How old were you when you first read or watched Watership Down?
Lot of folks my age will talk about being vaguely traumatised by the film in particular, and its unrelenting depiction of just how hard it is to be a rabbit. It showed the damage that development could do to various bits of the countryside, too. After I saw it I had an innate dislike for JCBs for a couple of years.
A lot of kids these days don't end up watching it. It is old, and has a reputation of being a bit terrifying - many parents of young kids today actually grew up with it and didn't want to have their kids experience the same thing.
This, of course, ignores several key factors. One is the stellar voice acting - it's really quite incredible, John Hurt and Richard Briers being just two examples of famous British voices. The animation is likewise superb. The standard of it, for a 1978 film, just outshines almost everything else that followed it for at least ten years. The story itself is a very competent one, too. It includes a lot of classical story elements without giving into cliche - probably forming a good introduction to the Odyssey and Campbell's theory of the monomyth.
The thing that I valued about it didn't become obvious to me until later in life, when my first pet died.
I'd already become acquainted with the notion of creatures dying. It was something that happened. Admittedly it was upsetting, and the reasons why would vary - other animals, gas, diggers, old age - but it was a thing that could happen, and a natural thing. So when my pet rat died, it wasn't a bolt from the blue that left me bereft and riven with grief. It was a thing that I knew happened, that I was more capable of compensatiing for emotionally.
A similar conversation came up recently regarding how badly the first breakup hurts. The first real breakup from one's first real relationship. It's a killer - hurts worse than anything you have ever felt before, but then the next time it happens, you are prepared. You know it's coming.
The stories that we are told that feature these things - loss, heartbreak, death, mourning - can be of great help to us. Coping is a learned skill, after all, and it comes with exposure and practice. Unless we're actually willing to see these things, though, that's an exposure that we won't experience. We can live in bubble wrap our entire lives, and the moment we leave it, everything we touch hurts.
The tools of telling a story can often be called into question. Violence inflicted on others, death, tragedy, torture, worse. Do they inherently negate the story they are included in, because they are unpleasant to watch or experience? Is every storytelling moment that features such difficult material glorify it for entertainment purposes?
Watership Down's lessons and plot are dependent on such suffering. We feel keen sympathy for the rabbits. - it's hard not to - and each setback and each tragedy that befalls them plucks at our heartstrings. It's hardly glorification, though - I mean, did anyone cheer for the diggers? Really? Did anyone thing it was a thrilling spectacle to see the warren dug up?
Has anyone sat through the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, and actually felt that war was being glorified? Has anyone seen the awful effects of heroin in Trainspotting and thought it was a great idea to start shooting up?
Once upon a time, war films were bloodless. When a character died, there would be a gunshot from a faceless enemy - cut to the character, suddenly grimacing and clutching a wound that was basically nonexistent - and down they would go. A very hygenic, very sterile version of the truth.
The truth is important.
Martial arts films are pure fantasy. The distillation of good versus evil into something as uncomplicated as Bruce Lee versus Chuck Norris. The skill is real, the spectacle is real - that is glorification of conflict, undoubtedly. But those stories aren't there to teach us lessons. Way Of The Dragon isn't a cautionary tale to not harass small business owners who have visiting relatives literally named Dragon.
Combat - the actual art of fighting against and attempting to kill another being - is a brutal thing. When I write a combat scene - and almost all of my NaNos so far have involved physical combat somewhere - I don't want the reader to be thinking about it like a ballet. I want them to see what happens, to witness savagery and brute force, and to wince. To wince like one does when a sound foley manages to perfectly replicate the sound of a baseball bat hitting a leg, or to feel the sick in the pit of one's stomach when the doors of the landing boats open and the first two rows of men die in less than a second.
It's not meant to be pleasant, or fun. It's not meant to make you clap and cheer. It's suffering, and it's a terrible thing to imagine happening to another being. But it is the sake of a story - it is the fate of failure, the cost of success. And if it can make you question if it is worthwhile to force others to pay this price, then the story has done its job.
I'm glad we don't have any more war films wherein the plucky bunch of local lads emerge almost unscathed from El Alamein. I'm glad the cost is more accurately depicted - in blood shed and tears cried.