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RIP Richard Adams. WATERSHIP DOWN’s Author Is With Frith Now.

RIP Richard Adams. WATERSHIP DOWN’s Author Is With Frith Now.

In a year marked by so many passings of so many greats, an elderly man peacefully expiring at the age of 96 on Christmas Eve may not seem quite as tragic as those who died younger and more untimely. And yet the sadness is there regardless, as a huge part of my childhood has gone. Richard Adams, primarily known for writing the book Watership Down, has died, EW reports.

In terms of name recognition, Watership Down tends to be more associated with the animated feature based on the novel than the novel itself, which is a shame; while the movie makes a fair attempt at condensing the very lengthy epic, it is primarily remembered for being unusually violent for a cartoon, and for having the Art Garfunkel song “Bright Eyes” on the soundtrack. In the book, the violence is matter-of-fact: rabbits are prey, and predators are everywhere. In a movie which draws the rabbits as cute and appealing, any sign of blood will inherently be sensationalized, and it is indeed the principal takeaway. A subsequent book of Adams’, The Plague Dogs, was also adapted into a suitably grim animated film, but, perhaps with some parents having felt burned by Watership Down, it did not do nearly as well.

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Adams’ favorite of his own works was Shardik, about a hunter pursuing a bear who may or may not be divine, but a favorite of mine has to be the picture book The Tyger Voyage, a quintessential bedtime story for children. Intended to be read aloud, the story of two tigers traveling the world included pictures by Nicola Bayley that conjured worlds of ice floes, volcanoes, and gypsy caravans; perfect fodder for a night of dreams ahead.

But it’s Watership Down, told as a bedtime story for his children until it got so elaborate that they insisted he write it down, that became Adams’ defining tome, and one of my childhood too. The tale of rabbits who leave a warren about to be destroyed, set out for safer ground, then realize that they’ll never survive for long without any women in the group, is like The Odyssey with bunnies. Though it was clearly informed by his service in the military and the Department of the Environment, Adams resisted any attempts to categorize it as obvious allegory, having originally made it up as he went along to entertain his children. In the end it nonetheless builds a rich new world, with its own language and even religion, and in opening every chapter with a relevant literary quote from another source, Adams opens the door for readers to discover the works that inspired him.

Watership Down is set to be re-adapted for Netflix, presumably using more photo-real animation, but it’s hard to imagine anyone will ever capture the full experience of the book itself in any other medium. The story ends–SPOILER FOR A 1972 BOOK–with the main hero’s death from old age, and Adams’ official website announced his passing using that relevant passage:

It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be alright – and thousands like them.”

I hope we will be. Because life without Mr. Adams doesn’t feel all right at the moment.

Images: Andersen Press, Avco Embassy Pictures

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