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Literature / The Plague Dogs

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A 1977 novel by Richard Adams about two dogs named Rowf and Snitter. The two narrowly escape from an animal testing lab and roam the English countryside with the help of a fox known only as "the tod" (a dialect word for a male fox). The facility, Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental, attempts to reclaim the dogs and spreads a rumour that the two harbour a dangerous bioweapon to assist in their capture, hence the title. It was made into an animated feature-length film in 1982, a few years after Adams' other book, Watership Down.

Known for being Darker and Grittier than the previous work, it is set in the gray and wintry fells of England's Lake District. The animated adaptation is an infamous Tear Jerker as well (to the point that many call it "a British version of Grave of the Fireflies with dogs"); the original print of the film was censored for wide release and was considered rare until recently, as now at least one Blu-Ray release includes both the theatrical and full versions of the film.

Emphasis is made of Rowf's Woobie status as an animal subjected to repeated drowning experiments, and Snitter's role as a Doom Magnet is emphasized in at least one scene of death and serious injury that is probably the emotional nadir of the story.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Ambiguously Jewish: Ephraim. He doesn't eat pork, is described as darkly-complexioned, strongly implied to be a survivor of The Holocaust, and when trying to calm Snitter speaks German to him. Later dialogue between Phyllis and Vera confirms that at least they think he's Jewish, as he is described as "that poor Jewish gentleman."
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: The dogs have a song about another dog from their lab. It ends with "His name was Kiff, he was black and white/He was burned to cinders—serve him right." Subverted, since Rowf and Snitter actually seem to miss Kiff and often mention him. In the novel, Kiff created the song and the dogs "barked the place down singing his song" when the whitecoats took him away for the last time.
  • Animal Nemesis: The dogs to Geoffrey Westcott.
  • Animal Testing: Our protagonists are victims of extensive animal testing with unclear goals, with Rowf in particular subjected to daily tests of his endurance for swimming. The tests conclude when he inevitably drowns and the scientists resuscitate him. During their escape from the facility, many other subjects are described in great detail, from monkeys in sensory deprivation to rabbits blinded by hairspray.
  • Animal Talk: Apparently all animals can talk to each other (a caged rabbit clearly requests to "be left to die in peace") but animals cannot talk to humans. However, the titular dogs have trouble understanding the Tod, a fox whose animal speak is translated into a particularly hard-to-understand English dialect.
  • The Atoner:
    • Digby Driver. A lot of what goes wrong for the dogs is his fault, but he later makes up for it by finding Snitter's owner and helping save the two dogs.
    • There's also Stephen Powell, one of the scientists at the lab. He eventually grows uncomfortable with the work being done there and quits, taking one of the lab monkeys with him.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Rowf asks Snitter if he can make the humans afraid of them. Pretty soon they are—because they think the dogs have the plague.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: The two dogs swim out to sea to escape their human pursuers.
  • Bewildering Punishment: Rowf and Snitter aren't certain why the humans have all turned against them.
  • Break the Cutie: It happens over and over and it only gets worse as the plot progresses.
  • Brief Accent Imitation:
    • Rowf after their encounter with the sheepdogs. Snitter tells him it's not funny.
    • Snitter imitates the tod's accent a lot.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Near the end, Ronald Lockley mentions Richard Adams, and criticizes him for antropomorphizing rabbits.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Snitter, due to multiple brain surgeries that removed the barrier between his conscious and subconscious.
  • Cunning Like a Fox: The Tod is a literal example.
  • Deus ex Machina:
    • At the end of the novel both dogs are rescued by a boat that just happened to be hanging around — a boat piloted by Sir Peter Scott and Ronald Lockley, no less.
    • The novel also pulls off the impressive trick of suggesting that the reader themselves managed to talk the author into sparing them.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Ephraim, the hunter who wants to adopt Snitter, instead accidentally shoots himself in the face.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Geoffrey Westcott is determined to hunt down the dogs because they invaded his car and ate his groceries.
  • Dogs Are Dumb: Both subverted and played straight.
  • Doom Magnet: Snitter literally believes himself to be this, suggesting that they cannot kill him because if he dies all the humans would die, too.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Digby Driver is generally a selfish, amoral bastard. However, he's disgusted and angered when he finds out that Snitter's owner didn't die, and his sister still sold Snitter to A.R.S.E. Digby's anger over this surprises even himself.
  • For Science!: Most of Dr. Boycott's animal testing. For example, in one experiment, cats are forced to wear hoods that constantly cover their eyes and ears. The purpose of the experiment is to find out what happens to cats who are forced to wear hoods that constantly cover their eyes and ears.
  • Funetik Aksent: Most of the characters besides Snitter and Rowf.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The animal testing laboratory is called Animal Research: Scientific and Experimental, or A.R.S.E.
  • Gallows Humor: Snitter has a dark sense of humor. It irritates Rowf.
  • God Is Inept: Rowf believes that the star dog gave the world up as a bad job.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: When the story starts it seems quite clear that the baddies are the whitecoats and the men with guns, while the goodies are those who show sympathy to the dogs. Later, as the characters become more developed, the "baddies" begin to appear more human, reasonable and even nice in their own way, while the "goodies" show signs of shallowness or hypocrisy. (See Humans Are Bastards.)
  • Hallucinations: Snitter often has them, due to his brain damage.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Snitter's master threw him out of the way of a lorry and was run over instead.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played with. The "White coats" certainly qualify here, even to the point of being Cthulhu-esque, but most of the humans are three dimensional and are only after Rowf and Snitter because they killed sheep and eventually a man. Completely averted in the case of Snitter's idea of "Masters," whom he almost deifies.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: See Rage Against the Heavens.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Probably the most infamous and depressing scene in the book and film.
  • Innocently Insensitive: When Ephraim meets his hunting buddies Weldyke and Furse in the bar, Wldyke initially offers him some pork, quickly changing it to chicken after Furse discretely kicks his shin under the table for making the faux pas of offering a Jewish man pork. He meant no offense and Ephraim takes none.
  • Serious Business: Geoffrey Westcott takes the fact that the dogs broke into his car to steal some food a bit too seriously, and goes on a one man crusade to try and hunt them down.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: At the research facility Rowf was forced to swim around in a tank of water until he couldn't swim anymore and drowns. He would then be taken out of the tank, revived and forced to repeat the whole process over again. The experience has understandably left him with a crippling fear of water.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Surprisingly literal.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": The Tod.
  • Suicide by Sea: When animal control and the police converge upon the two dogs in an attempt to recapture them, Rowf and Snitter swim out to sea rather than go back to the horrors of the lab.
  • Talkative Loon: Snitter is crazy and talks all the time.
  • The Musical: Has a surprising number of songs for a book about dogs.
  • The Power of Friendship: What keeps Rowf and Snitter together.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: In the foreword, Adams explains that the unsympathetic characters are entirely fictional, but the sympathetic ones are usually real (though many of them already moved from the Lake District or died by the time the novel was published). Also, Animal Research: Scientific and Experimental does not exist, but the experiments described were all carried out in reality.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Alluded to in Ephraim's backstory about The Holocaust, and present in the form of Dr. Goodner. It turns out his real name is Dr. Geutner and he was a researcher at Buchenwald during World War II.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Frequently from Snitter's point of view.
  • Waif Prophet: Snitter is a bit of an expy for Fiver.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Rowf is afraid of water because of the drowning experiments he went through. At the end, he has to escape by swimming into the sea.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Snitter's master's sister sells him to the animal testing lab, leaving Snitter to assume his master is dead.
  • Xenofiction: The dogs' limited intelligence is portrayed surprisingly realistically, although they are much more intelligent than the monstrous beasts of Watership Down.

The Film Adaptation provides examples of

  • Animals Lack Attributes: Averted. Snitter, Rowf and many other animals are anatomically correct.
  • Art Shift: Snitter's mental hallucinations are portrayed this way on film, and also in-story to suggest his limited eyesight
  • Blatant Lies: In the film, while Rowf and Snitter are running from the humans, the tod offers to distract the humans so they can get away. He ends up getting killed in the process, and Rowf and Snitter are very aware of it, but assure each other that there's no way the humans got him, because he was too clever. They are both quite aware that this isn't true.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The movie ends with the two dogs swimming out to sea trying to reach an island. Just to increase your doubt in either direction further, the last shot is of an island, while the music for the credits is a song about dying and going to Heaven.
  • Book Ends: It begins and ends showing a dog in the water, struggling to stay afloat.
  • Bounty Hunter: Ackland, who Dr. Boynton hires to kill the dogs.
  • Darker and Edgier: The novel has a happy ending in which Snitter's former owner, himself recovering from injuries, reunites with Snitter and adopts Rowf. In the animated film, the dogs are last seen swimming out to sea toward a distant island that may not even exist except in their minds.
  • Death by Adaptation: Rowf, Snitter and Snitter's owner.
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • Ephraim. His only appearance is in the infamous scene where Snitter accidentally causes his shotgun to go off in his face. He had a much larger role in the novel, in which he organized the hunt for the dogs and had a tragic backstory involving The Holocaust.
    • Geoffrey Westcott. He still appears, but his role as the man hunting the dogs is taken by Ackland.
    • Stephen Powell barely appears, and former Nazi scientist Dr. Goodner is only mentioned.
  • Downer Ending: The Deus ex Machina is not present in the film version and it's strongly implied that the two protagonists die by drowning.
  • Eye Scream: Ephraim pointed his rifle at just the right angle, although we see nothing more than him clutching his face with blood everywhere.
  • The Faceless: The hunter covers his face with binoculars when he spies on Snitter and when Snitter comes, we only see the hunter from the neck down. When when Snitterpulls the trigger with his foot, the man clutches his face in agony after he's shot.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Oh so very many. The tod is killed by hunters, both dogs are strongly implied to have drowned, Ephraim is shot in the face with blood splattering everywhere, and Ackland is killed by a long fall and his corpse is eaten.
  • Foreshadowing: The first shot of the movie gives away how it ends by showing Rowf in a vat of water, failing to stay afloat and beginning to drown.
  • Gender Flip: In the book, the Intrepid Reporter chasing the dogs is a man named Digby Driver. In the film, for no apparent reason, the reporter is a woman named Lynn Driver.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In the film, the tod gives himself up to buy the two protagonists time to escape. In the book, the tod is dead long before the dogs run for the sea.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: The hunter who gets shot in the face because Snitter accidentally stepped on the trigger of his hunting rifle.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Time And Tide, a cheerful, Cat Stevens-esque gospel song about dying.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Geoffrey Westcott. Although he appears in the film, his role as the man that falls off a cliff is taken by Ackland, a Bounty Hunter hired by Dr. Boycott to take out the dogs.
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: The major in charge of hunting the dogs frequently expresses sympathy for them and openly regrets having to hunt them, expressing anger at A.R.S.E. for their experiments and ordering his men to kill them quickly.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The hunter who very briefly befriends Snitter before Snitter accidentally steps on the trigger of the gun that the hunter had pointed right at his own face.
  • Truth in Television: All experiments shown in the movie, even the most obviously pointless ones, actually happened in real life.Yes, even the ones like drowning and resuscitating dog repeatedly.