th grade. It was a book that examined different types of society but all the characters were rabbits. Many people may be familiar with this popular book and I’m sure some people are familiar with Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation, which came out in 1978. If you saw the movie Watership Down when you were a kid you might remember most notably the abundance of blood (for a cartoon about talking bunnies, it is a smidge on the gory side). All things considered, Martin Rosen (who had never directed a movie before) makes a pretty darn good job of translating Watership Down to the big screen.
I read Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs in high school. My biggest surprise came well into my college career when it was brought to my attention that there was a film adaptation of it as well. Lo and behold Martin Rosen also made Plague Dogs into a movie in 1982, this time with even greater command of his animated medium.
Definitely read Richard Adams’ books, but I would encourage you to also investigate their film companions directed by Martin Rosen. It is obvious that Rosen has a deep respect and affection for Adams’ writing and does not compromise the integrity of either story, nor does he insult the audience by dumbing things down or belittling the characters. Rosen respects his audience and trusts them to be savvy enough to track along with him. Both films are great adaptations from great literature.
Watership Down, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of some renegade rabbits. When the runty prophet rabbit, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers in the film), predicts bunny genocide, Hazel (the amazing John Hurt) leads a group of fellow rabbits far away (against the wishes of their chief, voiced by Sir Ralph Richardson). The rabbits journey across the English countryside in search of a new warren, but the way is paved with trouble and bloodshed. There are other societies of rabbits with varying ideological positions on the nature of things and many battles will need to be fought before the end. Yes, they are bloody and it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.
There are some wonderful moments of suspense, peril, and surreal horror The rabbits’ relationship to their god, Frith (Michael Hordern), is a fascinating and touching representation of faith. Watership Down is not a sunny, happy Disney flick. It feels more like an historical account complete with myths and some original language (think Tolkien writing for a rabbit world). The movie also features the voices of Denholm Elliott and Zero Mostel (the role of the bumbling seagull, Kehaar, would be Mostel’s final film performance) and there’s even a very beautiful song by Art Garfunkel. Both the book and film are a pleasure.
Plague Dogs might be the darker story. Two battered dogs (voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin) escape a research laboratory in England and start their uncertain quest for happiness. They spend their time killing sheep to survive, but soon their attacks catch the attention of the humans and they realize they must become wild animals in order to stay alive. They get some pointers from a cunning fox who becomes a valuable—if not always trusted—ally.
Farmers report dog attacks on their livestock and the media investigates. Before long, some miscommunication leads everyone to believe that the dogs are infected with Bubonic Plague (hence the title). Starving and struggling in the wilderness the two dogs fight to survive and soon they must decide whether or not there ever was anything to hope for. This philosophical story asks the question: what if everything that drives us is just an illusion or a dim memory of a lost moment in time? Once again, Rosen adapts Adams’ tale very well. Technically it’s not as bloody as Watership Down but the violence is a little more disturbing and some of the dialects will be near incomprehensible to American audiences.
The British cut of the film is longer than the American cut, but it is paced much better and it keeps little character moments that really serve to develop the story and engage the audience a little more. If you can find the British cut I would recommend you see that version.
I showed Plague Dogs to a few friends and many of them really enjoyed it, but several people found it terribly depressing…which it is. I would say it all depends on how you look at it. Just as some people might find hope or doom in the finale of Brazil, I would say the film leaves the ending open to interpretation. I find endings like that make the experience more personal to the viewer. It is bittersweet to say the least.
Watership Down and Plague Dogs make for unusual books, but turning them into films might have been even more daring. Both films are adult dramas featuring talking animated animals. Difficult projects to market, but ultimately rewarding for the lucky few who still seek them out today. Both books come highly recommended and I would suggest that after finishing them you look into watching the movies too.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 3, 2009