Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two Dogs In Search of a Master


With all the exciting new technologies at the movies these days -- CGI and 3D being the most obvious -- I think it might be time to revise my personal list of "Books I'd Love to See Made into Movies".  No one in Hollywood is beating down my door for recommendations, but it seems like a cool way to kick off the Summer Season, so in the next week or so I'll share some of  my selections -- why I love the book, and why I think it could be a great a movie.  Today, my number one choice:

The Plague Dogs: A Novel
The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

Everyone knows Watership Down, a great book which was made into a movie years ago -- and could be remade today, beautifully I think.  But the Richard Adams novel I love -- one of the books that has had a tremendous influence on me -- is The Plague Dogs.  It is the story of Snitter and Rowf, who escape from a medical research facility where they have been involved in horrifying experiments, and flee into the wilderness seeking freedom.  Rowf has never known anything but the labs, but Snitter was once the beloved companion of a "true master".  Early in the book, while they are still in the labs, they talk about humans and masters:

"A dog stands firm," said Rowf sharply.  "A dog never refuses whatever a man requires of him.  That's what a dog's for ...As dogs we're born to suffering.  It's a bad world for animals -- "

"Rowf, you owe them nothing -- nothing -- they're not masters ... Rowf, we're going to escape!  Both of us, through that door -- "

"There might be something worse through that door," said Rowf ....

"Think of the whitecoats, Rowf -- what you told me -- peering down into the tank and watching you.  They aren't masters, believe me;  I've had a master -- I know.  If we could only get out of here we might find a master -- who can tell? -- a proper pack leader.  Isn't it worth a try?"

Snitter has his own tragic past.  He is convinced that he killed his beloved Master, and after that his owner's family sold him off for medical research.  That guilt -- plus the effects of the experimentation he went through in the labs -- weighs heavily on Snitter's mind.  He struggles at times for sanity.  

But the two dogs do escape, and with the help of a fox, they learn to survive in the wild.  Meanwhile, the human world is up in arms.  The owners of the laboratory play up the threat of contamination, and a young reporter eager for a big story labels the two canine friends "plague dogs".  Soon all sorts of people -- some friendly and sympathetic, some definitely not -- are searching for Snitter and Rowf.

The Plague Dogs is an exciting, suspenseful adventure story that will hold any reader's interest.  But it is also much deeper.  The book sits astride a curious divide -- between "realistic" novels about animals and the great fantasy tradition of talking animal books (of which Watership Down is one of the best).  Snitter and Rowf are fully realized characters, who think and communicate with each other eloquently (as does their friend the Fox).  Yet from the human's point of view the behavior and condition of the animals is starkly realistic. Miraculously, this seam never shows.  In the world of the book (as perhaps, in our world) the realities seem to fit.    Adams has taken the conventions of the talking animal story and used them to create a novel that is part adventure story, part passionate broadside against the abuse of animals and the blindness of humans.

But it is finally Rowf and Snitter who hold us.  Maybe the two greatest canine characters in all of English literature.  Richly imagined beings -- scarred but noble -- with complete inner lives who also never fail to convince us of their dog-ness.  Adam's gift in rendering two such heart wrenching heroes makes this book great.  Their peril -- and through their eyes and hearts the peril of the entire animal world in the face of man's blindness -- drive us along through a terrifying, exciting, heart breaking and ultimately triumphant book. 

(One of the thought experiments I like to use when thinking about animal characters is:  If the descendants of these animals some day become literate, and can look back on our portrayal of them, how will they feel about it?  I think most dogs would love Rowf and Snitter as much as I do.)

The Incredible Journey
The Incredible Journey
The Plague Dogs, because of the way it combines all the threads of animal writing , is the heir not only of Watership Down (a heroic fantasy in animal guise), but of The Wind in the Willows, The Incredible  Journey, and the "realistic" dog stories of the mid-twentieth century (Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Lassie Come-Home, etc.) -- and, more indirectly, the tradition of "social issue" novels that goes back through Sinclair Lewis to Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Richard Adams has never really received the place he deserves in modern literature.  And The Plague Dogs is his greatest work.

The Plague Dogs
Animated Movie Version
The Plague Dogs was made as an animated movie in 2004 (originally released in the UK and in a heavily edited version in the US -- see it here and here), but I think its high time it gets the full feature film treatment.  Done right -- by a Director who would flinch from neither sentiment nor horror -- The Plague Dogs could also be the best animal movie ever.  I would be there on opening night to see it.


And for anyone who loves Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams is also the author of several other very interesting books.  Notably: Shardik, a fantasy about the great hunter Kelderek who pursues the nearly divine Great Bear Shardik  "across the length and breadth of a fabled world"; Maia, a more human focused (and wonderfully exotic) epic fantasy, set in the same universe (apparently) as Shardik; and especially for Books and Beast readers, Traveler, a delightful retelling of the life of Robert E. Lee from the perspective of his faithful horse.  I encourage everyone to search these books out.



If you enjoy Books and Beasts, you might also enjoy our sister blog, Birdland West, which focuses on birds and wildlife around West Seattle, in Washington State.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I love your list. I'm going to add some to my goodreads. As a kid, I was a fan of Watership Down--I cried everytime I watched the animated version. Nice review of book to film wish-list. Cheers!