The Sunday magazine9:35Bambi at 100: Not the Disney classic you thought you knew
Bambi is one of the cornerstones of Disney’s oeuvre of classic family-friendly films. But a new translation of the original text, published 100 years ago, hopes to reveal the complex — and sometimes much darker — story at its core.
Bambi, a life in the forest (sometimes translated as Bambi, a life in the forest) was written by Felix Salten, of Hungarian Jewish descent and living in Vienna, and was published in 1922.
“He really wrote this book, Bambi, not for children, but for adults. And he really addressed in a metaphorical way the problems that Europe had,” said Jack Zipes, a folklore expert and professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.
The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Woodshas been re-translated with an introduction by Zipes and features new illustrations by Alenka Sottler.
The first popular English translation published in 1928 by Whittaker Chambers (an American writer, later Soviet spy turned defector) would eventually become the basis for Disney’s animated film.
Salten sold the film rights to the book in 1933 to American director Sidney Franklin for $1,000, who then sold it to Disney. Salten “didn’t gain much” from Disney’s animated adaptation, Zipes writes, though he lived “comfortably” until his death in 1945.
Zipes doesn’t mince words about what he thinks of Disney’s version displacing public awareness of Salten’s work – which was incredibly popular in its own right, selling more than 650,000 copies before the film’s release in 1942.
“I was embarrassed that the Disney Corporation had made such an idyllic, silent movie out of a very serious novel that children could have understood,” he said. The Sunday magazine.
“The ideology is so, let’s say reactionary, that this film should be banned from the world.”
Zipes isn’t alone in this review of Disney’s adaptation. A large number of scholars and critics have noted how the 110-minute film stripped away many supporting characters, subplots, and grim situations to create a production suitable for all ages.
“While the film has moments of charm and beauty, it dilutes the violence and suspense of Salten’s novella,” wrote Charlie Tyson for the Yale Review.
“Bambi … wasn’t particularly suitable for kids until Disney made it fit the bill,” wrote Kathryn Schulz of the New Yorker.
However, writer and critic Farah Abdessamad notes that it may not be fair to compare the two directly, as Salten’s work is written for mature readers, while Disney’s version always had young viewers in mind.
“Going from book to movie is always hard to pull off, especially when you’re trying to adapt a story to a completely different audience,” she said.
Bildungsroman van Bambi
from Salten A Life in the forest roughly touches most of the story known to Disney fans. We are introduced to a female deer and her newborn fawn Bambi, who meets other animals of the forest in his youth.
While visiting the open meadow, his mother is shot dead by human hunters. Bambi then spends time with his implied father, the prince of the forest, before returning to the other animals and fathering fawns himself with his female partner Faline.
While many remember the brief, sharp violence of Bambi’s mother’s death, the Disney movie largely portrays the animal inhabitants of the forest as living in harmony with little to no conflict.
Salten’s text, on the other hand, often depicts death and violence. Animals regularly hunt and prey on each other, in a graphic but emotionless depiction of the natural cycles of life and death.
One of the most gruesome stories left out of the film – that of Faline’s ailing brother Gobo – summarizes Zipes’ main argument about the text: a parable about the persecution of Jews and other minority groups in Europe after World War I.
“I have no doubt that this novel is autobiographical,” Zipes said. Salten himself fled the Nazis in Austria in 1939 and settled in Zurich, where his daughter lived.
As a fawn, Gobo disappeared and was thought lost during the long winter, until he reappears in the summer. Gobo says one of the hunters saved him and kept him safe.
The next time hunters approach the meadow, Gobo runs towards the humans, who he thinks are all friendly, only to be shot dead.
“Every subjugated minority knows figures like Gobo,” Schulz wrote. “Individuals who have adapted to and become defenders of their subjects’ culture, whether out of dastardly self-interest or because, like Gobo, they are genuinely in love with it and convinced that their affections will be returned.”
from Salten A life in the woods follows the German genre of a Bildungsroman, or an educational novel, according to Zipes. Bambi, he explains, spends most of his time teaching his mother, and later the prince of the forest, how to survive.
And despite ending more or less the same way as the movie, Salten’s message is altogether more somber.
“Even if Bambi learns how to avoid death and destruction, he’s not a happy roebuck by the end of the novel. At least Bambi has just learned to live alone… destined to live a lonely life in order to survive,” he writes in his foreword.
A ‘subtle but telling’ new translation
According to environmental historian Ralph Lutts, Zipes’s translation is “essentially word-for-word identical” to Chambers’s long-standing English version.
But closer inspection will reveal “subtle but significant” differences, largely due to Zipes’ understanding of the Austrian version of the German language, in which Salten wrote.
“He’s in a better position to provide a subtly more accurate translation than Chambers,” said Lutts, an adjunct professor and visiting researcher at Virginia Tech.
That lens adds new layers to the text. For example, Bambi and other characters become more humanized. One passage describes the newborn Bambi as “the baby”, rather than “the new fawn” in Chambers’ version.
Other interpretations of Bambi certainly exist, be it Salten’s lyrics or the Disney movie.
Many cite the film as having a strong environmental message. The forest and its inhabitants are shown to live in harmony, beautifully rendered by the animators’ state-of-the-art techniques, only to be destroyed by human hunters – first by their guns, then when they carelessly start a fire that destroys the animals’ home. burns to the ground.
“It’s hard to identify a movie, story, or animal character that has had a greater influence on our view of wildlife,” argues Lutts in his 1992 essay The Trouble with Bambi.
The film has become “almost synonymous with defiance of the hunt,” he wrote, due to their path of destruction despite never appearing on screen or saying a word throughout the film.
According to Abdessamad, Salten’s A Life in the forest is strong because it can support multiple interpretations.
“The best form of literature is one that does not lend itself to linear interpretation – not ‘either-or’, but all at once,” she said.
Still, Zipes finds his lens particularly relevant in light of recent socio- and geopolitical trends.
“There is a strong rise of anti-Semitism around the world, and again in America and Germany in particular. So this novel that talks – metaphorically, of course – about how Jews were murdered… should shake us a lot,” he said.
“I hope that works like Salten’s Bambi might help us think once or twice about what we’re doing on this earth.”