This Day In Literary History
On May 9th, 1920, the famous English fantasy writer Richard Adams was born in Newbury, Berkshire, England. In 1940, less than a year after England entered World War II, Adams was studying history at Worcester College, Oxford.
His education would be interrupted when he was drafted into the British Army. He served his tour of duty in the Middle East and India, but saw no action. After the war ended, Adams continued with his education and ultimately earned a Master's degree.
After earning his Bachelor's degree, he took a job as a civil servant - Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. When he wasn't working, Adams took up a new hobby - writing fiction. He loved making up stories to tell his daughters, Juliet and Rosamond.
The girls loved their father's stories, but one particular tale, a story about a group of rabbits searching for a new home, was their favorite. They insisted that Dad turn it into a book someday. So he did.
Watership Down, Richard Adams' first novel, was published in 1974. The modern fairy tale opened with Fiver, a young rabbit with the gift of prophecy, having a vision of his and his tribe's home being destroyed. Believing that the destruction is imminent, Fiver and his brother Hazel meet with the chief rabbit.
The chief scoffs at Fiver's prophecy, so he and Hazel flee the tribal burrow with a small band of rabbits who believe in the prophecy. They barely escape the Owsla - the chief's soldiers. Hazel becomes the leader of the group, and ex-Owsla soldiers Bigwig and Silver provide security.
Fiver has another vision, which leads them to Watership Down, the perfect location for their new home. Holly and Bluebell, two members of Fiver's old tribe, show up and tell him that his prophecy came true - their old tribal burrow was just destroyed by humans.
Realizing that their new tribe needs more females to grow, Hazel sends an emissary to a nearby burrow called Efrafa to ask if some of their females would like to live in Watership Down. Unfortunately, Efrafa turns out to be a brutal fascist dictatorship ruled by General Woundwort and his Nazi-like army.
Hazel and Bigwig successfully execute a plan to liberate some rabbits from Efrafa, but the refugees' peaceful new life at Watership Down turns to horror when the burrow is suddenly and savagely attacked by General Woundwort's army. Woundwort will not stand for any threat to his power.
The rabbits of Watership Down ultimately defeat General Woundwort's army, thanks to Hazel's ingenuity and Bigwig's bravery. With its epic themes of exile, survival, and heroism, Watership Down has been compared to such classic works as Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid.
The novel, which became an overnight sensation and runaway bestseller, received excellent reviews. The book critic for The Economist proclaimed that "If there is no place for Watership Down in children’s bookshops, then children’s literature is dead."
Peter Prescott, senior book reviewer for Newsweek, said "Adams handles his suspenseful narrative more dextrously than most authors who claim to write adventure novels, but his true achievement lies in the consistent, comprehensible and altogether enchanting civilisation that he has created."
In 1978, Watership Down was adapted as an acclaimed animated British feature film written and directed by Martin Rosen. The film courted controversy during its U.S. theatrical run.
The trailer and promotional artwork led parents and children unfamiliar with the novel to believe that it was a Disneyesque tale of cute little rabbits. Instead, it was a dark, violent, and scary work of modern mythology.
Parents complained about the surprisingly graphic carnage in the PG-rated animated film. It would later be re-rated PG-13. It wouldn't be the last time that an animated adaptation of a Richard Adams novel raised the ire of parents.
Richard Adams' fifth novel, second only to Watership Down in popularity, was borne of his deep belief in and work for animal rights. The Plague Dogs (1977) told the story of two dogs, Rowf and Snitter, who escape from a laboratory where they were subjected to horrific tortures in the name of science.
Rowf, now old and cynical, was born in a laboratory and destined to be a guinea pig. As far as he's concerned, all humans are monsters. Snitter had a loving human master once, but after the man got killed in an accident, he was sold to the laboratory.
Ironically, Snitter, who endured the most torture, remains hopeful of finding another loving human master. The lab doctors performed horrific brain experiments on him; as a result, he suffers from frightening hallucinations and nightmares, whether he's dreaming or awake.
So, both dogs escape from the Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental laboratory (ARSE, get it?) and find themselves hunted relentlessly. When the starving dogs kill some sheep for food, the lab doctors (one of whom is a Nazi war criminal hiding under an assumed name) gain volunteer hunters to pursue the animals.
A sensationalist newspaper reporter covers the story and ignites a media frenzy for his own selfish purposes. He ultimately blackmails the lab doctors into revealing that the experiments they conducted on the dogs are part of secret biological warfare research they're doing for the government.
Afraid that Rowf and Snitter may be infected with a deadly biological weapon, the reporter convinces the government to have the army exterminate the dogs. Will they survive?
Animator Martin Rosen, who previously adapted Watership Down, also adapted The Plague Dogs as an animated feature film, released in 1982. Once again, Rosen's film courted controversy during its U.S. premiere.
The PG rated film contained scenes of animal torture and other graphic violence. It would later be re-rated PG-13 and cut for its second videotape release. The full uncut version is much sought after by film lovers.
In 1982 - the year that the film adaptation of The Plague Dogs premiered - Richard Adams served as President of the RSPCA - The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Adams would write more great fantasy novels and some non-fantasy novels. His final published work, Leopard Aware, was a short story that appeared in 2010. It was written for charity - to raise money for the Born Free Foundation, a British conservation and animal rescue organization.
Richard Adams died in December of 2016 at the age of 96.
Quote Of The Day
“He spoke very well about the decency and comradeship natural to animals. 'Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill, they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.'” - Richard Adams, from Watership Down
Today's video features a 2012 interview with Richard Adams. Enjoy!