Discussion on social media has been buzzing since parents issued complaints after Channel 5 screened Watership Down on Easter Sunday, calling it too scary and violent for children. Seriously, parents?
I’m a devoted fan of the book and the film, and despite a couple of somewhat bloody scenes, I don’t think it’s unsuitable for children. In fact, I think there should be more films like this one. It definitely wasn’t bouncing Easter bunnies, but children are tougher than we give them credit for. The vicious fighting between rabbits, or the blood covered field that appears when Fiver is predicting that death will come to the warren, is no different to many other widely accepted and well-loved films. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a child-catcher tempted children into a cage and locked them away in cave. Aslan was sacrificed by an evil queen and stabbed to death. Peter Pan falls out of his pram and never sees his family again and Peter Rabbit’s father was baked in a pie. This is all classic English storytelling, and in my opinion, it’s the best there is.
Watership Down isn’t what we’re used to. The graphics are as detailed as a drawing, far from the simplistic shapes of a Peppa Pig cartoon. The settings are a feast for the eyes with rolling English hills, intricate cobwebs and rabbits that are fascinatingly unique in appearance. The soundtrack is beautiful, every piece of music bringing the mood of the scene to life. I think ‘Bright Eyes’ is the perfect overarching track for the whole film. The themes are real and universal: love, loyalty, sacrifice, death, survival and even religion feature in this film. It upholds the values of doing what’s right and putting other’s before yourself, and even alludes to man’s menacing footprint on the world: “They’ll never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth.” Children register this and they take it away with them.
Yes, there is a lot of death, as we see when sweet bunny Violet is ripped from the ground by a bird of prey and a badger emerges from the bushes with blood dripping from its mouth. But that is what nature is, and children should know this. Watership Down is an ode to nature, which we don’t see much of these days. The forest is dense and full of danger, the cat’s silky voice is blood-curdling, but fields of scented plants offer shelter from the elements and the currents of a river whisk the rabbits away from a lurking dog. The story is set entirely in an animal world, with very few human appearances, although the foreboding presence of man looms over them constantly. The seasons are told through the appearance and disappearance of primroses and nobody can count above the number four because a rabbit’s paw only has four claws.
The afterlife is beautifully portrayed with the great Frith who created all things and the black rabbit who comes for the dying. To the living, the dark fur of the black rabbit and the slits of his eyes seem like an omen, something to flee. But at the end of the film we realise that he is just Frith in another form, inviting the dying to join his eternal Owsla. Richard Adams was successful in creating an entire fictional existence for rabbits, and goes into detail in his book about their social hierarchy, eating habits, and kits and mates. He even went as far as to invent the ‘lapine’ language, so that “badger” becomes a “lendri” and “silflay” means to go above ground to eat. None of this is dumbed down for children, and throughout the film the language becomes second nature to us. The complex ideas and beautiful story about how Frith created the animals and set them apart from each other is not lost on children either and there is something funny about how typically British these rabbits are- they sound like well-spoken Englishmen!
Perhaps the film should be given a PG rating, so that parents of sensitive or younger children will be forewarned when it is screened again. But as an article by Henry Barnes at the Guardian said, ratings aren’t there to act as childminders. Watership Down is a masterpiece, both as a book and as a film. I urge you to look for the beauty in it, even in some of the more gruesome scenes. We need to stop worrying about what might traumatise children and give them instead something rich and cultivating to watch, full of mythology and morals, goodness and eloquence.
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when 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 will never be destroyed.” – Richard Adams
Have you read Watership Down? Do you think the film is too violent for children? I’d love to know your thoughts!