Having recently reviewed it, perhaps the worst small screen adaptation of a book I have ever seen is the 1999-2001 series Watership Down by Alltime Entertainment and Decode Entertainment. I’m not speaking in terms of production, of course. On the contrary, the animation and voiceovers were on the whole quite good. However, as far as keeping true to the original story and logical consistency in the plotline goes, I’d have to give this one an F-. Here are some of the biggest reasons why:
1) Season 3
The show was halfway decent for the first season or two, as it kept the spirit of the original story if not the story itself. However, there appears to have been a major shake-up before the production of season 3 that makes watching the whole thing from beginning to end rather jarring. From a totally different, more angular animation style and changed character voices to the addition of paw pads (which rabbits don’t have) and a more violent intro that could frankly frighten small children, the third season is a sad conclusion to what could have been at least a decent series.
Anyone who has read the introduction of Watership Down knows that it is in fact a real place, located in south-central England. However, if one went strictly by the television show, one might think it was situated high in the north of England based on the dialects spoken by several secondary characters, as well as a couple of references throughout the series. Of course, it’s possible the ambiguity was intentional so as not to isolate the potential audience in other regions. Given that it is set in a real place, though, I think it only fitting to keep the geography correct.
3) Rabbit Talk
One of the endearing aspects of Richard Adams’s works is his ability to invent languages for his characters to use, and this includes the rabbit language of Watership Down. Yet, this seems to be mostly absent from the television series. Whereas the audience is expected to understand that flay-rah indicates food, foxes are not referred to as homba nor badgers as lendri. It would have been one thing if they ignored the rabbit talk altogether, but to make a half-hearted attempt seems plain silly.
If there is a single element that demonstrates the egotistical folly of adding your own original characters and settings to enhance an already great story, it’s Hickory-rah and his warren of Redstone. Not only does he have the grating voice and (in the first couple seasons) appearance of some second-string Disney creation, but he demonstrates a superior level of incompetence in absolutely everything. From the lax discipline he keeps in his warren to allowing the enemy to walk right in and take over, he really has no redeeming qualities. No wonder the writers decided to ditch his character after the destruction of Redstone (though it does leave one to ponder why a rabbit as cold and calculating as Hazel risked his neck to save him).
5) Campion the Traitor
Campion is one of the most interesting and (to me) likeable characters in Watership Down and its sequel Tales from Watership Down. However, while he is certainly more complex than the movie depicted him, it is not because he was playing both sides. Indeed, his most admirable trait was his loyalty to Efrafa and its leader. So, while the show does depict him as one of the more resourceful rabbits in the series, the idea that he would turn traitor takes him far astray from his noble origins.
6) Fiver the Freak
Fiver was an oddity in the books, no doubt. However, the show takes his visionary aspect to an extreme that makes him more than a little annoying. (The addition of Silverweed as a rabbit with mystical powers in season 3 only adds to the farce.)
Again, this applies mostly to season 3. Perhaps the animators needed a few more lessons in rabbit anatomy, as their ability to make incredible movements with their forelimbs attests to. There is a reason the term “bunny hands” exists, though you wouldn’t know it to look at these rabbits. Their faces are portrayed as flatter and boxier than they ought to be too (no doubt in an attempt to make them look friendlier to children). In addition, this story takes place over the course of an entire year. The fact that this seems to have no impact at all on creatures who mature in a matter of months and live a maximum of 4-5 years in the wild seems a little bit odd, but maybe I’m asking too much.
8) Kehaar & Hannah
Possibly the most likeable character from the book (besides Bigwig), Kehaar is transformed into a strange, dim-witted character with an indistinct accent (sort of a cross between Eastern European and Jamaican?) and a bad sense of direction. Then, after going through the trouble of re-introducing him with a distinctly Germanic accent, the writers saw fit to get rid of him and replace him with an even less eloquent hawk (conveniently ignoring the reality of a predator-prey relationship).
Then there is Hannah, the mouse. Personally, I consider her the second most annoying character on the show, but they insist on keeping her around for the duration. In the book, there was indeed a mouse who helped the rabbits once, but it didn’t have a name and it certainly didn’t loiter around the warren indefinitely.
Besides changing Blackberry into a doe (which would have made going to fetch the does from Efrafa in the first place less necessary had it been so in the book), the writers evidently didn’t feel the need to make Blackberry the genius that he/she (?) was in the book. Her character displays some good ideas early on, but in season 3 comes off as a complete dunce. This could be to lend an air of “damsel in distress” to the romantic subplot between her and Campion (creepy in of itself, when you think about it).
The final episode of the series, while chaotic, caps off the frustration that readers (and even many non-readers) feel with the whole thing. Not only does the big mystical tornado make for a rather disappointing end to the villains (in fact, it’s unclear whether all of them were actually destroyed or not), but the whole conclusory battle takes so long that there’s no time for a resolution or epilogue. It’s short, abrupt, and leaves more questions than answers.
I could go on and on like this, but you get the picture. If you’ve seen the series yourself and would like to add anything (or if you disagree on any points), please say so below. If you haven’t seen it, then I suppose I’d recommend it if you’ve nothing else to watch. Or if you just like bunnies for the sake of bunnies.