Richard Adams, creator of Watership Down, dies at 96

British author Richard Adams (pictured in 1978), whose 1972 book Watership Down became a classic of children's ...
British author Richard Adams (pictured in 1978), whose 1972 book Watership Down became a classic of children's literature, died at age 96. His daughter Juliet Johnson told The Associated Press that Adams died on Christmas Eve. Photo: AP

It's not unreasonable to see the reception given to Watership Down, the megaselling children's novel by Richard Adams, who has died at the age of 96, as a precursor to the Harry Potter phenomenon.

The novel, which told the saga of a group rabbits – Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Silver et al – hunting for a new home after one of them has a vision of the imminent destruction of their warren, was published in 1970 and has sold more than 30 million copies. It drew comparisons to The Wind in the Willows and other children's book with anthropomorphised animal characters.

The title comes from the real hill in southern England where his four-legged characters eventually settle. The book was based on stories that Adams told his daughters as he drove them to school. 

Like J.K. Rowling after him, Adams struggled to have his first book accepted and eventually the one-man publishing outfit, Rex Collings, published it in a print-run of only 2500 copies.

An animated screen adaptation, featuring the hit song Bright Eyes, sung by Art Garfunkel, was  released in 1978. In April this year the BBC and Netflix announced co-production of a new four-part, animated series based on the book.

Adams was a British civil servant, working as an assistant secretary in the Department of the Environment when he wrote the book that changed his life. He went on to produce many more, including Shardik (1974), The Plague Dogs (1977) and, in the year of the first Potter book, a suite of stories serving as sequel to his major work, Tales from Watership Down (1996). But none received the reception of his first novel.

Adams was born in 1920 and was greatly influenced by his father in his love of nature. He was educated at Oxford, served in World War II, telling one interviewer "I never fired a gun at a German or anything like that". 

Two years ago he told Britain's Daily Telegraph that he was writing a new novel, but was not confident of finishing it.

"You don't understand, I may die at any moment. I'm 94. I've got to write or I wouldn't know what to do."

It remains to be seen whether he managed to complete it.