In the folklore of various cultures and ancient civilizations, rabbits have represented a kind of Trickster figure; in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean mythology, rabbits live on the moon. The Aztecs worshipped a group of deities known as the Centzon Totochtin, a group of 400 hard-partying rabbits who were the gods of drunkenness, and in a slightly more recent mythos, bunnies were the bête noir of a certain thousand-year-old former vengeance demon.
As we head into the weekend, I’d like to take a minute to pay tribute to some of the more memorable bunnies and assorted rabbit-like creatures who have hopped, time-traveled, and occasionally slaughtered their way through science fiction and fantasy, beginning (in no particular order), with everybody’s favorite hard-drinking, invisible lagomorph .
Harvey: Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, Harvey embodies everything strange and brilliant and wonderful about classic Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart stars as good-natured kook Elwood P. Dowd, who spends his days at his favorite bar in the company of his best friend, Harvey, an invisible, six foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall talking rabbit. Technically speaking, Harvey is a pooka (or púca), “a benign but mischevious creature” from Celtic mythology with a pronounced fondness for social misfits—but since he takes the form of a giant rabbit, he totally makes the list. Driven by Stewart’s delightful and deeply touching performance, Harvey is a lighthearted comedy with unexpected depths, an inspiring piece of fantasy that celebrates the triumph of a kind-hearted nonconformist over worldly cynicism and the pressures of respectability.
Bunnicula: In 1979’s Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery, the Monroe family find a baby rabbit one dark and stormy night during a screening of Dracula, but the family’s pets are suspicious of the furry foundling, with its strange markings and fang-like teeth. When vegetables start turning up mysteriously drained of their juice, the family cat springs into action with the zeal of a crazed, feline Van Helsing. Chronicling the adventures of the Monroes through the eyes of Harold, the family dog, the Bunnicula series spun off into seven books, ending in 2006 with Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow (although my favorite title in the series has always been The Celery Stalks at Midnight).
Frank: Donnie Darko quickly gained a huge cult following when it was released in 2001 (and since then seems to have received a certain amount of backlash), but whether you love it or think it’s completely overrated, I think we can all agree that Frank is probably the creepiest rabbit-type-thing on this list, appearing to the title character in a series of visions like in the form of some kind of menacing demon-alien terror bunny. According to many readings of the film, creepy rabbit Frank is actually the dead, time travelling version of his sister’s boyfriend, Frank, who is manipulating Donnie into saving the universe. Okay, it’s complicated—if you want an excellent rundown of the film, go here—but all you really need to know is that if Frank shows up on your doorstep with a basket of Peeps and jellybeans, you should probably run for the hills.
Hazel, Fiver, et al. (Watership Down): Richard Adams’ brilliant heroic fantasy features a group of anthropomorphic rabbits complete with their own folklore, mythology, language and poetry. Jo Walton has discussed the book at length, although I was initially introduced to Fiver, Hazel and company through the animated film version; as a seven year old, I found it equal parts disturbing and fascinating (and I’m apparently not the only one—in writing this post I ran across a Facebook group called “Watership Down (the film) traumatized me as a kid!”). Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that both the book and its film adaptation are discussed in Donnie Darko
The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, (Monty Python and the Holy Grail): The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog probably needs no introduction, here: in the immortal words of Tim the Enchanter, it’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on. Apparently inspired by a carving on the façade of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (in which the vice of cowardice is represented by a knight fleeing from a rabbit), this scene might be the greatest two minutes in movie history:
Roger Rabbit: Gary K. Wolf’s original novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is significantly different from the blockbuster Disney hit it was eventually turned into. For example, the novel was set in the present day (and not the 1940s), the cartoon characters interacting with humans are mostly drawn from comic strips (like Dick Tracy, Garfield, and Life in Hell), and not classic animated cartoons, and Roger Rabbit? He’s actually dead (see also: creepy Frank). Roger gets murdered early on in the book, leaving private eye Eddie Valiant to track down his killer. Apparently, Steven Spielberg and Disney weren’t so into the whole dead cartoon rabbit thing, and so the character was resurrected and a monster hit was born (along with at least one amazing dance move).
The White Rabbit and the March Hare (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland): I’ve always thought of the White Rabbit as a bit of a pill; he’s neurotic and occasionally pompous and always in a hurry, but it’s hard to deny his pop cultural notoriety. “White Rabbit” has been a trippy byword for psychedelic drug use since the 1960s, as well as a recurring trope in both Lost and the Matrix movies (apparently, he moonlights as a harbinger of not-very-satisfying conclusions…). The March Hare, on the other hand, is simply certifiable (Carroll was playing on the English expression “mad as a March hare,” making him the perfect companion for a certain wacky, riddle-loving Hatter). In the book, it’s the Hare, not the Rabbit, that loves to party—and maybe they were only drinking tea when Alice first encounters the March Hare, but something tells me he would fit right in with a certain clique of ancient Aztec party bunnies
Gargantuan Mutant Killer Rabbits (Night of the Lepus): Based on the Australian science fiction novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit, the movie version moved the setting to Arizona, leaving the book’s satirical elements behind while retaining the basic premise: giant, mutant carnivorous rabbits. Released in 1972, Night of the Lepus was a monumental flop, completely panned by critics for its horrible plot, premise, direction, acting, and special effects, and for utterly failing to make giant bunnies seem scary (presumably forcing audiences to wait with bated breath another six years before they could be properly traumatized by the film version of Watership Down).
I could go on, but I can’t seem to bring myself to write about Space Jam, so here’s what we’ve learned: Don’t underestimate bunnies. They’re so much more than carrot-loving, Trix-shilling, twitchy little furballs: sometimes they’re mystical, sometimes they’re trying to stave off the apocalypse; sometimes they just want to chew your face off. Plus, they multiply almost as fast as Tribbles (but with less purring and many, many more teeth). If they ever do end up taking over the world, it’s not like we haven’t been warned .
This article originally appeared on Tor.com in April 2011.
Bridget McGovern wasn’t really all that screwed up by Watership Down, if you don’t count the fact that she just stayed up all night writing frantically about bunnies (and will always maintain a vague but potent distrust of Art Garfunkle).