Monday, 4 April 2016

The Easter Bunny Boiler


By Annette Kinsella who 'works' at the bookshop.

What a palaver in the media this Easter. But forget the impending general strike, forget love-struck lunatics hijacking planes - the event that kicked up the biggest fracas was Channel Five's screening of Watership Down on Easter Sunday.

Now, for all of us in the know - and I hope we all are - Richard Adams' 1972 classic is far from a saccharine, Cadbury's Caramel rabbit-populated, Disney-inspired fable. Instead, it's a bloodthirsty, violent account of a band of rabbits fighting for survival in a hostile world where owls, foxes, snares, burrow-ripping bulldozers and bunny-squashing cars lurk around every corner. It will come as no surprise to fans that the incredibly detailed plot was inspired by Adams' real-life experiences as an officer in the army. So his commander became the kindly, benevolent rebel leader Hazel Rah, while the belligerent second-in-command Bigwig was based on his colleague Captain Paddy Kavanagh. And - taking the military allegory to its logical conclusion - critics have compared General Woundwort , the homicidal Efrafan dictator intent on creating a 'perfect' rabbit kingdom as all costs, with Hitler. Or David Cameron. Whatever. It's a fight of good against evil.

Adams himself, remembering how the story terrified his daughters, for whom the story was written, said he felt some elements of the book may have been too dark. It's no secret the film does not shy from depicting some of the most graphic scenes in horrifying detail. So, the viewer sees rabbits cut down on the 'iron road' railway tracks, desperate kittens gassed in burrows and fields brutally ripped up by blackened teeth of diggers. Which brings us to the events of this weekend: wide-eyed traumatised children sent scuttling behind sofas while enraged helicopter parents take to social media to bemoan the 'irresponsible' broadcasting decision of Channel Five to screen this film at Easter.

So did they have a point?

Well MAYBE.

I can see that if you curl up on the sofa for what you think will be a family-friendly, feel-good film about bunnies, you may not expect to be confronted with vivid images of blood-dripping claws and teeth. You may feel aggrieved when presented with hundreds of pounds worth of counselling bills because your child cannot get the aforementioned claws and teeth out of their head. But, hey, that's life. It's not pretty. It's gory. It's violent. It's dog-eat-dog. Or rabbit-eat-rabbit, if you will.
But (whisper it) it's also beautiful.

My first introduction to Watership Down occurred during a tedious car journey on our summer holiday to Great Yarmouth. I was ten; being a rabbit-lover I'd selected the novel from the Puffin Book Club magazine at school, based solely on its cover. I'd saved the book to pass the long hours on the motorway in our battered Ford Marina, which was liable to break down if another car gave it a sidelong glance. I was enthralled. But what hooked me in was not the - admitted brilliant - plot. It was the stunningly evocative images of nature during a long English summer. I can still see in my mind's eye the dying primroses as the rabbits start out on their journey. I hear the rush and splash of the river as they cross the wood at night. I feel the damp fragrant soil of the churchyard as they take shelter in the barn and I smell the rich cloying scent of the beanfield after they escape the crow. I shared in the delight of the fresh breeze and lonely hillside of Watership Down as the rabbits finally find their Valhalla. And Adams' dedication at the beginning ('For Juliet and Rosamond, remembering the road to Stratford on Avon") was even more tantalising. The road to Stratford on Avon was near me! For a girl growing up in Coventry, the nearest I got to nature was a trip to Coombe Abbey after tea. The thought that this wild and windswept landscape could be within a stone's throw of my door was mind-blowing.

So for me that is the great strength of the book and the film. The nature it celebrates is cruel and scary. But it's also wonderful, awe- inspiring, nurturing, delicate and gentle. And maybe we're never too young too learn that.

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