Reel Rabbits

When you saw the new pet rabbit in Fatal Attraction, did you say to yourself, “That bunny’s minutes are numbered”? Or did you have a “friend” who, by teasing you about what happens to the bunny in the movie, actually warns you it’s a movie you don’t want to see: “Oh, yeah, just when the daughter discovers the bunny’s not in the hutch, the mom finds it bubbling in a stew pot.

Real rabbits in the movies are almost always used as props. Most often a bunny is used to delineate a character; how a person treats a rabbit immediately tells what type of person it is. And, frequently the impact on the rabbit is pretty severe. In Fatal Attraction we find out how disturbed Glenn Close’s character is by what she does to the bunny. In the comedy Raising Arizona, we know instantly how evil the biker dude is when he lobs a grenade across the desert at a jack rabbit.

Because a live rabbit, as opposed to an animated one, provokes an image of tenderness and vulnerability, directors seem to find them irresistable for emotional manipulation. Harming a bunny also adds shock value. After all, what movie-goers didn’t drop the popcorn when the woman in Roger & Me skinned a rabbit before their eyes?

Once in a while a bunny is used to show how good a character is. In the lighthearted movie In the Mood, a teenager is sent to work with his crude uncle who raises rabbits. When our hero learns the bunnies’ fate is to become felt, he lets them all go, bringing one along when he runs away. The action is cheered by the audience but is bittersweet for the viewer who realizes the rabbits will be rounded up and still turned into hats. This is one of the few movies in which a bunny actor receives screen credit.

Although a rabbit is occasionally shown hopping across a field (sometimes later to be seen slung over a hunter’s shoulder), it’s rare to see bunnies on screen merely as part of the atmosphere, the way a cat is sometimes shown occupying a desktop. One exception is Masterpiece Theatre’s series on Beatrix Potter, in which a bunny poses as a paperweight. Nor is a rabbit likely to be portrayed as a long-eared listener and companion, like Sam the dog to Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon movies. About the only film in which a rabbit is really given an active part is Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. (Harvey doesn’t count; if you see it again, you’ll be reminded that he wasn’t actually a rabbit.)

In spite of being thought of as cute by everyone, rabbits are also hunted and eaten by some. The fairy tale Local Hero illustrates the ambiguous role of bunnies in our world. Two travelers tend to a wild bunny with a broken leg but are horrified when their Scottish innkeepers serve her for supper. Danny heatedly explains, “It had a name! You don’t eat things with names!” Unfortunately some people do.

Why is it no one alone in the woods ever finds berries to eat? In Disney’s The Journey of Natty Gann, a wolf brings the heroine a very dead rabbit for dinner. Even in Hunt for Red October, which occurs mainly on submarines, one would-be defector dreams of raising rabbits in Montana for his wife to cook.

In movies, it’s as if the rabbit is viewed as the most expendable animal. (Besides people, what other creature has such a high on-screen mortality rate?) In Wicked Stepmother, on being chased by a dog, a cat who’s a witch turns herself into a tiger, then turns the dog into a bunny and attacks. Viewers don’t find out until much later that the dog is still alive. Rabbits on TV commercials are always portrayed as soft and cuddly or as just silly (bathroom tissue ads, the Cadbury Bunny, the Energizer Bunny).

Most parts for rabbits are very brief, but when a rabbit does appear throughout a movie, the presence usually represents something larger. This spring ABC-TV aired Lucky Day, about a retarded woman named Allison, her sister and their alcoholic mother. By showing Allison playing with her rabbit, named Uncle Stan #5, we see that she is loving and responsible. Her sister, on the other hand, takes wonderful care of her impaired sibling but forgets to feed the bunny. In a flashback to when they were young, we learn how deep the older sister’s resentment is at having to raise Allison (because mother is drunk) when she puts Uncle Stan #1 in a bucket and lets him drown. Thus the rabbit proves to be mainly a dramatic device. But Allison’s frequently seen love and good treatment of Uncle Stan #5 is refreshing.

I rented the videotape Wizard of Loneliness because the box had a picture of a boy holding a rabbit. In this PBS movie, a boy is sent to live with his eccentric relatives. At first he angrily isolates himself, but when he’s given two rabbits (which easily could have been Sunday dinner–especially after one bites him), he begins to open up to his family. However, soon after silently swearing to protect his family, he discovers that the father rabbit has killed all of the new baby bunnies (an old wives’ tale). In both Lucky Day and Wizard of Loneliness, the rabbits are metaphors for power and control. One character exercises control over her life by exerting it on a rabbit; another learns that there are things he can and can’t control.

Although you may want to boycott most movies that depict violence towards rabbits, there are some (like Wizard of Loneliness) that are truly worth seeing. If you’ve been forewarned of a grisly rabbit scene, it’s usually possible to turn your head away at the right time and still watch the rest of the movie; but, once seen, the images can be disturbing.

Perhaps it’s time that we who share our homes with bunnies, and know better than those who write exploitative screenplays, to get out our bunny-bit pencils and write some new rabbit storylines. After all bunnies have higher aspirations than just leaping the couch in a single bound, or being filmed as a convenient food source.

Beth Woolbright

House Rabbit Journal Volume II, No. 6