Doug Goodman

Texas Horror Writer. Cadaver Dog Handler.

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I have a Theory about The Walking Dead and Watership Down

Posted by douggoodman on August 6, 2012 at 12:25 AM

Ok, so you knew it had to happen sooner or later.  Anytime you have a giant commercial success like The Walking Dead, people are going to eventually begin to compare it to other things.  First, the show was compared to the comic book.  Then the show/comic book was compared to other zombie movies.  (You know you heard the banter about which was better - Night of the Living Dead, the new Dawn of the Dead, or The Walking Dead.  If you didn't, you don't know the people I do.)   Almost as quickly, Lost came into to picture.  In this 2010 article, the LA Times asked "Is this 'Lost' in transition?", though I'm pretty convinced most of the comparisons are either too forced or too generic. But who really cares about comparing Walking Dead to modern cinema and pop culture?  More importantly, have we compared post-apocalyptic zombie fiction to children's literature yet?  No?  Why haven't we?  We need to fix this.  What better way to do this than to compare a beloved children's book about wayward rabbits to a violent modern diaspora.


At first glance, you probably won't think of comparing rabbits and zombies.  (When is the movie about rabbit zombies going to be made?)  Let's see, it's rabbits are to zombies as dandelions are to Wes Craven, right?  So until I read through at least half of Watership Down, I wouldn't have seen any similarities, either.  But I got to talking with Mrs. Bad Ass, and that's when it hit me like a brained zombie: The Walking Dead is a lot like Watership Down!  Rabbits do equal zombies!  And if you give me a minute to explain my insanity, maybe you will, too. 


I have to be fair, though.  Before I begin comparing, it must be said that Watership Down is less The Velveteen Rabbit and more like Homer's The Odyssey.  Bunnies aside, this is an epic story, fully set in the traditions of Joseph Conrad and Carl Jung.  (Google them if you don't know the names.)  So it is no surprise that many non-YA stories will compare to Watership Down.  Name any epic, and you probably can make a b-r-o-a-d comparison, which has less to do with the fiction than it does the canon.  After all, Watership Down is the story of a people who rise up against tyrants to try to set up their own land.  If that doesn't sound like Star Wars/Braveheart/Lawrence of Arabia, well...nevermind, cause it does.  The only difference is that instead of William Wallace fighting the English or the Rebel Alliance fighting Darth Vader, you have Hazel and his warren fighting a nasty rabbit named General Woundwort.


So back to The Walking Dead.  The format of the comic book/show is not pitting one society against another in an epic Thunderdome battle of two-man-enter, one-man-leave.  Instead, it's a story of day-to-day survival with an emphasis on realism in a very cruel world.  That realism is important.  Yes, I said realism.  Probably not the first word to come to your mind when describing a zombie movie, but follow me here.  There is actually a lot of tradition in this.  Once you move beyond the idea of zombies roaming the earth, there is a lot of realism inherent in zombiedom.  This comes from the idea of zombie stories as survival tales.  (BTW - it is no surprise to me that since zombies became an uber-pop cultural icon about 10-15 years ago, "survival/prepper shows" started to become popular, too.  The lack of modern convenience becomes a threat personified by the zombies.)


This is the side of The Walking Dead that I think really starts to compare to Watership.  Like Rick Grimes and his family, Hazel and the other rabbits are searching a very real world for a place to call home.  Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, read the naturalist Robert Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit, and it influenced the writing of his little book of fighting rabbits. 


In this realistic world, the rabbits encounter several different societies while they try to form their own.  First, they meet a strange warren (read: rabbit community) where everybody seems oddly peaceful and well-fed, yet nobody answers the question of where.  For Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig, not answering questions goes against their character.  They are survivors of the bunny apocalypse!  They must know how the new warren works so they will know if they fit in.  After escaping that mysterious society, they find another version of civilization at a farm.  The farm has a run of pet rabbits who have lived their entire lives in the run, being fed and preened and taken care of by humans.  So these rabbits don't know how to make decisions.  They've never had to make one in their life.  These rabbits are kind of the Charleston/Falling Skies people who don't know much about what's happened since the alien apocalypse.  They are also like several of the Washington D.C. societies that Rick Grimes and co. encounter, who are not used to fending off zombies or have the strength of the survivors.  They all kind of echo Barbara from NotLD, unwilling to move or get out of the way of an attacking zombie.


Eventually, though, the hero rabbits do find a perfect little home.  (YEA!  Carrots for everyone!!!)  This is the downs at Watership.  The downs provide the similar "safehaven" benefits of zombie movies, whether it is a house, a mall, or even a tank.  First and foremost, the perfect living community offers protection from elil predators or zombies, as the case may be.  Unfortunately for the survivors of The Walking Dead, after coming to the abandoned prison with its massive fences, they soon come into conflict with a nearby version of civilization called Woodbury, a community created and lorded over by a maniacal tyrant named "the Governor."  (Err...spoiler alert for anyone not watching the show, I guess.  Sorry about that, though I don't think it's a big spoiler.) 


For the Watership Down warren, their version of Woodbury is the Efrafa warren, created and lorded over by a maniacal tyrant named "General Woundwort."  (Next rabbit I buy is being named General Woundwort, by the way.)  The Governor and the General are similar in their tyrannical need to control the inhabitants in their civilization.  What that level of control should be is always at debate with the survivors.  How much freedom should any person have, and what are the consequences of that freedom?  In the world of The Walking Dead, a person who is free is a person who can kill their comrades or attract zombies. 


Then there is the zombies comparison.  Yes let's talk zombies.  Brains! Brains! Brains!  Nom! Nom! Nom!Zombies play a crucial role in The Walking Dead and Watership Down, though you won't see rabbits slurping the guts from another rabbit.  (Sorry!)  But you can't have The Walking Dead without zombies.  They are the ever-present, ever-constant reminder of the precarious position of mankind.  And they are everywhere.  In barns, houses, ditches, gymnasiums, you name it.  They wait when you least expect it to bite your ankles and end your life.  They are the horde, the multitude; and in Watership Down, they are elil, translated from rabbit-speak as the Thousand, meaning all the different kinds of predators that prey on rabbits.  The Thousand provide the same kind of pivotal plot roles that you find from zombies.  More importantly, though, the Thousand are there to remind the rabbits of Watership Down that no matter what they do, civilization cannot stop death from coming.  The presence of death is a major theme running through this dark YA novel.  Whether it's the White Blindness or The Black Rabbit of Inlé, a fox or a weasel, death is something the rabbits will not be able to evade.  All they can hope for is a warm den to keep out the cold and keep them hidden from the dangers so they do not have to ask themselves to fight or flee.


So there you have it, folks. The first ever complete essay comparing Watership Down to The Walking Dead. Thank you, and let me know if you want me to speak at your next convention (what do you think of the convention topic: Why Killer Rabbits Are Just As Cool As Shuffling Zombies?). One thing, though – do not try to rip me off and make this your junior year thesis. I will hunt you down. Like a zombie. I may not arrive today or tomorrow, but eventually my shuffling butt will get there.


Did you say you want something more like a conclusion, something that shows how the books can interact? Fine. I am a slave to the keyboard.


Feeding, fighting, fleeing, and breeding are the central motivations of these books. In Watership Down, having "kittens" is what it’s all about. In The Walking Dead, one of the great mysteries is the effect of a cruel world on children, and whether or not it is right to have children in an undead world. Maybe in the series the survivors will come to the same conclusion as the rabbits, that having children is central to civilization. They are the keepers of the flame, to steal a line from The Road.


Booyah! Ended with a Road hook!


Ed update 3/29/13:  Made a few editorial tweaks.

Categories: Rabbits vs. Zombies: The Essay!, I Have A Theory

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Reply lisa clay
9:15 AM on August 20, 2012 
"oh the places you'll go" or at least my cousin's mind! your are vastly entertaining, doug to this syfy fan!
Reply Watching during Sandy
11:54 PM on October 29, 2012 
Thanks for this! Just watched the introduction of the Governor and Woodbury on the TV series today. First thought, oh, this is the zombie Efrafra. Glad someone out there made the connection!
Reply Matty Brown
4:13 AM on November 10, 2012 
Just the other night, some friends and I were discussing the recent events of THE WALKING DEAD when I exclaimed loudly "Oh my god! This is soooo Watership Down!!!" It felt like a massive revelation and it really shed a lot of light on where the show is likely heading. At this point I think it would be almost impossible for The Walking Dead NOT to mirror many key elements of Watership Down.

I had to do a Google search to see if anyone else was thinking this. I'm sure this article will be getting a lot more hits as people pick up on these similarities. This is an excellent little essay and the perfect search result! I can't believe I didn't notice it sooner... Martin Rosen's WATERSHIP DOWN is one of my favorite movies of all time.

I also can't help but note that I'm having trouble enjoying The Walking Dead at this point. The STORY is fine but there aren't enough likeable characters to make me care whether or not these people live or die. I think the show is kind of a mess and could really have used Frank Darabont's sensibilities at this point in the story.. Just my two cents, still gonna watch (can't stop now, in too deep).
Reply Cole
12:01 AM on March 24, 2013 
Count me in as one who made the connection, posted about it on facebook, then decided to see if anyone else had had the same epiphany. No idea is new on the internet... :)

The parallels I can remember at the moment:

1. The Mayor is General Woundwort.

2: Efrafa is Newbury, Watership Down is the prison.

3: Bigwig and others go into Efrafa to rescue does, as Rick and others went in to rescue hostage comrades.

4: Hazel goes to meet with Woundwort, proposes that they live in peace. Rick does the same with The Mayor.

5: During the final battle, Woundwort is scratched across the face, losing an eye. The Mayor also loses an eye in a fight, albeit earlier in the story.

6: It's not "Woodbury", but "Newbury" is the name of a town near Watership Down. The little girl that saves Hazel from her cat thinks about her father going to Newbury for market day.

7. The first "safe place", that Fiver would not let them stay in, where they found out that the dark secret all the rabbits there were hiding (the farmer killing one or two rabbits off every so often, but otherwise feeding them nice scraps and keeping the elil away) = Herschel's farm.
Reply Nick
12:32 PM on June 23, 2013 
Both stories share the abbreviation W.D. Watership Down and Walking Dead. Coincidence?
Reply K
11:29 PM on November 22, 2013 
So glad I'm not the only one who thinks this! I have a Watership Down tattoo on my left calf...maybe now I should get a zombie tattoo on my right calf?