Watership Down's latest iteration is a graphic novel. We revisit the enduring story
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
The children's classic "Watership Down" has been turned into a movie, a play, a TV series, a radio special and, five years ago, a Netflix show. Now the story about a group of rabbits trying to find a safe place to live is coming out as a graphic novel. NPR's Matthew Schuerman revisits the story in all its versions.
MATTHEW SCHUERMAN, BYLINE: From the beginning, "Watership Down" has teetered on the cusp between children's fantasy and adult literature. It was born in the mid-1960s, when a British civil servant, Richard Adams, was trying to entertain his daughters on a long car ride. Rosamond Mahony was about 6 at the time.
ROSAMOND MAHONY: He started off a story, once upon a time there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver.
SCHUERMAN: Fiver has a premonition that their warren is doomed. His brother, Hazel, plans the escape. Adams drew on elements from Greek literature and his childhood in the countryside.
MAHONY: He made it up as he went along. But when we got there, the story was so long that he hadn't actually finished it, so it had to be finished on the way to school on subsequent mornings.
SCHUERMAN: Mahony says her father had a huge imagination that went, well, underutilized as a member of the country's vast bureaucracy. He regularly introduced his daughters to sophisticated material, reading them Shakespeare and taking them to operas. Her older sister, Juliet Johnson, says sometimes he could be exhausting.
JULIET JOHNSON: There was always noise and shouting, and, you know, he could talk about things till the cows came home.
SCHUERMAN: The girls encouraged their dad to write down the story, which he later did, elaborating as he went. By that point, Johnson was away at boarding school.
JOHNSON: Somewhere in a tin around here I've got a box of letters where he'd get stuck on things, so he'll sort of say, I haven't decided, you know, whether to let Bigwig die in the snare or not yet, or, you know, I've got to think of some more jokes for Bluebell.
SCHUERMAN: The manuscript turned out to be about 500 pages and was rejected many times. Publishers said it was too long for children, and adults would not want to read a story about rabbits. Mahony says her father disagreed.
MAHONY: He just said it was a book that was written for anybody who wanted to read it, and that was anybody from those who were so small they could hardly hold the book to those who were so old that they could hardly see the print.
SCHUERMAN: When "Watership Down" was finally published in 1972, Adams was proven right. People still couldn't decide if it was a kid's book or not, but it was read by all ages. One of those readers was S.F. Said. He encountered the book when he was 8, after his mother had read it.
S F SAID: It turned out the lives of those rabbits were so much more interesting than I could have imagined. They were living in a very dark and dangerous world, and everything out there seemed to be bigger than them, stronger than them. I could not stop turning the pages. I had to know, how are they going to do it? How are they going to live?
SCHUERMAN: The book inspired Said to become a children's book writer. He says he uncovers another layer every time he reads the book. It's about nature, mythology, political philosophy and overcoming prejudice.
SAID: There's this huge, ferocious seabird called Kehaar who the rabbits are terrified of. But Hazel, the leader, befriends Kehaar because he sees, first of all, this bird is in trouble and needs help. Secondly, this bird could be a phenomenal ally if they could only befriend him.
SCHUERMAN: Even though the book has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, many people got to know the story from an animated film that came out in 1978. It was rated G but ended up scary, even traumatizing a lot of the kids who saw it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WATERSHIP DOWN")
HARRY ANDREWS: (As General Woundwort) I told you that I would kill you myself. There's no white bird here, Bigwig.
SCHUERMAN: In 2022, its rating was changed to PG. The film's director, Martin Rosen, says he wasn't trying to make a scary movie.
MARTIN ROSEN: I thought it would be dishonest not to make the picture as I perceived it when I read it. That's what he wrote. That - it was bloody, and I felt honor bound to represent it as such.
SCHUERMAN: And he's got a point. Richard Adams fought in World War II. Glimpses of his wartime experiences emerged throughout the book. The rabbit Hazel was based on the author's commanding officer, and there's a lot of fighting and blood.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
SCHUERMAN: Adams died in 2016. A few years later, the daughters decided a graphic novel version would reach a new audience. They looked for a team that would stay close to the text and chose storyboard artist James Sturm and illustrator Joe Sutphin. The two Americans flew to England and visited the real Watership Down. Yes, there is such a place. And it has low, rolling hills and plenty of rabbits. Sutphin's own rabbits are more realistic than the ones in the screen versions, the eyes narrower, the bodies leaner.
JOE SUTPHIN: I was trying not to be too exaggerated or fantastical, so I knew that Ros and Juliet didn't want, like, a Bugs Bunny kind of thing happening.
SCHUERMAN: But most important, Sutphin wanted readers to have a different feeling than they did after seeing the film.
SUTPHIN: I also hope that this book will help people correct their memory of "Watership Down." The animated film focused heavily on the peril and less on the beauty.
SCHUERMAN: And that means letting the reader see that, as he puts it, shadows only prove that the sun is still shining.
SUTPHIN: The way that we tell it, the darkness is real, but it's all with that sense that you're holding on to faith. You're building character. You're finding hope.
SCHUERMAN: Matthew Schuerman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT EYES")
ART GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Oh, is it a dream? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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