Of all the beloved figures who died in 2016, I never thought I’d feel most affected by the death of children’s author Richard Adams. But, in late December the rest of the galaxy was mourning Princess Leia while I fell back down a rabbit hole of memories.
Long before the days of Netflix, when I was nine or ten years old there was a DVD and video rental shop in a village not far from Sheffield. “Hollywood Nights” read the shabby lettering on the plain façade. On those Friday nights when mother was out, our father would take me and my seven-year-old sister to rent a film after my Brownie meeting finished. What a rare treat! He’d always rent a serious grown-up film to watch in the kitchen while we would watch a fun cartoon in the lounge. Sometimes we’d buy popcorn with our £2 pocket money, or save it for chocolate from the off-licence afterwards.
Usually our choice of film was very limited, we had a tendency to get caught up on one movie and want to rent it over and over again (and then change it up with the one we were previously obsessed with.) Then one week I found an animated film that I felt a real connection with. Was I drawn in by the colourful bunny rabbits on the cover? Or did dad tell me it was a good film? But this is when I first discovered “Watership Down.”
Watching for the first time was a strange experience, I wasn’t fazed by the brutal fights or harrowing deaths; but the Black Rabbit was nightmarish. It was just a minimalistic, stylised, animated rabbit but I still lost sleep over those scenes. Did it look like a ghost? Was it the way everything became psychedelic and confusing when it appeared? Or did I just know that it meant death? As an adult I’ve forgotten why. I mostly remember a gripping story about a big journey, survival and defeating the odds; with a cast of charming characters who I felt a great deal of empathy for (despite them being rabbits.) Fiver was always my favourite, he was small and nervous but I just wanted him to be safe. I asked my sister what she remembers of it, all she knows is that she liked the backgrounds but didn’t understand the story.
But I know I didn’t just rent this movie once, and I loved it so much that someone bought me the novel. Despite being a big thick book and a challenging read this wasn’t enough to put me off back then; although I do remember having to stop reading in many places and put the book down when it got too sad or graphic. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep until I knew the characters were out of danger. One time I did a report on it in Primary school, I can’t remember what I wrote now but it was fun drawing a big rabbit for the cover. The teacher liked my ending so I probably got a very good mark for it.
Most of my memories of being ten are sporadic and vague, just like my memories associated with this book and film. But every time I recall one fond memory it seemingly leads to another.
I can remember baking with my gran, and using sweets to decorate a rabbit on the chocolate icing. Grandad still makes “rabbit pie” jokes to this day but I can’t remember how that started. All I know is that the film’s theme song “Bright Eyes” is a part of it. He’s never seen the movie, just knows it’s about “dead rabbits.”
Eventually, I managed to finish the novel and put it away. The rental shop closed down around the time when I moved up from Brownies; my fascination with the world of rabbits and their battles drifted away too. “Hollywood Nights” has been converted into many different businesses from bathroom shops to estate agents but none have lasted long. (As I write this it’s a financial advisors.) In a similar fashion, my tastes in film and literature have gone on and changed just as frequently. “Watership Down” became another silly children’s story to be left in the past; I was too old for that.
I moved from Primary school to Secondary school, and from school to University. When I got to be twenty two I’d read enough books to fill a library, and this film was nothing but the subject of online nostalgia articles. If asked to recall the plot I could only tell you a brief outline.
So it really did come as a surprise that upon learning of Adams’ death I was in tears. I had to go back and find that one scene that scared me twelve years ago. After browsing old film clips and hearing that Art Garfunkel theme song again I was back to being a ten year old Brownie; being enthralled yet terrified by my new favourite film. Staying up late reading my favourite book; needing to know how Hazel, Bigwig and Fiver survived and wanting to write all about it in class tomorrow. I was a child with a love of nature and a sense of adventure, not a bored adult at a loss for ideas.