Screening Notes - Bunny Lake is Missing (Dir: Otto Preminger 1965)
Dr Esther Sonnet January 2019
As feminist film & literature scholar, I am fascinated by what happens when a mainstream feature film by a male director is made from a source novel written by a female author. BL is a rich and provocative case study of the significance of gender in the adaptation process. The publishing history of the source novel on which Otto Preminger’s film version is based should illustrate this. Originally published in 1957 by Harper & Brothers, Evelyn Piper’s suspense thriller subsequently went through the hands of several other American publishers before being reprinted by paperback giant Dell as a film ‘tie-in’ to capitalise on the release of Otto Preminger’s 1965 film adaptation. Evelyn Piper –nom de plume of American Jewish writer Merriam Modell –wrote several best-selling though now largely forgotten psychological studies of mystery, horror and suspense such as The Lady and Her Doctor (1956), Hanno’s Doll (1961), and The Nanny (1964). In 2003 the University of New York Feminist Press, a non-profit educational press “dedicated to restoring the lost history and culture of women in the United States and the world” included Bunny Lake is Missing about a young mother’s frantic search for her missing child in their Mystery/Crime series entitled Femme Fatales: Women Write Pulp.
Piper’s novel was chosen to be reprinted by the Feminist Press as a representative of overlooked or neglected women writers now lost to the history of American mass popular fiction, or, more specifically, to the history of pulp fiction. The series includes Faith Baldwin’s ‘girl in the big city’ novel Skyscraper (1931), Gypsy Rose Lee’s G-String Murders (1941), Vera Caspary’s psychological ‘fatale’ mysteries Laura (1942) and Bedelia (1945), Dorothy B. Hughes’ spy novel Blackbirder (1943) and her noir tale In A Lonely Place (1947), Olive Higgins Prouty’s ‘coming to consciousness’ romance Now, Voyager (1941), Tereska Torres’ story of military lesbian love Women’s Barracks (1950) and Valerie Taylor’s ‘lesbian bohemia’ Girls in 3-B (1959) – most also made into films. The primary purpose of the republishing series is a simple one: to assert that, amongst the millions of genre fictions sold by paperback publishers in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, were titles penned by women authors whose contributions as creators of pulp have been effaced. Further, the marginalisation of women’s active involvement in producing pulp is attributed to the dominant conception of “pulp” as fiction written by men (e.g. Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane and neo-noir like James Ellroy & Quentin Tarantino) about masculine concerns (murder, crime, death, torture, sadism, masochism, misogyny) and for a male working-class audience. Women writers were published by pulp imprints – and clearly not confined to the genre of romantic fiction as usually assumed.
Providing a relatively uncensored because low-cultural space from which to offer “subversive perspectives on the heart of the American century”, the Series suggests that its authors used the pulp context to recast patriarchal genres and its often misogynistic figurations of women. Rescued from the margins, and considered as a politically progressive text rather than just throwaway generic pulp fiction, Piper’s novel Bunny Lake is Missing is presented in 2003 as female-authored fiction positioned to expose the textual and ideological terms of patriarchal constructions of the power-relations of gender. That is, in the conservative, repressive culture of the 50s, Bunny Lake challenges dominant idea about women, sexuality and personal freedom – it challenges normative views about the prohibition of sex outside of marriage, the taboo against single mothers, and their Victorian characterisation as ‘fallen women’ that must be punished for their transgression. How does it do this? The novel narrates the story of Blanche Lake, an unmarried mother of twenty-one freshly arrived in the big city to begin a new working life away from her disapproving family. It follows the terrifying pursuit of her child Bunny who is found to be missing at the end of her first day at nursery school. Over the course of the next twenty fours in which the action takes place and as she navigates the dark, unfamiliar and threatening of New York, Blanche is transformed. Or, rather, she transforms herself from a “fallen woman” of Victorian melodrama to ruthless avenger from the Western genre “impatient for the satisfying catharsis of blood.” In this reading of Bunny Lake is Missing, Blanche struggles out of the confining bounds of patriarchal sexual ideology that consign unmarried mothers to the social, sexual and economic margins. Blanche’s journey through the night in the pursuit of her daughter is simultaneously a journey towards independence from ideological forces that explain the loss of her daughter within the conventional narrative of the “bad mother” who must “pay” for her unmarried status and for forsaking her “natural” vocation of motherhood for partial independence in the world of work. Feminist assertion of the right to self-determination in matters of sexuality, motherhood and marriage is framed in the novel by a pervasive sense that “however spiteful and retrograde, the actual idea and prospect of Judgement is never discredited, much less dismissed, as the explanation of why Bunny is missing.” The popular-sociological notion of the “bad mother” underscores the perils for women of moving outside of normative heterosexual motherhood and domesticity. However, Piper’s novel refuses the role of cautionary tale; Bunny Lake is Missing is savage in its critique of the backlash politics of 1950s - Blanche refuses positioning as the “girl who must pay.”
Blanche is repeatedly frustrated in her search by male authority figures (police, social worker, psychiatrist) acting as agents of conservative 50s morality but, nonetheless, the overall narrative and its resolution works as a declaration of her independence. Through its revelation of the “claustrophobic cultural fantasies surrounding motherhood”, the novel opens up a critical distance from which to observe historical cracks in ideologies around femininity, motherhood and sexuality.
So what happens to this in the passage of adaptation between the 1957 novel and its cinematic adaptation in 1965? Both the novel and film of Bunny Lake are fascinating because of the way in which the story sets up two different questions that need to be solved by its end: firstly, what has happened to Bunny and will she be found? This is the story from the female protagonist’s point of view. Secondly, is the mother insane and does the child actually exist? Is having a child then ‘losing’ it an unreal compensating fantasy - a way to deal with the guilt of active sexual desire implied in pre-marital sex by retrospectively ‘rationalising’ it in the acceptable form of motherhood? This is the point of view of patriarchy. As readers and as spectators, we occupy the point of tension between both – between ‘where is Bunny’ and ‘does she even exist’ - as there is contradictory evidence for both readings. Preminger’s adaptation is, however, far removed from its feminist source origin. Transposed to London, the basic underlying narrative storyline – a search for a missing child – remains but Preminger’s film takes it onto the terrain not of feminism but of Freud, of psychological disturbance and family neurosis.
The film begins with one of most visually compelling examples of Preminger’s collaboration with noted graphic designer Saul Bass. In stark monochrome, the opening credit sequence of the film intimates “what lies behind,” literally and metaphorically. A male hand is shown tearing paper away across the screen to reveal each title credit, then the striking image of a torn paper shape of a child comes before the film’s first scene is exposed by the hand screwing up a paper-like dark background. In condensed visual form, Bass’s title sequence neatly encapsulates the leading concerns of the film: psychological disturbance, concealment, darkness, childhood, family relations, infantile regression and shocking disclosure. The principal tone of Bunny Lake is Missing is nightmarish, dreamlike, emotionally frightening and estranged, where nothing is what it seems and it is impossible to measure the true meaning of anything or anyone. In the course of her attempt to find Bunny, and therefore to assert her sanity, Ann comes into contact with a number of figures who appear threatening, but are made so largely by the psychological distortion of what looks like her own childhood paranoia in an adult world. The heightened “queerness” of these characters enmesh the film in an unreality in which unspecified threat looms everywhere, promising to submerge Ann in delusional insanity for ever. It is littered with incidents that create an atmosphere that fosters a conflation of sex and death, desire and punishment, neurosis and anxiety.
To conclude, it does resolve the story’s two enigmas but on markedly different terms than the novel. Preminger’s major change of the perpetrator, and immersion of his female protagonist in the psychological drama of dysfunctional family relations, perversely neutralises nearly all of the source novel’s value as a feminist critique of the social, economic and sexual conditions confining women within regressive and conservative ideas that ultimately work against female autonomy in the sphere of sexuality and of the maternal.
Esther Sonnet - ‘Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1957): Adaptation, Feminism and the Politics of the ‘Progressive Text’. Published in Adaptation: The Journal for Literature on Screen Studies (2009) Vol 2, pp. 66-84.
New York Feminist Press – Femme Fatales: Women Write Pulp: Evelyn Piper, Bunny Lake is Missing (2003) with quotations from M. Battista’s Introduction.
Evelyn Piper, Bunny Lake is Missing available from Abebooks for under £3 + p & p