Monday, December 24, 2018

rabbits of the uncanny valley

I've just spent three hours that I'm not going to get back watching the newly-released miniseries adaptation of Watership Down on Netflix. Here we have, once again, a book I cherish adapted into a movie I can't imagine wanting to see again.

Visually, it's disastrous. The computer animation has attempted realism instead of cartoons, but has only achieved that creepy almost-realism known as the Uncanny Valley. Some of the rabbits look like Bunnicula, others resemble stuffed toys. Few of them are distinctive enough to enable me to distinguish groups of Watership Down rabbits from groups of Efrafans, which makes the lengthy confrontation and battle scenes rather confusing. The camera angles seem inordinately fond of rabbit butts. The other animals aren't much better: the farmyard dog looks more like a pig.

As the plot got under way, I began to wonder if it had been adapted by Peter Jackson, as the flaws of his Tolkien adaptations were so lovingly replicated. The rabbits' crossing of the Enbourne is encouraged by the entire Sandleford Owsla at their heels, as so many moments from Tolkien were beefed up in those movies by turning them into superfluous chase scenes. What this tendency becomes when they get to Efrafa is almost indescribable. The plot is entirely rewritten, not to its benefit. The rescue of the does in particular is concocted by throwing out almost everything that was in the book - including the complete disappearance of the boat, which was the best part - taking care to make its replacement as boring, tedious, confusing, and repetitious as possible. It's not quite as awful as Jackson's Hobbit, but it deserves at least a (dis)honorable mention in that category. Some specific scenes - the destruction of the Sandleford warren, Bigwig's final confrontation with Woundwort - work pretty well, but not enough to be cherishable.

Efrafa itself is no longer an ordinary warren at a bridlepath crossing, but rendered into a sinister hellmouth by being placed in the basement of some abandoned human industrial buildings. The rabbits' relationship to human things is peculiar. In the scene of rescuing the hutch rabbits from the farm, the raiding rabbits actually enter the farmhouse, for no apparent reason. Later on, Fiver actually ventures into heavy automotive traffic that's waiting for a bridge opening, for even less reason unless it's as a clumsy foreshadowing of how he (not Hazel) is rescued from the farm cat by the farm girl and driven home in a car. Describing this, he calls her a "little girl". Little? She's twenty times his size! This brings us to the lousy and imperceptive dialogue: droopy emotionalism, noble sentiments from the book rephrased into mush, words that I can't imagine Adams' rabbits using (sometimes turned into a joke by having other rabbits saying they don't understand them), and exact quotes from the book used in ways that show the screenwriters didn't understand it. Most glaring of these is the final moment of the show, as Bluebell (not Dandelion or Vilthuril) starts to tell the young-uns the story of Hazel-rah and his rag-tag band, and quotes exactly, word for word, the opening sentences of the book. Which are all scene-description, not plot, and the use of which utterly ignores Adams' quite brilliant evocation of the mythologizing process, in which real events are reworked, dropped into the cauldron of story, and re-emerge as tales of El-ahrairah. Not that we ever get to hear any tale, except the opening myth, in full, same way that Jackson is reluctant to let us hear full Tolkien poems.

There is asperity and conflict among the heroes in the book, but mostly it's a tale of cooperation among skilled specialists. Which again the movie undercuts, by turning the characters grouchy and uncooperative for most of the movie, and their plans into haphazard whiffle. The resemblance of this to the truly awful parts of J-Frodo and J-Sam's journey to Mordor is quite remarkable.

The one change I thought almost worked was the attempt to beef up the role of females in the plot. Strawberry is changed to a doe, though a chatty and goofy one (I guess a role abandoned by Bluebell when they turned him into Dandelion). Various subplots of romantic pair-bonding fit in reasonably well, though the scenes themselves are often wincingly embarrassing. But it's odd when the hutch rabbit Clover, who in the book is timid and hesitant due to her captive upbringing, not only takes the place of Blackberry in knowing how to open the hutch, but is the one to reach Hazel after he's shot. How dashingly noble of her. It all turns out to be for foreshadowing so that she and Hazel can pair-bond later.

And immediately after being with Hazel, she's captured by scouts from Efrafa. WTF? They're on the far side of Watership Down from Efrafa, but the bad guys are everywhere. In fact, the movie inserts a scene of Woundwort (Ben Kingsley at his most implacable: most of the other voice actors are over-earnest and rather breathless, except for Peter Capaldi as Kehaar who is at his most stage-Scottish) ordering the capture of the heroes as soon as they arrive at Watership Down. He already knows they're there! This is like J-Saruman tracking the Fellowship over Caradhras with his palantir. It reduces the epic scope of the story to the scale of a tabletop role-playing game.

Well, look, I know the adapters can do what they want. But by the same token I can say what I think, which is: ugh.

No comments:

Post a Comment