Hazel’s little brother Fiver has had a vision–their rabbit warren at Sandleford is about to be destroyed and the rabbits must emigrate to a new home before it is too late. Laughed at by most of the group, Hazel leads a small group of buck rabbits away from the tragedy about to strike. Treading a dangerous path among crows, foxes, and other elil, they make their way to a new home which they christen Watership Down.
A new problem arises, however, as the male rabbits realize they need does to propagate their kind. They discover a neighboring warren called Efrafa which seems to have a surplus of does. Led by the despotic General Woundwort, the rabbits in Efrafa live in fear of him and of the soldiers who routinely bully them into submission. Hazel’s rabbits concoct a plan to infiltrate Efrafa and help the does escape. They send in Bigwig, one of their strongest, to join Woundwort’s cohort. Then, with the help of Kehaar, a mouthy and somewhat unreliable seagull, the rabbits make a daring escape. Woundwort will not be made a fool of so easily, however, and the story moves inexorably to the final showdown on the hill of Watership Down.
Throughout this four-part miniseries, the story seamlessly weaves the mythology and lore of the rabbit world into a tale of action adventure. Frith, the sun-god who created the world, is who the rabbits live by and swear by. El-ahrairah, the legendary trickster rabbit, inspires them all with stories of his cunning. And the Black Rabbit of Inle is death itself, a mysterious, grim, but beautiful phantom that comes to claim those whose time for running is over.
Although the plot is compelling, it is the characters that make this TV show something special. I especially loved the character arcs for Bigwig and Hazel. At the beginning, Bigwig seems like he’s no more than a hotheaded bruiser–a good bodyguard and a bit of a bully. He questions Hazel’s ability to lead and causes the viewer to wonder whether he’ll stage a coup. When Bigwig infiltrates Efrafa, however, we see another side to him as he shows his cunning. And when he fights General Woundwort in the halls of the main burrow, we see his absolute loyalty to Hazel whom he has accepted as his Chief Rabbit.
Hazel’s own character journey begins in self-doubt. Why should the other rabbits follow a perfectly ordinary rabbit like him when he’s not the fastest runner, not the best storyteller, not the strongest fighter? Over the course of the four-part miniseries, however, Hazel proves that strength is more than the physical and that leadership is best achieved through humility and sacrifice. He listens to those around him, he binds himself in loyalty to those he loves, and he perseveres despite all odds, earning the right to bear the name of Hazel-rah.
One can’t discuss a TV adaptation of a “classic” without discussing what changes are made from the original book. It’s been twenty years or more since I’ve read the novel, but as far as I can remember, the general tenor of the story is the same. Some of the characters’ attributes and relationships were transferred to other characters. While the importance of possessing does (to keep the future of the warren alive) is highlighted in both the adaptation and the novel, the does are much more important as characters in the TV episodes than they are in the original pages.
One quibble I had with the production value of the show was the awkward way the rabbits hopped. I cringed a little each time we saw them loping across the fields. Other than that, however, the animation of the show was superb. The scenery was gorgeous or gloomy or menacing, whatever the situation called for, and the rabbit faces were humanized just enough to show emotion well. The soundtrack, with its suspenseful undertones, kept us sitting on the edge of our seat. We elected not to have our children watch this show, even though it was rated PG, because one or two of the boys would have been frightened by the intensity of it. Despite being about woodland creatures, Watership Down is a tale well-suited for grown-ups, a tale of loyalty, cunning, freedom, and sacrifice. Recommended.