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The Watership Down Film Picture Book, 1978

Le dessin est la probité d'art
(J. A. D. Ingres, Pensées d'Ingres)

Richard Adams, in his interesting preface to this hefty Penguin paperback, released to accompany the Nepenthe film, is quite clear: "people who, when asked whether they have read a particular book, reply 'No, but I saw the film,' might really just as sensibly answer, 'No, but I had breakfast this morning.'" In other words, people should not try to equate the film version of Watership Down (which he calls "a good one", though in more recent interviews he has complained that it alters too much) with the original novel. He gives two examples: the first is the fight with the rats in the barn. This is mentioned directly in the book on only two occasions (pp. 130 and 431 of the Penguin/Puffin editions), though Buckthorn's resulting bite is referred to a couple more. The visual medium of film, however, allows a much more "on-stage" approach (though Buckthorn, not being in the film, can't get bitten!). Conversely, the gradual increase in unease about Cowslip's warren running through chapters 13 to 17, which depends greatly on the descriptive writing on the rabbits' state of mind, is almost impossible to film - Pipkin's "like trees in November" is kept on, but nothing is made of it.

Another interesting comment in this preface concerns Mr Adams' opinion of some of the film's interpretations of the characters in WD. He urges people, when faced with a choice between the characters they have in their heads and those they see on the screen, to choose the former, and states that "if it comes to that, I don't, myself, much like their Fiver - he is not how I imagine him." Personally, I think Richard Briers is superb, but I do agree that the book version, especially when considered together with Tales from Watership Down, is a much deeper and more complex character than we get here - it's hard to imagine Briers' character speaking a line such as "That Vilthuril's a beautiful doe. I'd a chance to get to know her better", as Fiver does in the book (in "The Way Back"). On the other hand, Mr Adams does "like their Hazel very much; and their Hyzenthlay", and here I do agree. I think John Hurt's performance is about as close to Hazel as we could hope to get, and what little we're allowed to find out of Hyzenthlay's character fits well with the novel.

Mr Adams also states that this book "is emphatically not meant to be 'Watership Down told in pictures'". That last comment is significant, as it is clear that he does not want the Film Picture Book to be seen as any sort of "condensed book" version of WD. If you don't already know the plot of both the novel and the film reasonably well, then you will probably get rather confused by some of the linking text added by Mr Adams beneath each of the 250 or so colour plates. On only one occasion (the first raid on Nuthanger Farm) does he feel it necessary to add an explanatory footnote telling us that this is not what happened in the novel, but in fact this is the case several times (Holly's time in Efrafa before meeting the others, for example).

Following this preface, there is a foreword by Martin Rosen, who tells us that he first read Watership Down while on location in India, and immediately wanted to film it, before realising how difficult it would be. (Incidentally, there's no mention of the falling out with John Hubley - I wish I knew what all that was about!) Rosen talks about the difficulty of balancing a naturalistic approach to the animation with the necessity for the characters to be clearly visible, and is clearly proud of the accuracy of the backdrops (though he can't spell "Enborne"!). Again, Richard Adams has taken issue with some of this, though I think they did a good job, with Nuthanger Farm in particular very close to its real appearance, even if the appearance of the Down itself is wrong!

Turn the page once more, and we see a picture captioned, "Long ago Frith made the world," and we're off! What's immediately noticeable is that on several of the occasions where Mr Adams has used direct quotes as captions, they're from the book, which takes a little getting used to. However, perhaps the most memorable line of all is identical in both versions, and for no other reason than that I like it, I'm going to quote it in full now:

"All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed."

Now we're into the "main" bit of the film, and again it's obvious that the Film Picture Book is aimed at those who already know and love WD - the second picture is captioned "Hazel comes out of his hole, followed by Fiver, for the evening silflay." No explanation of who either of the rabbits are, the fact that Fiver is Hazel's brother or even the meaning of "silflay". And in the next picture, the plant nicked by Toadflax, which for no apparent reason becomes a coltsfoot in the film (to avoid confusion with Cowslip? It's the only thing I can think of), is very firmly referred to as a cowslip, as in the book.

I don't know who made the final decisions on selecting which pictures were to go in the book, but I strongly suspect that Richard Adams himself had a major say in the matter, as one of the most irritating changes from the book - the inclusion of Violet - is ignored completely, with not even a "Violet's gone!" page. Other notable omissions include the confrontation with Holly, the encounter with the lendri, Hazel being shot (though we see the farmer shooting and Fiver's discovery of the bloody hole), the moment when Hazel's rabbits believe Bigwig has been killed by the fox which actually did for Mallow (in the book) and - thankfully - the completely incomprehensible scene in the film with Blackavar and Hyzenthlay, just before Bigwig joins Efrafa. (Perhaps this originally pertained to Hyzenthlay's cut song "Run Like The Wind"?) Finally, Blackavar's death is left unmentioned, which leads me to suspect that Mr Adams was not all that happy with this change in the plot. (Nor me, actually.)

So, what do we get? Well, pretty much everything else of importance - there are two fine plates of the field "covered with blood", the Enborne crossing, Cowslip, Bigwig in the snare (several pics), the two raids on Nuthanger Farm, Holly's vivid description of the end of Sandleford, "you can see the whole world!", Kehaar, Woundwort and so on and so forth. One particularly nasty double page shows, on the left, four of the Efrafan Mark Captains (including Vervain and Campion), and on the right, Blackavar's punishment maiming. It's not pleasant at all - but, of course, it's not meant to be. Shall we do the "it's not for the kiddies" thing again? Yeah, why not? The last few pages, in particular, are seriously violent, what with Bigwig's vicious fight with Woundwort and the dog's murderous rampage.

Right at the end, of course, we see Hazel's death. Nothing controversial there... except that the first picture in the sequence is captioned "El-ahrairah comes for Hazel at the end of his long and happy life". Yes, El-ahrairah, and not the Black Rabbit, despite the fact that Joss Ackland is credited as "Black Rabbit" in the cast list. Remember that the text to this book was written by Richard Adams, who ought to know what he's talking about here, and - as we saw earlier - is quite prepared to ignore the film's interpretation of events when he feels like it! I'm increasingly of the opinion that El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé are, for certain very specific purposes at least, two sides of the same coin... which does not mean that they are one and the same. I suspect many of you will disagree violently, however!

One interesting feature that many people have noticed is that on quite a few occasions - for example, one of the pictures of Bigwig in the snare - the picture has been reversed from the film. I don't have any problem with that, as nothing else is altered, and in many cases it makes the plate look better on the page. In fact, there are only two things that did irritate me slightly. The first was a close-up of the dog as it pursues Hyzenthlay up the hill - its mouth is bloody, despite the fact that it hasn't yet killed anything! And the second? When the drawing of Frith reappears, right at the end, the caption is - again - "Long ago, Frith made the world". I would have preferred this page to be left captionless, or to have carried Frith's great promise once again (in full, not the shortened version we have to put up with at the end of the film).

Desipte these small irritations, the Film Picture Book is definitely a must-have for any self-respecting Watership Down fan's collection - for one thing, it saves having to mess about with the video every time you want to check on Blackberry's facial markings or Kehaar's wing-tips. The book's long out of print, of course, but so many were printed (at least in the UK) that it's very easy to find second-hand in decent nick - by which I mean no loose pages or internal marking, but the odd spine chip. You need look no further than eBay.co.uk, where there are usually at least a couple a month. Prices vary, as they tend to do on auction sites, but I'd suggest that five pounds ought to do it - a fiver for Fiver! Do remember to allow a couple of pounds for p&p costs, though - it's quite a heavy book. There is a hardback edition, but it tends to be rather overpriced, especially by the resident eBay L@@K! RARE! merchants (who also think the VHS video is rare...) so only completists need apply!