Film 2019: The Plague Dogs

I bought this DVD as a curiosity, and because it was cheap (cheapness is an essential factor for curiosities). Like many of my generation, I bought ‘Watership Down’, after hearing so much about it, in my late teens. I followed Richard Adams on to ‘Shardik’, which was less impressive and which caused me to only borrow ‘The Plague Dogs’ from the library, despite it being set in my beloved Lake District, and featuring route maps of the dogs’ flight drawn by the Blessed Wainwright himself.

I took it out of the Library on a Friday afternoon and started reading it after tea. I stayed up until somewhere between 2.00 and 3.00am, determined to finish it in a single session. Not because it gripped and enthralled and I had to find out how it ended, but because I was determined to get it over and done with for good, and not have to drag myself back to it on Saturday.

I never read it again. Even with those wonderful Wainwright maps, I wouldn’t buy it. I went to see Watership Down the film twice whilst I lived in Nottingham, but I avoided The Plague Dogs film.

So why now? For that, the credit (or blame) has to go to  my fellow blogger George Kitching, of the superb Lakeland Walking Tales site, and his two part account of following the Plague Dogs’ trail.

George and I differ on the merits of the book. Of course, he has the advantage of having read it within the past forty years. At the time, I thought it grossly overwritten, and badly in need of a dictatorial editor to tell Adams to cut it down by a hundred pages, and get over yourself with this Animal Testing ranting. Let not it be thought that I’m anything but against it myself, but Adams himself admits that part of the book is a polemic, and he totally loses any perspective in his writing and grinds on about it long after his point is doubly made.

The film exists in two versions, the theatrical cut which runs for 86 minutes, and the original director’s cut, which lasts 103 minutes. Only in Australia has the full cut been commercially released and the version I have watched is the common version. I was not impressed.

The film follows the book in general. Rowf, a black labrador/retriever cross, voiced by Christopher Benjamin of all people, is a test subject at Lawson Park Research Centre near Coniston in the Lake District. He is constantly drowned and resuscitated to test the ultimate limits of stamina. Snitter, a smooth fox terrier, voiced by the great John Hurt, has just undergone a brain operation to confuse subjective/objective experiences. The two escape and go on the run, causing havoc, before they are impliedly drowned in the Irish Sea, trying to escape the Army.

That sounds like a very thin summary, but this is ultimately a very thin film. Whereas Adams can go in deep on the dogs’ reactions, and amplify the public reaction to how the dogs are, untruthfully and callously, stigmatised as carrying the Bubonic Plague, the film, by adopting a naturalistic approach that runs deeper than the same team’s adaptation of Watership Down, denies itself that asset and forces itself to go no deeper than the surface of the dogs’ own reactions and understanding.

As a result, the film becomes a chase story, as superficial as that sounds, and forfeits any chance of real structure. Rowf and Snitter encounter the odd sheepdog here or there, but the film’s only other character of substance is the Tod, a wily fox, voiced in deep Geordie by James Bolam to the point of vocal caricature.

That lack of structure is a real problem. The dogs clatter around. Time passes at odd rates without any idea of how long things are taking. There is very little sense of location, despite the fact that the film is determinedly set in the Lake District, or at any rate in a Lake District. Real names and places are mentioned, Coniston, Dunnerdale, Thirlmere, Glenridding, Ravenglass. A genuine map of Middle Eskdale is used late on. Some accurate buildings are shown – a Coop general store in Coniston, the road under the railway bridge into Ravenglass – but these only compound the film’s biggest mistake which is its over-exaggerated, over-styled, and phoney Lake District fell-country.

Of course, part of this is my personal bugbear. Anything set in the Lake District has to undergo a fine-toothed comb examination from me as to its accurate depiction of the Lakes. The 1974 Swallows and Amazons film always falls apart during the heedless sailing scenes when boats flicker to and from between Coniston Water, Windermere and Derwent Water from second to second. I am far too harsh on the subject of authenticity for any film or tv series’ good.

But the film makes this a rod for its own back. By insisting upon naturalism, in the movements of animals and humans, by including accurate buildings, it sets itself a standard that it then conspicuously abandons. The countryside is unreal. It’s exaggerated both vertically and horizontally. Fells and mountains crowd together in formations that bear no resemblance to the Lakes. One repeated long, deep, straight valley image turns up in what must be at least three different places, far apart. Occasional mountain outlines appear out of context, including two Great Gables, nowhere near either Wasdale or Gable’s surrounding fells.

It makes the film feel rootless. As well as no sense of structure, or of time, there is no genuine sense of place.

One thing that does the film credit is that it restores Adams’ original ending. In the book, Adams’ editor (amongst others) persuaded him to a deus ex machina ending where naturalist Sir Peter Scott and Snitter’s not-dead-after-all master turn up to save the dogs from the Army, aided by a complete character reversal from the book’s most unpleasant human, but writer and director Martin Rosen has them instead swimming out to sea from the beach at Ravenglass, heading for an island that is a place of dream. The dogs disappear into the mist, and it is left open as to whether they reach any island, but in the context of the film’s determined solidity, the implication is that they drown, that this is their means of escape.

So I’ve seen it, and for the first time since I began this series in the first week of January last year, I have come to a film I shall not keep, nor bother watching again. My thanks to George for inspiring this experiment, nevertheless, and I shall be interested in any comments he wishes to make.

3 thoughts on “Film 2019: The Plague Dogs

  1. That’s very interesting take. I haven’t seen the film so I can’t really comment, but I suspect some of the things that irritate you about it might irritate me too.

    I do get your criticisms of the book, but somehow, for me, it works as it is. I loved it, it sucked me in and far from wanting it cut down , I didn’t want it to end.

    Being a big softie, I was glad of the editor’s ending. It would have been very bleak otherwise (albeit more harshly realistic).

    Thanks for your kind words about my blog. I feel very honoured, and I’m glad it inspired you to give the film a go and write this very articulate and well-argued critique.

  2. Don’t forget, George, that you have only recently read it, as an adult, whereas I read it, once, when I was in my early twenties at best. That’s a heck of a difference, both personally and in terms of the world(s) against which you and I experienced the book. In my case, that is a good argument for re-reading, to see if my response would now be updated, but I developed an antipathy against it then (and never read another word Adams wrote) that’s unshakable.

    As for the ending, I’d go back to the argument I put forward in reviewing ‘The Lacemaker’. I prefer happy endings to sad, but above all they have to be right endings. A happy ending that undermines everything that’s gone before it, no matter how much you want to see it, mut be an organic oart of the story: if it’s tacked on just because the creator couldn’t bear to end on a downer, it isn’t worthwhile. I respect the film’s ending for that reason. Rowf and Snitter were happy. They escaped. Like Sam Lowry in ‘Brazil’, the only way they could.

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