The Sunday Magazine

The original Bambi isn't kid's stuff — and it carries significant lessons for today

A new translation of the original text, published 100 years ago, hopes to reveal the complex — and, at times, much darker — story at its core.

Bambi, A Life in the Forest was an allegory for the persecution of minorities, argues translator Jack Zipes

An original animation cell from Disney's Bambi. (Alex Archbold)

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, at times, much darker — story at its core.

Bambi, a Life in the Forest (sometimes translated as Bambi, a Life in the Woods) 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 was really addressing in a metaphorical way the problems that Europe was having," 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 Forest, is newly translated with an introduction by Zipes, and includes 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.

A man sitting, lookiing to his right with his hands together in front of him next to the cover of the book.
Jack Zipes is a folklore expert and the translator for The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest. (Milena Blazic)

Salten sold the film rights for the book to American director Sidney Franklin in 1933 for $1,000, who then sold it to Disney. Salten "did not gain much" from Disney's animated adaptation, Zipes writes, though he did live "comfortably" until his death in 1945.

Zipes doesn't mince words about what he thinks of Disney's version supplanting the 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 ashamed for the Disney corporation to have made such an idyllic, stupid film out of a very serious novel that children could have understood," he told The Sunday Magazine.

"The ideology is so, let us say reactionary, that this film should be banned from the world."

Zipes is not alone in this assessment of Disney's adaptation. A multitude 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 tension of Salten's novella," Charlie Tyson wrote for the Yale Review.

"Bambi ... was not particularly suitable for children, until Disney bowdlerized it to fit the bill," wrote the New Yorker's Kathryn Schulz.

Writer and critic Farah Abdessamad notes, however, that it may not be fair to directly compare the two, since Salten's work was written for adult readers while Disney's version always had young viewers in mind.

"Book-to-film is always a hard thing to pull off, especially when you're trying to adapt a story to a very different audience," she said.

Bambi's Bildungsroman

Salten's A Life in the Forest roughly touches upon most of the story familiar 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.

During a visit to 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 siring fawns of his own with his female partner Faline.

While many remember the short, sharp violence of Bambi's mother's death, the Disney film largely presents the forest's animal denizens 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 upon each other, in a graphic yet dispassionate depiction of the natural cycles of life and death.

Covers of several editions of Bambi are seen arranged along the wall for a library's display.
Various translations of Bambi: A Life In The Woods by Felix Salten are seen on display at the City Hall Library in Vienna on March 23, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the grisliest tales omitted from the film — that of Faline's sickly brother Gobo — encapsulates Zipes' primary argument about the text: a parable about the persecution of Jews and other minority groups in Europe after the First World War.

"There is no doubt in my mind that this novel is autobiographical," said Zipes. Salten himself fled the Nazis in Austria in 1939, and settled in Zurich where his daughter resided.

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 rescued 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 is familiar with figures like Gobo," wrote Schulz. "Individuals who have assimilated into and become defenders of the culture of their subjugators, whether out of craven self-interest or because, like Gobo, they are sincerely enamoured of it and convinced that their affection is reciprocated."

Salten's A Life in the Forest follows the German genre of a Bildungsroman, or a novel of education, according to Zipes. Bambi, he explains, spends most of his time learning from his mother, and later the prince of the forest, how to survive.

And despite it ending more or less the same way as the film, Salten's message is altogether more bleak.

"Even when Bambi does learn how to avoid death and destruction, he is not a happy roebuck at the end of the novel. If anything, Bambi has simply learned to live alone … destined to lead a lonely life of survival," he writes in his foreword.

A 'subtle but significant' new translation

Zipes' translation is "basically word-for-word identical" to Chambers' long-standing English version, according to environmental historian Ralph Lutts.

But closer inspection will reveal "subtle but significant" differences, owing largely to Zipes' understanding of the Austrian version of the German language, in which Salten wrote.

"He's in a better position to give a subtly more accurate translation than Chambers," said Lutts, an adjunct professor and visiting scholar at Virginia Tech.

A two-page spread of a book is seen with illustrations of animals including Bambi the deer, next to Japanese script.
A Japanese translation of Bambi: A Life In The Woods is on display at the City Hall Library in Vienna on March 23, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

That lens adds new layers to the text. For example, Bambi and other characters become more anthropomorphized. One passage describes the newborn Bambi as "the baby," rather than "the new fawn" in Chambers' version.

Certainly, other interpretations of Bambi, whether Salten's text or the Disney film, exist.

Many cite the film as carrying a strong environmentalist message. The forest and its denizens are shown as living in harmony, rendered beautifully by the animators' state of the art techniques, only to be ravaged by human hunters — first by their rifles, then when they carelessly cause a fire that burns the animals' home to the ground.

"It is difficult to identify a film, story, or animal character that has had a greater influence on our vision of wildlife," Lutts argues in his 1992 essay The Trouble with Bambi.

The film has become "almost synonymous with opposition to hunting," he wrote, owing to their path of destruction despite never appearing on-screen or saying a word in the entire film.

Bambi's lessons

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 doesn't lend itself to a linear interpretation — not 'either-or,' but all at once," she said.

Still, Zipes feels his lens is particularly relevant in light of recent socio- and geopolitical trends.

"There's been a strong rise of antisemitism all over the world, and in particular in America and in Germany, again. So this novel which talks — metaphorically, of course — about how Jews were killed … should shake us a great deal," he said.

"I hope that works like Salten's Bambi might help us think once or twice more about what we're doing on this earth."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Ore

Journalist

Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.

Interview with Jack Zipes produced by Peter Mitton.

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