Richard Adams’ hugely popular novel Watership Down is adapted into a stunning new four-part animated miniseries, which arrives on Netflix this month. By Tom Mclean
Fantasy has a special power to both illuminate and entertain the young and the old equally. A look at any list of beloved tales across any storytelling medium will show the longstanding power of tales as diverse as Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and the Harry Potter series.
It is respect for the power of this kind of story that led director Noam Murro to Watership Down, Richard Adams’ beloved 1972 novel about rabbits seeking survival, safety and a new home. Previously adapted as a popular animated feature film directed by Martin Rosen and released in 1978 and as a TV series that ran from 1999-2001, Murro has chosen a middle ground for his adaptation: a miniseries of four one-hour episodes produced by the BBC and Netflix, coming to screens globally just in time for Christmas.
Adams’ novel is an unusual text, telling the tales of a group of rabbits who flee their warren before it’s destroyed by modern construction and then struggle to find and establish a new, safe home in the world. Along the way, Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and friends experience a range of encounters with humans, other animals and even other rabbits as they operate in a very human-like power hierarchy that decides who is worthy and who is not. The lengthy tale convincingly creates an entire world, complete with intricate rabbit language and a detailed society and history.
Design, art direction and revisualization on Watership Down was done by Painting Practice in the U.K. Storyboarding was by House of Cool in Canada and CG production by Prana Animation Studio in India. The project is a 42/ Biscuit Entertainment production, produced by Eleos Productions and co-produced by Brown Bag Films.
Building an Allegorical World
Murro, who previously directed the live-action comedy Smart People and the sequel 300: Rise of an Empire, never encountered the book (or Rosen’s movie) until a friend recommended it to him as an adult, but immediately fell in love with it upon first reading. “There is an allegorical, philosophical and social commentary that’s embedded in [the story],” says Murro. “Part of the beauty of it is that it doesn’t show it, it doesn’t boast that part of itself.”
Murro contacted Rosen, an executive producer on the series, and acquired the rights to the project, intending to explore the deeper themes in the narrative.
”The book is essentially a post-
Based on Richard Adams’ harrowing novel, Watership Down follows a group of rabbits as they escape the destruction of their warren. The voice cast includes Ben Kingsley, Olivia Colman, John Boyega, Rosamund Pike, James Mcavoy, Taron Egerton, Peter Capaldi and Gemma Arterton.
World War II account,” he says. “It lives in the same dystopian world of George Orwell, in the sense that it does offer a window into the world as it was back then, the world as it was when it was written in the 1970s, and certainly what the world is today. Just turn on the news and listen to that for 15 minutes and you see, this book is relevant today. Migration, home, loyalty, friendship, nationality — all these things that are really at the heart of it are relevant today, maybe more so than at any other time.”
With the book so beloved, Murro says any adaptation will be scrutinized by fans all over the world, requiring an approach that was faithful to the text and to the themes it explores. That lead to the idea of creating a series of four one-hour episodes, at least partly to tell the complete tale faithfully.
”The BBC, I understood very quickly that they — wonderfully so — feel responsible for this national treasure, so to speak, and they want to do right by it,” says Murro. “There was never really a discussion of who was it for; that was already determined by the text. So the idea was to keep it faithful.”
A Fresh Canvas ‘The movie is a diorama. It is a painted background with extreme realistic foreground, so there’s almost three planes: the animals and characters in the front, the environmental aspects of where this is happening, and then the backdrop.’
As a newcomer to a fully-animated project, Murro says he saw a large canvas that had plenty of fresh territory to explore by using animation to tell a straight dramatic story us- ing traditional cinematic techniques.
”In animation, there is a danger where anything is possible. Nothing really exists, so you can create anything, and I always find that is a real danger,” says Murro. His approach was to treat the show like it was real cinema: The camera could never be positioned anywhere a real camera could not go, the virtual lenses would be based on real lenses, and the film would use conventional film storytelling techniques in its structure, logic and transitions.
”That served a very specific thing, which is the tone,” he says. ”That is how you do drama in cinema and it shouldn’t be any different in creating animation, whether it’s rabbits or people or whales or cars or whatever it is. The idea was to create a very coherent aesthetic that serves A, story and B, tone. I think you can see it in it and that was quite an important element.”
Murro says the aesthetic of the series came from looking at dioramas, specifically the world-famous diorama rooms at the New York Natural History Museum. “The movie is a diorama. It is a painted background with extreme realistic foreground, so there’s almost three planes: the animals and characters in the front, the environmental aspects of where this is happening, and then the backdrop.”
The animal characters are generally anatomically correct and behave only in ways that real rabbits, birds, etc. would. Much of their distinctiveness as individuals comes from the performance of the voice cast, which includes James Mcavoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega, Ben Kingsley, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Kaluuya and Rosamund Pike.
Murro says he wanted to make sure the story worked as a radio play. “If it didn’t work as a radio play, it wouldn’t work at all,” he says.
Working in animation was enjoyable, but harder than expected, Murro says. “You have to imagine a lot more than you do in live action, especially if you’re trying to look like live action. Things take time, they are hard to change. You have to block things in your head because there’s no location … I didn’t think it would be that hard, and it was really hard.”
“This is a perfect vehicle for parents worldwide and people in general to have a discussion with these themes of violence and anger and jealousy,” says Murro. “All those themes that are in the book are here [in the series] and it’s for us to be able to not ignore them, put them aside or cover them, but to expose them in a responsible way.” ◆