When I was very young I was taken to see this movie that my parents probably thought would have cute, comical bunnies in it. Thusly I was exposed to disturbing images of fields of blood, extreme bunny-bunny violence and weird, floaty and somehow scary black rabbits...there was also an alarmingly bad song called Bright Eyes. The whole thing was incomprehensible and scary and I didn't like it. And the song was everywhere for weeks...
Zillions of years later the scars have healed and I eventually get round to finding out if all that fuss back in the '70s was merited.
Well, by the time I'm at the end of Part 2 and the rabbits have escaped the fields of blood and settled on Watership Down I didn't really think so. It seemed like it had been too easy and anticlimactic. There were no female characters. I also felt that the theme of human impact being negative and destructive was a little too easy: novelists now, as then, have their environmental impact, as do we all. It's easy to suggest that humans are degrading their environment, harder to say what should be done about it given that we are all complicit in it - and Adams makes no effort at all in that direction.
Little did I suspect that this was just the pre-amble to a tremendous adventure in which this theme would be dropped almost entirely and the focus would shift toward questions of leadership, governance and the will to power. Or that the lack of female rabbits would turn out to be crucial to what was going to happen next.
Now, a bunch of talking rabbits should really be laughable, but they really aren't. How does Adams acheive this? Partly by creating convincing characters, something that is, of course, crucial to the success of any novel but that doesn't resolve the absurdity of talking rabbits. One method adopted by Adams is to remember that they are rabbits, not just metamorphosed humans, which one might think would be counter-productive but turns out not to be. So these rabbits behave like rabbits and where human cultural attitudes conflict with the general behaviour of rabbits, rabbit behaviour is kept. Rabbit behaviour is also described in detail, from a position of knowledge. But here's what makes the whole thing really work: The rabbits have a language, folk-tales, myths, legends and religion all their own. The floaty black rabbit from the film symbolises death and in the book is a good deal less floaty, more corporeal and even more scary. This doesn't stop the vaguely Promethean Ancestor-Father-Trickster-Rabbit of rabbit legend taking him on, though!
This matter of a society having history that merges into myth and legend, language that is convincingly represented, religious or spiritual elements to its culture seems to me to be a common factor linking the best works of fantasy (and what is more fantastical than a bunch of talking bunnies?). People talk about world-building in relation to fantasy and SF. I would suggest that these aspects of the world to be built are crucial.
The rabbit-language is so well handled that when Bigwig tells his nemesis to "Silflay hraka," it has all the offensive force of any crude one-liner a Hollywood action star has ever delivered and suits the moment perfectly. Was that in the film? I can't remember, but it should be! This happens during a denouement that has several perfect moments and becomes another folk-tale added to the rich store of stories kept in the warrens of the Lapines.
So the wobbly start of parts 1 and 2 turns out in part to be well thought out and necessary for what comes later and in part just forgetable once stuck into the drama of parts 3 and 4, where even the humans turn out to be not all bad after all.