Watership Down: Not Suitable For Children?

Everything happens at dusk. Dusk is when blood oozes from the tree roots to flood the open meadows. This is when the claws and teeth rip flesh into shreds, and this is when the ghost arrives, its eyes flashing red, calling you. Dusk is the time of death in its purest beauty, and in its darkest terror. Ironically, it was dusk when little me first watched it. For a long time, with dusk came the horror of predators crawling out from every corner of the room. But I don’t regret those dusks.

The military-hierarchical-rabbit-empire’s story cuts into existential, cognitive layers of a child’s psyche and touches a nerve where fear lies, in its psychiatric sense. And how on earth could have parents known? After all, it is about little bunnies, in the watercolour-painted nature. There is no warning of what follows. A lot of rabbits die, not only violently, but graphically violently. And this is not even close to being the creepiest part.

The thing is, the blood of Watership Down is different from the blood of Saw, or the blood of Prince Oberyn’s head as the Mountain crushes it with his bare hands. Here, the blood is the fulfilment of a prophecy. It marks the end of a life lived in hiding and fear of death coming any moment, from any place, as your God designed everything around you to kill you. And when for a second you feel safe, maybe, your own kin will bite through your throat.

I strongly believe that children have to face reality as it is. Parents and the media must answer all their questions, and children always aim for the core, to the adult-taboo. And yes, they must know about danger. And here I cannot completely decide what to think. Part of me says, children must not face the world as a place where everything is after their life, and they can grasp danger without being afraid to close their eyes at night. But on the other hand, is it inherently harmful and scarring if children see early how nature works, including  human nature? (Because children do understand that it is not only about bunnies.) As contrast to brute violence, this movie also demonstrates brotherhood, wit and compassion, without necessarily force-feeding the moral takeaway like Disney tales do, even the best ones.

Now, I see that Watership Down is very close to what we call a masterpiece. Everything that terrorised me as a child I still find horrifying, but the very brutality is the ultimate power of the story. It is an Orwellian quality political fiction. It is about power, surveillance, morality of warfare, finding solace or death within your own kin. It redesigns consciousness as we know it. In the end, it is hauntingly beautiful.

I think I would be a different person without this experience that made me weep on my mum’s lap, but also made me grasp the concepts of death and threat as I know them. But it was a deep end I was thrown into unintentionally, as so many other children were. I’m not saying that children mustn’t watch Watership Down. But parents should be seriously warned to then decide if they want to expose their kids to the hard treatment and be prepared to answer tough questions. There will be a lot of nightmares and hysterical tears until kids finally make sense of it all. Because, eventually, they will.


Illustration: Sophie Lamb

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