From a story about rabbits told to them by their father on a long car journey back in 1967, Richard Adam's Watership down became a beloved children's novel. Adams' daughters have now adapted Watership Down into a graphic novel, for new generations to discover and fall in love with
Although on separate zoom screens and joining from different countries all together, the interaction between the two sisters is charming and occasionally even quite amusing, as Juliet and Rosamond (aka Ros) bounce off of one another over a dodgy signal, in order to recount the familiar story of a long car ride to Stratford-Upon Avon, in which their father first introduced Fiver and Hazel to two bored little children who were begging “Daddy, tell us a story”.
How did Watership Down come about, and what sort of relationship did you have to the beloved children’s tale?
Ros begins the way her father had, with, “There were two little rabbits, called Hazel and Fiver”. Ros explains that the story grew from there.
"It became so long, in fact, that it had to be finished not on that long car journey, but on the way to school for a couple of weeks afterwards.”
What effect did these frightening themes have on you and has the way you read Watership Down changed as you've grown up?
“The truth is they came later”, Juliet reveals, “a lot of that came subsequently with the writing down of the story which developed a great deal as he [Adams] put it down on the page”.
“It was must more like Peter Rabbit in the original telling. Characters like General Woundwort weren’t in it at first.”
“The great thing about Watership Down”, Juliet goes on to explain, “is that it means different things to you at different ages. You can start on the absolute face of it with the rabbits in search of a new home and some bad guys, and as you get older you start to pick up on the rabbit myth of El-Ahrairah and how he is the inspiration”.
"'The great thing about Watership Down is that it means different things to you at different ages'"
El-Ahrairah is, of course, the folk hero of rabbits in Adams' novel, who precedes the main plot itself, but is present in stories told by Dandelion, as an integral element of rabbit lore in Watership Down.
“You also begin to pick up on the dark side of being a rabbit, but it also lends you ideas and schemas to fit things into. Of course, you also pick up some of the messages in the book about not submitting to tyranny and oppression.”
“We’ve had letters about Watership Down from people of all ages, and I don’t think it is simply a children’s book. There’s a lot more resonance for people all through their life." As she says this she looks down, and as she suggests that readers may even “take some comfort from Watership Down about death”, I get the sense that their father’s novel has certainly served as more than “simply a children’s book” for the two women on the screen in front of me.
Of all the rabbits in the book, do you have a favourite?
“Hazel is my favourite”, Juliet answers, after only a brief hesitation. “He’s so self-effacing and he makes the best of other people.”
“I’ve always quite liked Fiver”, Ros says next. “He’s a courageous little guy and despite the fact that he’s quite small and slightly mad, he always sticks to his guns and does what he believes in. He has the courage to follow through and stick to his guns, and that’s laudable I think.”
“Dad always insisted he wasn’t mad. Everyone thinks he’s mad and his tragedy is that he isn’t.” says Juliet. “He knows he’s not mad, the problem is getting everyone else to see it.”
We laugh about the relatability of such a plight in all of our lives, and it makes sense that Adams and his two daughters were on their way to see Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, about a prince who may or may not have been completely mad, the day that Adams began the story about the rabbits.
From verbal to written, and now to illustration, Watership Down has proven adaptable to many forms.
How was the process of cutting down the almost 500-page book to a less than 400-page graphic novel?
“It was fun, but it was also a lot of hard work,” Juliet admits.
Not least, I’m sure because of the three days of “incessant rain” the sisters endured with illustrators Joe Sutphin and James Sturm, whom they took to visit all the country of Watership Down.
“We showed them all the places in the book and took hundreds of photographs, They tried extremely hard to get the backgrounds in the graphic novel exactly right and I must say they’ve done a fantastic job, the novel itself is wonderful. The backgrounds are perfect, exactly like the real place,” says Ros, looking pleased.
“It’s very faithful to the original story”, both sisters agree, simultaneously, as I ask them about whether it still feels like their dad’s book.
“You miss some of dad’s beautiful prose”, Juliet laments, “The book reads aloud really well and we had to lose some of the descriptive passages to make it into a graphic novel. But I think it’s got the same qualities. It’s touching and beautiful and lyrical still”.
Would you consider yourselves a very literary family?
Juliet smiles and looks upwards slightly, sighing a characterful “Oh boy!” in affirmation, almost as if this is the question she’s been waiting for.
“Yes, we were.” Ros clarifies. “We were read to endlessly by our dad. He read us all sorts of books, like Dickens and Kipling and TH White. There was no end of what he would read to us at bedtime. Sometimes we liked it and sometimes we got quite fed up with it, but we got it anyway!”
Ros goes on to explain that they also had a very "musical upbringing", with Adams playing his daughters gramophone records of operas and taking them to concerts.
Picking up from where her sister leaves off, Juliet lists some of the musicians and poets their father educated them on during their childhood. From composers like Mendelssohnn’s violin concierto, to Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony and some Beethoven.
“A lot of Coleridge and Walter de la Mare. I remember a lot of Walt,” she pauses as if recalling to mind a specific memory of a paternal poetry recital. “He was passionate about Walter de la Mare, thought he was a great poet” Juliet continues, thoughtfully. “So yes, we really got quite a lot of education.”
I debate for a moment whether to suggest that perhaps it was de la Mare’s poem Hide and Seek, in which the moon bids “hide and seek” to “the hazel buds,” which could have inspired the rabbit Hazel's name.
Deciding against my unnecessary interjection, I find myself laughing instead as Juliet expresses gratitude for the culturally rich upbringing her father gave her and her sister, despite the awkwardness she felt when school friends came to visit.
"'You got the vague idea that they weren’t used to having The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at bedtime'"
“You got the vague idea that they weren’t used to having The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at bedtime," she laughs.
As someone whose father would also read them The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at bedtime, I laugh in a way that I hope conveys recognition as well as mutual appreciation, if not at the time then certainly now, years later, for the literary immersion Juliet and Ros were gifted with throughout their lives with their father.
By this point, I've gathered a fairly compelling image of the man behind Watership Down from Ros and Juliet's fond memories. However, I'm still eager to ask,
What was your father like?
Ros chimes in to describe him as “a very complex character. A man of many talents and many passions and quite hard to keep up with a lot of the time because there was never a dull moment. He was always doing something or taking us somewhere or reading something.
He was really a mile a minute. Some people loved him and some people hated him but for us he was just our dad and that was all that mattered”.
"'Some people loved him and some people hated him but for us he was just our dad and that was all that mattered'"
“He was enormously entertaining”, Juliet agrees. She pauses for a moment as she searches for the right anecdote to demonstrate this. “My husband always says, having known him for 30 or 40 years, ‘he was always good for a joke and he never told the same joke twice.’”
Both women laugh in fond memory, and Ros recalls that her father had told her “a joke before he died, at the age of 96, that I’d never heard before.”
Adapted and Illustrated by James Sturm and Joe Sutphin, Watership Down: The Graphic Novel, is published by Puffin and is available to purchase here.
Photo credit: Joe Sutphin
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