RIP Richard Adams: 5 interesting facts about British author of Watership Down

The book cover for Watership Down by British novelist Richard Adams.
The book cover for Watership Down by British novelist Richard Adams.PHOTO: TWITTER/MARY HAYES

British novelist Richard Adams, who died on Saturday, Christmas Eve, at the age of 96, had a late start in fiction writing which began with a story for his children .

The tale of the pains Adams undertook to get Watership Down published is almost as famous as the classic adventure novel's premise, about a warren of rabbits on an epic quest for their new home.

Here are some interesting facts about how a hitherto unknown civil servant became one of the world's best-selling authors.

1. Oxford, army and then the civil service

Having enrolled at Oxford University in 1938, Adams' studies were interrupted by the start of World War II.

He enlisted in the British army as a supply officer and reportedly spent time in Palestine, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, India and Singapore, although he never saw combat.

Returning to Oxford to complete a degree in modern history in 1948, he then joined the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (now the Department of the Environment), rising to become its assistant secretary.

2. Late bloomer

A family handout picture released by David Higham Associates Ltd on Dec 27, 2016 and taken on Aug 27, 2016 shows British author Richard Adams at an unspecified location. PHOTO: AFP/ FAMILY OF RICHARD ADAMS

In a January 2015 interview with The Guardian, Adams revealed that he had never written a word of fiction before the age of 52.

Watership Down - initially named Hazel And Fiver after the two rabbit protagonists in the novel - had its unlikely beginnings in a story he would tell his two daughters, Juliet and Rosamond, while driving them to school.

When he eventually saw the story to its end, his daughters' encouragement that it was "too good to waste" got him started on his writing journey.

He said: "It was rather difficult to start with. I was 52 when I discovered I could write. I wish I'd known a bit earlier. I never thought of myself as a writer until I became one."

3. From 2,500 to 50 million

After at least seven rejections, a one-man publishing firm in London called Rex Collings in 1972 agreed to print 2,500 copies, which was what Adams could afford at the time.

They sold out immediately and the book won the Carnegie Medal that year. Watership Down has since sold 50 million copies in 18 languages worldwide, after Penguin issued it in its Puffin Books children's series in 1973.

4. Hard act to follow

Adams left the civil service to become a full-time author in 1973, but while he has published a score of novels since Watership Down, they never quite hit the heady heights of his first book.

Notable works include Shardik (his second book about a hunter who pursues a giant bear), 1977's The Plague Dogs (about two hounds on the run from an animal research centre), 1996's Tales From Watership Down (a collection of 19 short stories that served as a follow-up to the original novel) and 2006's Daniel, about a boy born in a plantation in 1759 (Adams' first attempt at writing about real people).

He acknowledged as much the difficulty in replicating the success he enjoyed with Watership Down, telling The Guardian: "I try to look at it in a positive way, to say to myself, 'Look at Watership Down - if you can do that, you can do any ruddy thing.'

"Of course you can't expect to have another success like that, but it does give you the confidence and the enjoyment to go on writing."

5. A film, a TV series and another book

A cinema still from Watership Down.PHOTO: PERSPECTIVES FILM FESTIVAL

Watership Down got its own animated film adaptation in 1978, featuring the voices of British actors such as John Hurt and Richard Briers.

Adams revisited the scene of his greatest triumph in 1996 when he published Tales From Watership Down, a collection of 19 short stories that featured many of the characters from the first book.

Rabbits were again in vogue from 1999 to 2001, when a television series retelling much of the classic story ran for a total of 39 episodes.

Earlier this year, it was reported that the BBC and streaming service Netflix were developing an adaptation of the book, with a 2017 air date.