Adaptations are interesting things to consider. As much as fans of the original tale, especially we bookworms, love to cry havoc at the first sign of deviance, there’s something to be said for the craft of adapting a piece from one medium to another. Each medium has its own rules, its own language with which to convey the story. Adapting is an art of translation. It is finding ways to convey the same idea with different tools.
As such, I frequently entertain myself by considering how I might attempt to retell a story in a different medium. What themes would I choose to highlight? What would need to be altered to maintain the emotional essence of a scene? How would I work adjust characters or events to suit a longer or shorter runtime? In choices big and small, the way a story is adapted tells a lot about how the adapter views the story and its elements. The result is that the original work and the adaptation end up becoming foils to each other, highlighting certain elements in their presence or absence, giving us a fuller understanding of both tellings.
When BBC and Netflix announced the upcoming Watership Down miniseries, I was delighted. A longer runtime would allow for certain threads to exist, for the atmosphere to be better developed, the themes kept more intact. The announcement of the miniseries also had me wondering: how might a video game adaptation of the novel play?
In thinking through the various elements of Richard Adam’s work, I realized that Watership Down already had its video game adaptation: Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
The world and story of The Walking Dead (specifically Season 1) are comparable to Watership Down on a deep level. Both are set in a world where the protagonists are prey to former loved ones; the zombie transformation is obvious, but the rabbit creation myth also involves the transformation of the rabbit hero El-ahrairah’s friends into the elil (predators). It is an elil’s world in both tales, the protagonists skirting from one safe zone to the next, but danger also comes from their fellow humans or rabbits as well. There is resistance to leaving the Sandleford warren/motel where the protagonists have initially gathered and set up a place of relative safety. The safety is eventually compromised, leading to an argument about whether or not to move on. Cowslip’s warren/the farmhouse is a place that looks welcoming on the outside, but is ultimately unnatural in its means of survival, which involves sacrificing their fellow humans or rabbits as a food source. The final “warren” encountered is a totalitarian hole that seeks to survive through an iron fist, and their inflexibility is their ultimate downfall.
Like any adaptation, there are also variations on how elements are presented. Most notably, The Walking Dead takes the longest to establish the initial Sandleford warren of the motel, because the human characters must first become established in this new world where they are prey. This isn’t just a change made as a result of the twist on the genre (rabbit odyssey to zombie apocalypse), this is also a necessary change as a result of the medium chosen. In written stories, exposition and character interactions can help bring us into the mindset of a new society. In games, however, the audience is an active participant; they have to learn the new mindset in order to understand the choices they are making. Through this adaptational decision, we get a better glimpse of the roll horror plays in the original text.
In The Walking Dead, the horror raises the stakes of every choice you make. There’s a responsibility to choose well when there is rarely a clear-cut answer, and then you are forced to follow through with your choice. When a man is caught in a bear trap with zombies closing in, you (as the protagonist Lee Everett) must decide if you are going to leave him to the zombies or save him. And then you must commit to your choice; choosing to save him means you must complete the act of hacking through his leg with an axe. The elevated stakes make even the smallest details change your ability to lead the group and protect the child Clementine.
This puts us into the mindset of Hazel, the protagonist of Watership Down. While the 1978 animated movie is the most criticized for its violence, Richard Adams’ original story has also caught similar flak for its use of horror. But, as The Walking Dead illustrates, it’s the horror that raises the stakes. It’s the horror that forces Hazel and the rest of the company to make critical decisions when there might not be a wholly right answer. The choice of The Walking Dead to deliberately lean into the horror helps us, the audience, better appreciate the characters of Watership Down and the choices they had to make.
One aspect of Watership Down that doesn’t make the leap to the game proper is the tales of El-ahrairah, other than the origin of the elil/zombies as discussed before. However, the spirit of these tales is not fully absent either. The tales of El-ahrairah are a communal activity; they are a set of stories shared between rabbits. Sometimes, real daring deeds of rabbits are retold as an El-ahrairah adventure, building the collective lore of the rabbit hero. We as an audience, do the same thing with video games.
Being an active participant in The Walking Dead means that we as players contribute to Lee Everett’s story. Everyone has a reason for making the choices they do in that game. A friend and I each chose differently when it came down to the final moments of the game, and as a result we each created a different tale of Lee Everett. This happens with other video games like Mass Effect where every new player and their daring deeds becomes Commander Shepard. Granted, we are limited by the choices we can make for Lee and Shepard, but El-ahrairah too has core elements to his character. You don’t find the rabbit storytellers dramatically altering El-ahrairah to fit a decision; the decisions must fall in line with the hero.
But it’s not just the choices we make in-game, it’s the community aspect of it. My friend and I shared our choices with each other. We didn’t just create a tale of Lee Everett, we told a tale of Lee Everett to someone else. And in retelling these events, we start creating our own collective lore; fan theories and fan fiction, our own tales of El-ahrairah.
Full disclosure; I do not actually believe that The Walking Dead is a deliberate adaptation of Watership Down. That would be about as shocking as TellTale treating their employees right. The similarities that are there, however, are enough for the two works to act as foils to each other, much in the way an original text and its adaptation would, with the differences highlighting key areas. The Walking Dead’s choice of genre and medium helps put us in the rabbits’ perspectives, and the oral storytelling traditions of Watership Down casts new light on the way we engage with interactive stories.