On Friday, as a way to shake off the winter doldrums, I gave you a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Returning to the bucolic theme today, our topic is Bambi, the bittersweet coming-of-age tale of a fawn …
If social media has done nothing else of virtue over the past few years, Instagram Stories, Twitter, Facebook Reels, etc., have collectively given the animal kingdom a chance to star in countless cute videos. Forget about invasive species, these cutesy videos speak to the joy of animals in their natural habitat—be it farm or forest—scampering and beguiling and otherwise showing sides of the domestic and wild kingdoms that we rarely see (or cannot see enough of; how many of you are currently panda-obsessed?).
But back to Bambi.
According to a recent review by Piers Torday in the London Spectator of The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest by Austrian author Felix Salten, Walt Disney had agreed to purchase the rights to this 1923 allegorical bestseller along with the license to alter it (for $1,000), not unlike other famously Disney-retrofitted menacing yarns by the Brothers Grimm, et al. As Torday details: “Walt is reputed to have suggested myriad unhelpful plot additions to the simple story. ‘Suppose we have Bambi step on an ant hill,’ he offered at one script meeting, ‘and then cut away to see all the damage he’s done to the ant civilization?’” Was Walt a fan of genetic engineering, or did he have another hidden agenda with his metaphors?
The Disney writers knew where to draw the line, although they nonetheless changed the story considerably. “The resulting 1942 forest fantasia, which leaps in swooning bounds from one extravagantly colored and orchestrated natural history lesson to another, was nominated for three Oscars, and by 2005 had grossed $102 million.”
Salten, a Jew living in Austria who had been exiled with his wife in Switzerland, “never saw a penny of the Disney movie’s global success” and died alone, forgotten. As it turned out, Bambi, along with Salten’s one other novel, was among many books banned in 1935 by the Nazis, who considered it Jewish propaganda.
A surprisingly dark 2022 translation by the American scholar Jack Zipes, illustrated in black and white by Alenka Sottler, underscores the fact that Bambi (identified as a male deer) was never intended for children, although it was a coming-of-age story. With the exception of Bambi, none of the original characters are present in the Disney version. Neither versions are evocations of violence—indeed, the opposite is true—but the Disney “classic” was toned down a few notches.
Zipes makes it clear in his introduction to this new translation that Salten was a hunter but also became an animal rights advocate. “He was a man who hoped to overcome his own contradictions through literature, who believed that ‘only when people truly understood how the animals suffered persecution from hunting in the forest could they create peace among themselves.’
“It’s quite evident,” Zipes continues, “that the shooting and the treatment of the animals are an allegory of the situation Jews found themselves in at that time.” The Disney version implied hunting animals is wrong; written after the Great War and before the rise of Nazidom, Salten may have inadvertently predicted that hunting humans would be the next devolutionary step.