Oh boy, where to begin. I’ll admit that when I saw the news headline saying Watership Down was going to be adapted into a tv miniseries I was not terribly optimistic. The article that I read was pretty thin, mostly just listing a few cast members and saying who was funding it.
No alarm bells went off, but, my experience with adaptations, particularly of Watership Down itself (it already boasts two) told me not to get my hopes up.
I was not prepared to find out that my favorite novel was going to be desecrated in the name of modern values.
I’m only getting around to writing this now because it has literally taken this long for me to calm down. The press release wasn’t terribly long, but the information within it was incredibly offensive to me.
Most people who read it will be disappointed to find out they are toning down the violence. I’m not too bothered by that, the movie version added a main character death and quite a lot of excess blood. “Toning down” the violence will probably actually bring it more in line with the book.
I, on the other hand, am disappointed at their need to meddle with the female cast and characters. I say cast and characters because they are giving one male character a sex change in addition to giving the females a dose of “doe power”.
Excuse me while I gag.
Sorry, I’m going to try and keep it together and have this be a logical dissection rather than a ragefest.
I’m going to tackle the decision to turn Strawberry, a male character (buck) in the novel, into a female character (doe) first. Now, I am going to assume that the reporter got the name right and they don’t actually mean Blackberry, who was turned into a doe in the previous tv series (which went far afield of the book anyway). The problems with converting that character are different and much simpler. Which only makes their decision to pick Strawberry all that more confusing. I can only assume they picked him because he is one of the characters with an “effeminate” name.
Oh, spoiler warning to anyone who hasn’t read the book. I’m going to need to discuss in depth character stuff, so I can’t avoid talking about the plot and character development.
In the book, Strawberry is a member of the Warren of the Snares, aka Cowslip’s Warren. He lives a luxurious lifestyle built entirely around accepting death in exchange for safety and good food, this leads to himself and all his compatriots acting strangely because they have to abandon the very things that make them rabbits to live this lifestyle.
Our heroes end up shattering their facade when one of the strongest in the group is nearly killed and they refuse to just let him die. They leave of their own accord only to find Strawberry (who had shown them around the warren when they arrived) is chasing blindly after them.
He catches up to them and begs to join them, revealing himself to be grief stricken over the recent death of his doe. While we know she died in one of the snares, the implication is that she died a few days prior, but he had been going along to get along to help hold up the facade. The heroes leaving broke the hold the warren had over him, rendering him unable to cope with the loss of his mate and destroying his ability to pretend all is right in the world.
In short, he suffers a devastating loss that causes him to reject the fantasy he’s been living in and attaches himself to the group, because he knows he’s too weak to strike out solo.
Choosing to turn him of all characters into a doe, as opposed to say, simply fleshing out any of the preexisting does that don’t get much screentime, is rather baffling to me. If they had to convert a character, Bluebell would have been a much more sensible choice.
I can see them handling the change in one of two ways, playing it completely straight or turning Strawberry into a sassy doe who was never playing along to begin with. The funny part is, both of those is going to draw ire from the very people they’re hoping to appease.
If they play it straight, Strawberry is changed from a broken buck who begs stronger bucks to help him learn to live in the real world, to a broken doe who can’t cope with the loss of her mate and goes running to a bunch of rogue bucks to save her from her own emotional distress. Basically, Strawberry becomes feminists’ most hated trope in the name of feminism. Also, guys, next time a woman tells you you need to be more vulnerable, think of what they did to Strawberry, the most emotionally vulnerable male character in this book.
If they play it the second way, it’s going to annoy the fans of the book because the whole reason the society in the Warren of the Snares works is because everyone plays along 100%. Their entire mindset revolves around accepting death at regular intervals in exchange for easy food and pretending that this is a preferable way to live. If Strawberry isn’t playing along, then why is she still around? Why hasn’t she left or else been forced into one of the snares? The only way that could really work is if she’s being kept under the thumb of her mate or else she just keeps it to herself. The former would destroy everything that was notable about the original character (and make Strawberry a damsel in distress), while the latter would render her a doormat. I don’t think I need to point out how feminists are going to feel about these respective possibilities. Either way she still has to be rescued by the heroes, who are all male.
Now to tackle the part that really angers me. The supposed need for Clover and Hyzenthlay to be “upgraded” and participate in “heroics”. Firstly, if you honestly think that heroic deeds are what make the characters in this book noteworthy, I have to question your reading comprehension. There are three main characters, Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver. The only one who participates in what we typically consider heroics is Bigwig. He’s the muscle out of the trio. Part of what makes the book so interesting is the push and pull between Hazel, a non-fighter who has to take on a leadership role over rabbits stronger and smarter than he is, and Bigwig, a hugely strong rabbit with a temper and a need for direction.
Despite his lack of action scenes (he only really has one and this is later described by himself and others as a very stupid thing), no one doubts Hazel’s courage or bemoans his lack of character development. No one can deny that he rises to his challenges and grows immensely despite his lack of bloodied claws.
Yet people are saying that Hyzenthlay and Clover, who display similar courage and rise to their own challenges, need to participate in more heroics.
Let me explain why it makes me so angry that people think that. It makes me angry because what they are actually saying is that female characters that are truly strong, truly brave, and truly very important characters are worthless in their current form because they don’t have an action scene. They are saying that female characters who are strong in their femininity are worthless for the very fact that they are feminine.
They say that Clover, who decided she would rather brave the dangers of the outside world than continue living in the safety of her hutch, who copes with the loss of her mate while adjusting to a vastly different life, is weak and worthless because she isn’t a sassy action girl. Clover, who has the pride of being the first doe to bear a litter and bring life to a warren that would otherwise die off in a generation, isn’t a role model for young girls because she hasn’t abandoned what makes her female to run with the boys. Because her strength is implicit rather than explicit, they cannot comprehend the fact she is already an excellent character.
And Hyzenthlay, my beloved Hyzenthlay, who I long to be as strong as, is decreed to need a power-up in order to be an interesting character. If they could be bothered to actually read the book for comprehension, they would realize that the great escape from Efrafa would not have been possible without her. Bigwig was in completely over his head, loaded down with the strain of his task, unable to even believe that he could carry out his mission. Without Hyzenthlay’s support, he never would have been able to bear up under the weight of it all. She was his soft place to land when he was surrounded by hostility and danger, separated from his support network and facing a task that was beyond his abilities. And that doesn’t even include the work she did to gather sensible does to take part in the escape or the courage she displayed before Bigwig even arrived in Efrafa.
Her true shining moment comes later though, and this is why she will always have my deep and abiding admiration.
She has finally acquired the life she longs for. She is pregnant, she has literally built a home, she has helped establish a community filled with hope for the future. Then it happens, those she escaped from are coming to take her and the other does back, or kill them all trying.
She is one of the first to find out that the forces from her old warren are coming, yet she does her best to remain resolute. Unlike one of the bucks, she does not advocate abandoning the warren and fleeing. She listens to the other does, who whisper in fear about how the bucks will be killed and they will be forced to return to the oppressive warren they came from. She knows that death could very well be in her immediate future. She is afraid, terrified, just as they all are. And yet,
“Be quiet,” said Hyzenthlay. “The bucks aren’t talking like that and why should we? I’d rather be here, now, as we are, than never have left Efrafa.”
She would rather die in the home she built beside the bucks she has come to love than have continued living an unfulfilled life in near perfect safety. Despite the fact that everyone can tell she is afraid, her announcement helps to spur Hazel and Bigwig to search harder for a way to defeat the incoming forces. While her role on the road to victory is not as glorious as Bigwig’s, it is not unimportant. Just because she did not fight does not mean she wouldn’t have if it had come to that, but it didn’t come to that because the bucks that did fight took it up a notch so she wouldn’t have to. Her strength is the feminine strength of support and encouragement, of helping the males around her face the oncoming storm with courage.
But, instead of praising her for the great female character she is and the strength she has, they instead want to turn her into a pale imitation of Bigwig. Who, I might point out, gets bloodied beyond recognition in his battle with Woundwort. I wonder if the makers of the miniseries are prepared to have her brutalized in the same fashion? If they are not courageous enough to bring this book to the screen without making it palatable to the type of people it was meant to criticize, I highly doubt they will be courageous enough to do that. Especially since they have already stated their intention to tone down the more “brutal images”.
It is such a sad and pathetic thing. They’re so hung up on male strength that they can’t even recognize a strong female character when she bites their hand. Because she doesn’t fit their (oddly masculine centric) definition of heroics and power she is seen as weak and pitiable.
In their attempt to pander to women, they reveal what they really think about them. Not very complimentary, is it?
I won’t be watching the miniseries. I don’t want to be insulted or see one of my favorite female characters be ruined. Besides, if the makers can’t understand the book well enough to realize Hyzenthlay and Clover are already solid characters, then I don’t want to see their interpretations of the book’s meatier aspects.
And I definitely don’t want to see what they will do to Hazel.