This would actually be a 3.5 star book for me, but I erred on the upper rating because it's a classic and it's very well written.
Generally, I don't really go for "anthropormorphic animal" stories. My favorite Disney movies tend to be those about PEOPLE, even eschewing blockbusters like "The Lion King." I never got into the Warriors series even though I like cats, fantasy AND middle-grade novels. Redwall never called to me. Probably the only exception to my indifference to animal-based stories is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Still, I have always been curious about this book. Several of my friends have it on their "favorites" list, many of whom read it before they ever met me, and having it be part of the childhood fabric of so many people in my generation made me feel a little like I must be missing out. Plus, for some reason I always remembered that the main character in Wait Till Helen Comes
loved Watership Down. So, it's my turn to see what all the fuss is about.
So, with that lengthy personal preamble, after reading this I can kind of see what all the fuss is about. The writing is of that rare quality where it totally disappears in service to the story -- never overdone or pretentious or ringing false or amateur. I respected Richard Adams' choice to only have the rabbits physically do what real rabbits are capable of; although these rabbits are far more intelligent with a much more elaborate society than real rabbits have (I suspect), they still managed to feel like "real" rabbits. And that leads me to what was probably the best part of the book, and why I think it has such appeal for so many people. The characterization is excellent, with major characters and minor characters, heroes and villains, all feeling very real -- so the rabbits feel real on two levels, as rabbits, and also as, well, people.
The most interesting part of the book were the two "dystopic" rabbit warrens the main characters encountered, with each of them chilling in their own way. (Since the main characters didn't come across any "normal" rabbit warrens, it made me wonder if all the rabbits except this small tribe were seriously messed up!)
Also, this starts out as one of those epic fantasy journey stories where EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER IS MALE. But unlike other journey stories (:: cough cough :: The Hobbit
:: cough cough ::), about halfway through the story the rabbits all realize, "OMG, this is a problem!!!" And then the second half of their story is devoted to their quest for gender diversity. Yeah! These rabbits have clearly attained much higher consciousness than hobbits have.
My main complaints about this book revolve around length. It gets started pretty slow, and I didn't become really engaged until they encountered their first warren, which wasou probably about 20 - 30% in. I also got bored by the various rabbit "legends" -- the worldbuilding impressed me, but I think just a hint that distinct and complex lapine mythology existed would have been sufficient. Also, the ending seemed to drag on a bit as well, although the very last scene was well executed.
Now, on to the movie!