WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Watership Down, streaming now on Netflix.
When Richard Addams published Watership Down in 1972, he was releasing more than a talking animal adventure; the novel was a statement on the sociopolitical state of England, particularly in terms of housing and how the lower class survived. The book was blunt, conveying its message via a group of brave rabbits who moved to a new home in order to eke out a better life.
As his cast braved severe weather, humans and farms hunting them, traffic, other wicked rabbits, as well as nature's predators, Addams carved out a dark tale. However, as gloomy as the 1978 movie and the 1999 TV series got, they weren't nearly as bleak or frightening as Netflix's new adaptation.
The miniseries, a joint venture with BBC, takes the dark aesthetic of Addams' story to a whole new level. Sure, there are cute scenes with Hazel, Fiver and the rest eating carrots and burrowing in the lush green at Watership Down, their new home -- sequences we find in each adaptation -- but when this new miniseries goes dark, it's a whole new level of horror.
Previous animation styles didn't really reflect the morbid nature of this world, but with modern technological advancements, this new take is creepy as heck, especially when depicting Fiver's clairvoyance. What's even more astounding is this series doesn't even utilize excessive blood and gore to get this effect across. When it gets dark, it's a Zack Snyder-esque world, grimy and ominous, with director Noam Murro bringing the violence to the fore with ease. The rabbits' biting, slapping, scratching and kicking is genuinely upsetting, as the warring communities fight for territory.
Most of this darkness comes at Efrafa, the colony run by General Woundwort. It's akin to the Governor's colony in AMC's The Walking Dead, desaturated in color and not as bright as the rest of the world, a contrast designed to set the tone for what's to come. We see rabbits being marked, which designates them a rank, and it's excruciating to watch as it reminds us of slaves being branded. And it's all done slowly and patiently via soldiers' claws, as if Murro wanted to send chills down our spines like the Saw movies did.
The darkness only increases when Hyzenthal and Clover realize that does are tolerated simply for breeding purposes, and as Woundwort's men intimidate and scare them, there's blatantly implied rape. Yes, it's that sinister. It's such a sinister scene, presented in a manner so disturbing, it makes an already-depressing story all the more uncomfortable. The way the one-eyed Woundwort, the ugliest version of the villain we've seen to date, propositions Clover to be his queen in exchange for not letting his bucks hurt the other does is downright sadistic.
These four episodes up the ante by making action spectacles out of the humans hunting rabbits, the destruction of Hazel's first warren by mankind and their excavation project, the way cats, foxes and dogs come after the rabbits, etc. It's not the light Disney animation we saw in the old adaptations, and this style of CGI helps create an unpredictable air to the show. This is best represented when Woundwort's army tries to beat Hazel's crew in the rain, with lightning crashing down at night at Efrafa as they try to escape with does.
It gets even worse when Efrafa invades Watership Down. At any given point, you couldn't predict who'd die. It's a testament to the dark tapestry the director lays down that Captain Holly's death hits you on an emotional level. The way we see bucks stomping his motionless body on the ground for pleasure, beckoning the others to come save him is utterly unforgiving and genuinely disturbing, a cruel act is a big change to the book's finale, making this version of Watership Down its own dark, dark story.
Watership Down, now streaming on Netflix, stars James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Jogn Boyega, Ben Kingsley, Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Arterton, Anne-Marie Duff, Olivia Colman, Peter Capaldi, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Tom Wilkinson, Taron Egerton, Rosie Day, Rosamund Pike, Gemma Chen and Miles Jupp.