Thursday, February 25, 2016

Traumatizing animal movies of our childhoods

For the generation before my wife and me, Old Yeller probably would have taken the prize as the movie about animals that most traumatized its young viewers. But in 1957, our parents were still in high school, and to this day I still haven't seen the movie.

However, we do each have one for children of the 1970s, though I didn't discover what mine was until watching hers.

But first, I had to read the book.

I came across Watership Down pretty much as I've come across a lot of the things I've read over the past couple years since moving to Australia -- I picked it off the shelves of my wife's books that we got out of storage when we moved back here. (Or rather, she back, me for the first time.)

Of course, I'd known about it since I was a child. I still distinctly remember discovering it on a shelf in one of my elementary school classes, and not believing someone when they told me it was about rabbits. I thought it must have to do with some sort of naval military battle, and the disconnect between the title and what it was actually about kind of fried my noodle.

Spoiler warning -- I am about to talk freely about plot details from Watership Down.

At that time, I only learned that it was about rabbits. Over the years, I gained the knowledge that it was about rabbits fighting each other in rather gruesome ways, and that it was not for the faint of heart. In short, I learned that things did not come good for these rabbits. (Erroneously, as it turned out, but I'll come to that in a moment.)

When I showed my wife that this was the latest book of hers I had chosen -- this was last May or June -- a look of horror fleeted across her face. She admitted to me that that look was more derived from the film than the book, she having been subjected to the film at a very early age -- too early of an age. I can see someone blindly prescribing it to her as just some harmless animated fluff about rabbits, and her little seven-year-old mind getting scarred by the images before her. (She was actually seven in 1978 when the movie came out, though I don't know if she saw it then or later on.)

And so I read this book with a sense of extreme foreboding about what was to come, similar to the foreboding I felt when I watched Suspiria, having heard it discussed as the scariest film of all time. As Richard Adams developed his rabbit characters wonderfully, my dread increased, suspecting that many if not all of them would die horrible deaths. This was something confirmed by a friend of mine, who upon hearing that I was reading the book made some comment about all the rabbits dying. Apparently he didn't think of it as a spoiler since he thought it was just one of those things that was common knowledge, like the fact that the food in Soylent Green is made of _______.

So you can imagine my surprise when I reluctantly waded into the book's final pages, steeling myself for a bloodbath, and discovered that not only do almost all of the rabbits we care about live, but the one who dies does so years later in old age, looking proudly over the prosperous warren he helped build.


On the one hand I was a bit relieved. I didn't want Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig and Blackberry and all the rest to have their throats ripped out by the evil General Woundwart. But part of me felt like I had been duped. Hard lessons about life as a rabbit were meant to be delivered by Adams' book, and that simply did not happen. Or not to the extent that I was led to believe, anyway.

Since finishing the book (and really, loving it) I had been eager to watch the movie, and the opportunity arose the other week when I was at the library and saw it there among their collection. I got it on the schedule this past Tuesday.

I didn't still have the foreboding about mass rabbit extermination with which I had read the book, but I did know this movie had sort of traumatized my wife, so I was immediately looking for the ways in which it might have done that. At which point I realized that I was unlikely to get that from a movie made in 1978 and featuring a theme song by Art Garfunkel. Those were different times.

Don't get me wrong -- there are traumatic elements in this film. There's the scene (done rather abstractly) where all the rabbits in the old warren are killed when men fill in their runs after sending poisonous gases down to kill them. (That's not just man being nasty; that's man preparing to erect a building.) There's the brief and rather bloodless death of a rabbit that gets grabbed by an owl in the early going. There's the scene where Bigwig gets bloodied from a snare, and they think he's dead. There's the scene where Hazel gets shot (but also survives). Then there's the real carnage at the end, when Bigwig and Woundwort cover each other in their respective gore, though neither is killed in this scene. The real bloodbath is when the farmer's dog, having been unleashed on Woundwort's attacking rabbits when the good rabbits gnaw through the rope that had tethered him to the shed, kills about four rabbits (including Woundwort, though that's off screen and unconfirmed). But those are the bad rabbits, who might deserve to die under certain brands of morality.

But I certainly didn't experience these as traumatizing at the ripe old age of 42. I don't think it's that I lacked the ability to imagine how a young child would experience watching Watership Down. Rather, I realized it was because I had something from about that age that pushed the envelope farther in terms of animal-on-animal violence.

That movie was Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH, which caught me at age eight or nine in 1982.

And now it's time for some Secret of NIMH spoilers.

The stories bear some striking similarities. Both deal with timid creatures whose homes are threatened by the oblivious progress of man, as Mrs. Brisby and her family of mice must flee the plow in its first run through the fields after the frost. She enlists intelligent rats, who were part of an experiment at the National Institute of Mental Health, to help move the home. Both stories even feature the unexpected assistance of a bird, as Jeremy the crow works with Mrs. Brisby much the same way that Kehaar, the injured seagull the rabbits help in Watership, returns the favor by helping them smuggle does out of Efrafa, the domain of the ruthless Woundwort.

The difference between the two movies, beyond the ages at which I saw them, is that NIMH seems to go for it more in terms of the cruelty and violence the rats display toward each other. As this is a bit more of a fantastical realm than the comparative realism of Adams' work, the rats engage each other in sword fights and actually try to murder each other for power. (Woundwort isn't quite a murderer -- he's merely a tyrant who seeks to control his people, and only attempts murder for vengeance. Subtle distinction I know.) Anyway, I remember how taken aback I was by the evil rat Jenner making hay from the death of their spiritual leader, Nicodemus, who is crushed under a pulley system that flies apart when the rats are trying to move the Brisby home during a storm. Not only does he try to kill the heroic Justin, leader of the guards, but he does kill his sidekick Sullivan when Sullivan objects to the depths of Jenner's malevolence. Jenner himself eventually dies as well. Not only all this, but we know from the beginning that Mrs. Brisby's son, Timothy, might die if he's forced to move before his pneumonia is cured, that Mrs. Brisby's husband was killed by the farmer's cat, and that NIMH may be coming to kill the rats that escaped.

Pretty heavy stuff for an eight-year-old, yes?

And yet The Secret of NIMH was a cherished favorite that I watched repeatedly, probably upwards of a dozen times in total. (We had a video tape recorded off The Movie Channel, which made repeated viewings that much easier.) The intense violence governing the lives of these animals got under my skin, but in a way that drew me in rather than repelling me.

I suppose if I want to keep this theme going, my next project will be to see one of the two versions of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which I actually did read in junior high, and which has film versions from both the generation before mine (1955) and the generation after (1999).

From the looks of them, neither version figures to be very bloody, and there are certainly no sword fights.


Wendell Ottley said...

I really enjoyed reading this and love how you linked the two movies together. I've seen neither, but have heard plenty about both. That includes the same sorts of things you had heard about Watership Down. Interesting to hear that it's not THAT.

I'm about the same age as your wife (sounds like your about the same as mine) and I remember watching Ol' Yeller several times on TV. I liked it, but it never fell into traumatic territory for me. The one you're tackling next did. After reading Animal Farm in 6th grade we watched the movie, the 50s version since it was 1982. A certain part gave me an emotional jolt. I don't know if traumatic is actually the right word, but I have not forgotten that moment in the 30+ years since it happened.

Great post. I'll be looking forward to that write-up on Animal Farm.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Wendell! And I've been enjoying your intelligent and thoughtful comments - a nice change of pace from the account that keeps spamming my comments section with inscrutable nonsense about space travel. :-)

I'll bump up Animal Farm on the viewing list. And I can't really call myself a cinephile if I haven't seen Ol Yeller, can I?