2022 marks fifty years since the first publication of Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down, a children’s animal fantasy that chronicles the journey of a group of rabbits trying to find a new home at the titular location after the prophesised destruction of their original warren. The book won several major awards including the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Prize. The story began as a way for Adams to entertain his daughters during car trips and because of his children’s’ insistence, Adams wrote down what would become his debut novel.
The manuscript was turned down by seven publishers, before being accepted by a smaller publisher named Rex Collings. Even Collings expressed reservations about Watership Down, writing in a letter, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?”. The hesitation for publishers to take on Adams’ novel may have been partially because of the serious themes in the novel such as environmental damage caused by humans and the dispossession of the rabbits after losing their home. These themes remain important over fifty years since the initial publication.
Another reason for the difficulty in securing a publisher is that Adams’ rabbits do not follow in the pawprints of Beatrix Potter’s jacket-wearing, upright-walking Peter Rabbit, but mirror the behaviours and actions of actual wild rabbits. Watership Down is known as a children’s classic, however, the story does not feature cute little fluffy bunnies hopping around without a care in the world. The rabbits are a food source for many predators, have to escape human interfering in the natural environment and even face threats from other rabbit colonies.
Adams consulted Ronald Lockley’s The Private Life of The Rabbit, a book detailing a scientific study observing the life patterns of semi-wild rabbits, to provide the accurate information on rabbit habits for his novel. For example, bucks (or male rabbits) do not dig burrows extensively like the does (or female rabbits) do and the all-male travelling band of rabbits that arrive at Watership Down are not enthusiastic burrow excavators. The rabbits of Watership Down are also given more anthropomorphic qualities such as a mythology and language that make the rabbits’ world more familiar yet also distinct to our own.
The novel became more popular and successful than any publisher may have anticipated. Millions of copies of the book were sold and it was translated into more than eighteen languages. Adaptions were not long in the making.
The novel has been adapted for the screen three times. A television series aired from 1999 to 2001 and a Netflix miniseries was released in 2018. An animated film was released in 1978 which remained quite faithful to the darker tones of the novel. The BBFC rating for the film was “U” (suitable for all ages), but many people, particularly parents, have questioned this decision as the film does not shy away from showcasing the dangers faced by the rabbits from predators and humans. Notable examples include the destruction of a rabbit warren by humans with most of the rabbits trapped inside, one of main rabbit characters Bigwig becoming caught in a snare and another rabbit Blackavar being brutally attacked whilst trying to escape imprisonment. Adams’ descriptions in the novel of the violent events does not sugar-coat how perilous the life of a prey animal is for the reader, but the visually representation onscreen in the film can come near nightmare fuel on several occasions.
Watership Down is a novel that pushes against the boundaries of its classification into a genre. It is a children’s classic that offers a compelling and thought-provoking experience for readers of all ages. It is an animal fantasy that demonstrates the best and worst innate traits of humans through the rabbits’ perspective of humans and through the individual rabbits themselves. Fifty years after its first release Watership Down remains relevant today.