Lost in Transmission – Adaptational distortion and The Year of the Angry Rabbit

his post draws on elements from a chapter on rabbit antagonists in film that I have contributed to Beeler’s Animals in Narrative Film and Television.  In this chapter, I briefly examined 1972’s Night of the Lepus and 1964’s Year of the Angry Rabbit. But there is so much more to explore in this bizarre book and its strange progeny. This paper was delivered at Creaturely Fear and examines the disconnection between the cultural construction of the rabbit in Australian creature horror narratives and how that sense of dread failed to translate when adapted to a Hollywood film. The aim is to interrogate the relationship between location-specific ecological anxieties and fictional portrayals of rabbits. The rabbits under discussion are not simply rabbits but are symptomatic of the human understanding of rabbits as part of the broader ecology.  

The stunning picture book The Rabbits is basically required reading for Australian school kids. It tells the story of an invasion, the colonisation of Australia… 

…the day the Rabbits came… 

This book brought the horror of the origins of European Australia into sharp focus. Highlighting the terror and dehumanisation inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the wake of British occupation. Upon reading it for the first time it was suddenly clear to what degree I was in effect, an interloper in a country. I had benefited from a cultural legacy and social capital borne out of colonial violence and oppression. Through the monstrous figures of the rabbits we see the violence, cruelty, unchecked reproduction and greed of invasion that allows modern rabbits like me to thrive. Despite the elegance and effectiveness of this analogy it might seem a little unfair on the Australian feral rabbit themselves, creatures brought into a place that wasn’t theirs, breeding, expanding destroying, ravaging the Earth, but only within the bounds of their typical rabbit behaviour.  

 Labels such as invasive species are key in attributing agency and malicious intention to rabbits. Another word used to describe the rabbits of Australia is feral. According to Merriam Webster feral animals are wild animals that are not owned or controlled by anyone, especially ones that belong to species that are normally owned and kept by people. The second definition we will discuss a little later on. Australia’s lack of widespread, apex predators made it vulnerable to feral or invasive species, which I just want to reiterate are in Australia as a result of human actions.  

According to The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), “Rabbits were introduced to Australia in 1859 by a wealthy Victorian grazier keen on the sport of hunting. After a fire destroyed the enclosures, rabbits started their campaign to conquer Australia. Within 70 years they spread to 70 per cent of Australia’s landmass, the fastest known invasion by a mammal anywhere in the world.”  Note the language and tone which is typical of discussions of Australia’s rabbit population which implies malicious intent. 

It wasn’t unusual to see rabbit corpses piled up or arranged like this. It is still a relatively common spectacle around country Victoria. A gruesome solution was determined, introducing a fatal disease into the rabbit population. After MANY failed attempts, Myxomatosis was successfully introduced into the rabbit population in 1950 through mosquitoes. The effects of the myxoma virus are harrowing and something out of a horror movie as noted by Evans 

“… after about a week of incubation, its eyes begin to shed a watery discharge. This thickens, and the eyelids also swell, blinding the animal behind lesions encrusted with hardened yellow matter. The genitals, nose and ears erupt in the same way, and jelly-like bulges appear on other parts of the body.”  

(Evans 2009)  

As the virus took hold images of waves of rabbits destroying farms and habitats were replaced by pictures of disfigured disease-ravaged rabbits (Lee 2020). It seemed like the rabbit control problem had come to a grotesque resolution. But what of the looming developing immunity?  

Out of this cultural landscape, emerged the satirical horror narrative that would become the novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit

It set in a dystopian future in which the Australian Prime Minister has a stranglehold on global politics through a unique form of biological weapon cultivated in an isolated rural rabbit population. It is as much a tale of political and scientific hubris as it is one of the revenge of nature. Attempts to control a rabbit outbreak through biological intervention in the form of an extreme variant of the myxoma virus backfire and the infected rabbits become violent and irrational, killing indiscriminately. Australia then begins to use this ‘supermyx’ as a form of biological warfare, strategically infecting other armed forces to demonstrate their power. The rabbits appear to be eradicated through a sustained campaign of bombing, but while the political drama plays out the rabbits are sheltering underground becoming increasingly powerful, mutated and desperate.  

Australia isn’t exactly a dominant global superpower. But Braddon envisions a world in which Australia suddenly becomes THE global superpower due to the potency of ‘supermyx technology’. This is not a flattering portrayal of Australians in power, almost everyone apart from the prime minister Fitzgerald is hapless and Fitzgerald himself is a Machiavellian strategist who had the world’s most powerful nations by the throat. How much of Fitzgerald’s personality and ambition was inspired by conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies is up for debate, but there are distinctive similarities. The supermyx rabbits facilitated the rise in Fitzgerald’s totalitarian government and were instrumental in its downfall. In an attempt to eradicate the contaminated rabbits the area was quarantined and nuclear bombs were dropped on it causing the rabbits to further mutate and grow to a gigantic size. They hid underground in cavernous burrows. The rabbits that survived evolved rapidly becoming carnivorous, and then due to scarcity of food, cannibalistic. The rabbits are depicted as a stampeding, all-consuming writhing mass of bloody claws and teeth. They ceased to be individual animals long ago, playing into the association of Rabbits with invasion. This results in the large-scale evacuation of what is left of the Australian population.  

The final scene of the book takes place after the cities, towns and farms have been evacuated. Somewhere in the middle of the country that had not been touched by the rabbit plague, an aboriginal community watches the planes fly overhead and it is implied that an elder conjures into being a cleansing flood to start the land anew. While this has a touch of patronising mysticism it is a clear acknowledgement from Braddon that Australia is at last free of its most damaging invasive animals, the colonisers. And now the land can start to recover  

The technologies of fear deployed by the monstrous horde of supermyx rabbits are rapid evolution, fecundity, disease and unnatural predatory behaviour. They are quick and brutal reproducing exponentially, laying waste to farms by night and hiding deep beneath the ground by day. Braddon plays on the audience’s fear of nuclear fallout and the idea of a nocturnal subterranean threat lurking below the surface to construct creatures that are products of the hubris of man and are formidable enough to effectively carry out revenge in a form of ironic, uncanny and absurd justice.  

Unlike the shrieking horde of The Year of the Angry Rabbit the antagonistic rabbits in American film tend to share horrific traits that are more in line with Gothic horror than science fiction:  

  • They are removed from their natural endemic context.  
  • They often act as conduits between the natural and supernatural.  
  • They challenge human specificity by assuming human attributes  
  • They are often Uncanny manifestations of otherness.  

So let’s talk about the 1972 adaptation of Year of the Angry Rabbit, Night of the Lepus  

Two things become immediately apparent as the film fades away from a news item on rabbits in Australia. One… it intends to take itself super seriously unlike its source material, and two, they have relocated the film to Arizona, where rabbits are endemic rather than introduced and are more likely to be protected than culled. We are also dealing with the plague from the personal perspective of the scientists involved in introducing a genetic mutation into the rabbit population and the landowner on whose property the events take place. While this should create more emotive tension, we lose that geopolitical terror of a dictator and the harrowing experiences of a diverse range of characters. The politics and satire are removed, as are much of the more disturbing visual elements, granted this is more than likely due to technical and financial limitations. I would argue that there is more explicit discourse about the environmental implications of their actions throughout Night of the Lepus with a distinct emphasis on the dangers of scientific intervention in the animal world. Another key difference is the scale and duration of the rabbit plague. As the title intimates, there is one significant, rather short period of carnage before the farmers and scientists electrocute the rabbit populace. 

So why weren’t they scary? I think this comes back to the effective use of rabbits in American horror. In the films I have examined I found that those that hybridised the human and the rabbit or used the rabbit for purely symbolic purposes related to scientific hubris were able to create the uncanny affect of Gothic and supernatural horror. The Night of the Lepus, by simply using scaled-up rabbits inadvertently creates a hollow parody of the creature feature. The disconnect created by the shift in location is compounded by the use of fake blood covered domestic rabbits and miniaturised sets to create the mutant invasion. There are also moments when it is very clearly a man in a rabbit suit who attacks characters. It fails to dwell on the monstrosity at the heart of the rabbit plague, unchecked reproduction, scarcity of resources and the visible violence of human attempts to eradicate them. The rabbit plague, made of individual innocent animals dubbed as invasive is viewed from the human perspective as a determined attack and it brings out the cruelty and desperation of those with and without power. 

References 

Alves Joel M., Miguel Carneiro, Jade Y Cheng, Ana Lemos de Matos, Masmudur M. Rahman, Liisa Loog, Paula F. Campos, et al. “Parallel Adaptation of Rabbit Populations to Myxoma Virus.” Science 363, no. 6433 (2019): 1319–26. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau7285

Braddon, Russell. The Year of the Angry Rabbit. London: Pan Books, 1964. 

Claxton, William F. Night of the Lepus. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1972. 

Davis, Susan E., and Margo DeMello. Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Books, 2003. 

Dodd, Kevin. “Donnie Darko and the Messianic Motif.” Journal of Religion and Film 13, no. 2 (2009). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A242454079/AONE?u=deakin&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=19e3c571

Estok, Simon C. The Ecophobia Hypothesis. United States: Routledge, 2018. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315144689

Evans, Richard. Disasters That Changed Australia. Australia: Melbourne University Publishing, 2009. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/deakin/detail.action?docID=5718730

Garrard, Greg, ed. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199742929.001.0001

Halberstam, Jack. Skin Shows. United States: Duke University Press, 1995. 

Ivakhiv, Adrian. “Teaching Ecocriticism and Cinema.” In Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, Springer, 2012. 144–55.  

Kerr, Peter J., Isabella M. Cattadori, June Liu, Derek G. Sim, Jeff W. Dodds, Jason W. Brooks, Mary J. Kennett, Edward C. Holmes, and Andrew F. Read. “Next Step in the Ongoing Arms Race between Myxoma Virus and Wild Rabbits in Australia Is a Novel Disease Phenotype.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 35 (2017): 9397. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710336114

Lee, Tim. “‘It Was Unprecedented’: The Virus That Wiped out Feral Rabbits Was Almost a Bust.” ABC News, August 7, 2020. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-08/biological-control-weapon-myxomatosis-almost-failed/12529702

Lynch, David. Rabbits. Online, 2002. 

Marsden, John, and Shaun Tan. The Rabbits. Australia: Lothian Books, 1999. 

Menozzi, Filippo. “Invasive Species and the Territorial Machine: Shifting Interfaces between Ecology and the Postcolonial.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 44, no. 4 (2013): 181–204. https://doi.org/10.1353/ari.2013.0038

Pennington, John. “From Peter Rabbit to” Watership Down’: There and Back Again to the Arcadian Ideal.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 3 no. 2 (1991): 66–80. 

Smith, Andrew T, Charlotte H. Johnston, Paulo C. Alves, and Klaus Hackländer. Lagomorphs : Pikas, Rabbits, and Hares of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xww&AN=1501160&site=eds-live&scope=site

Tidwell, Christy, and Carter Soles. Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene. United States: Penn State Press, 2021. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s