May 12, 2012 Leave a comment
It seems there has been some interest in my previous review of the infamous movie Watership Down. I would like to think this is because of my uber awesome writing skills, but I’m afraid it probably only means that far more people had their childhoods ruined by this film than I originally thought. As such, I felt it was appropriate to give a follow-up on this. Maybe it will help bring us closure, and hopefully allow us to move on with our lives as normally as we can. I know it’s hard after you’ve been exposed to a melee of bleeding rabbits, but here we go.
Let me begin by saying that I grew up in a farming family. Not only did we farm, but we hunted too. I’ve seen many rabbits go the way of the buffalo in real life and I can tell you beyond any doubt that it’s nowhere near as violent or disturbing (or even as bloody) as the poor bunnies in this animated film. It is because of this that I am shocked at how striking the images in this film were, and more so than that, how deeply it effected me. How could I be so moved and so traumatized by some over-dramatized, anthropomorphized rabbits? I think the answer lies in the fact that on an instinctual level, we know the film isn’t really about bunnies. We see through the cute and fuzzy wrapping paper that the rabbits represent to the core message of the story, and the real injurious scarring comes from our ability to empathize with the characters and situations that they are presented with. Coming to terms with the hard reality of the true message the film is the hardest part to wrap your mind around. We don’t want it to be true… We hope is really is just about the bunnies… But we know it’s not. And that scares the living hell out of us. As horrible as the truth may be, it is why this movie has stood the test of time and become a classic with a cult following. We don’t remember many animated films from the 1970′s, but we sure as hell can’t forget this one.
Like many great stories, Watership Down is probably written on many different levels. You could probably take many things from it by peeling back the layers of the story like an onion, but I believe the core message of the story is about the struggle for freedom over tyranny, and more importantly, the terrible cost of that freedom.
The story begins by placing us in a setting where the rabbits live in a ”warren” or a social structure that although isn’t the best, has worked for them for ages. Then they’re forced to deal with their first challenge, a coming change that will threaten their whole system of living if they don’t act upon it. The failure of their leader to act in a way that would provide for their safety and well-being is what gives them the drive to become independent and seek a place where their freedom and safety is more assured. The rest of the movie mainly revolves around the trials and hardships they face along the way.
Many brave rabbits gave the ultimate sacrifice for the opportunity to live free. Nothing was guaranteed, there was no “promise” of safety or even success. In fact all the odds were against them from the beginning. Some of the rabbits died in an almost random fashion, such as the one picked off by a hawk out of nowhere. But they were all working toward the same goal, and the cost of doing nothing was unbearable. In many ways the story could have ended at that. It could have been the equivalent of a slasher film where they’re all slowly picked off one by one until none we are left to tell the tale, and the story could have still remained true to its core. Sometimes the struggle for freedom ends badly. In the real world, there is always a chance that the things we fight for remain out of reach. As hard as this story is to swallow, at least it doesn’t leave us hanging like that.
Above all they secured a future for their children and their children’s children. The cost of that was high, and many of the rabbits never saw their dream fulfilled, but the lesson to take away from this is that the dangers and hardships never held them back from striving to achieve a better existence. Every generation faces its own trials, and this story was about one generation paying a price for the next. The same way those who came before us carved out an existence so we could thrive, and gave us an opportunity (although not a promise) of safety and security, so long as we ourselves could keep it. Just as we will do the for our next generation. So in a very real way, WE are those rabbits in that story. Our fathers and grandfathers were those rabbits, and one day our children will be those rabbits. And that’s a very scary thought. It’s an uncomfortable truth isn’t it? That you could do everything right, keep fighting the good fight, and get nothing in return but scorn from your peers, shot at by hunters, chased by dogs, and even if you evade all of them, you might still be snatched up by a random hawk out of the blue. But we keep trying anyway. We keep up the struggle because we must. Because the cost of doing nothing is too high. And why should the movie sugar coat this? They were right to not pander to our delicate sensibilities. There is only one real truth in life, and that is that none of us are going to get out of this alive! We all go to that big warren in the sky in the end. The best we can hope for is that we did something good and left the world a better place than how we found it.
Part of growing up is the realization that nothing really worth having comes without some kind of fight. We shouldn’t shrink away from that. Glory and fortune comes to those who triumph, and there can be no triumph without some kind of hardship. Some people spend their whole lives trying to come to terms with this concept. As a small example of this, have you ever heard this one? “If there is a God, how could he allow THIS to happen to his children”? Maybe you’ve asked that yourself. And just to illustrate what I’ve been saying I could answer you in this way. Imagine I placed you in the shoes of God himself. This could be in the form of asking you to be an author, and create a story of your own, about a character you created. And we’ll say that I ask you to write a story about this person in which this person grows as a human being throughout their life, and becomes a better person as a result. You would almost immediately start picturing all kinds of hardships for your character! Not because you wanted them to have a hard life, but because you wanted them to overcome and to grow and share and use that experience to help others, and end up as a better person because of it. Now that’s a rather nebulous exercise, but it’s the same concept.
So is it any wonder why this little story about bunnies has lasted as long as it did or why it gained such a following? Perhaps it was meant to ruin our childhood. Maybe people like you and me only care about that movie because it was one of the things that pushed us into the cold hard reality of this world. That little cartoon rabbit showed us the world as it really is. Strange how things can work out that way. And maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll see someone triumph over hardship and death and say with a tear in our eye “I haven’t cried this hard since all those bunnies died for our freedom”. Try to keep your head up, and try to keep moving forward toward the greater good. And above all, trust that the good things we do here in life are never really lost.
As good as that message really is when you think about it… That doesn’t mean I can bring myself to watch it again though.
Be sure to check out Ray’s original film review of Watership Down as well.