Bambi reconsidered

Bambi

I boldly suggested that my film on the Li family Daoists might make more stimulating Christmas viewing than watching Bambi for the umpteenth time—but now it transpires that the original story of the latter has been gravely diluted and sugar-coated, as shown in

The original novel Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde was written in 1923 by Felix Salten, an author and critic in Vienna. Far from being a cute children’s story, the new translation shows that Bambi was actually a parable about the inhumane treatment and precarious life of Jews and other minorities as fascism loomed. In 1935 the book was banned by the Nazis, who burned it as Jewish propaganda.

Meanwhile the original English translation, published in 1928, “toned down Salten’s anthropomorphism and changed its focus so that it was more likely to be understood as a simple conservation story about animals living in a forest”.

In 1933 Salten sold the film rights to MGM producer Sidney Franklin for a paltry $1,000; Franklin then sold them on to Walt Disney, who read the 1928 translation, and loved animal stories. Hence the saccharine 1942 animated movie about a young deer who finds love and friendship in a forest. While there is much to admire about Disney, from his movies to his koanesque aperçu (n. here, and under Daoist non-action), Salten himself never earned a penny from the movie.

Bambi cover

A new translation by Jack Zipes reasserts the book’s original message warning of the persecution and dangers faced by Jews in Europe. It soon becomes apparent that the forest animals are living out their lives in fear and that puts the reader constantly “on edge”. As Zipes comments, “All the animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill”. Without being didactic, Salten could encourage the reader to feel more empathy towards oppressed groups—and Bambi could openly question the cruelty of their oppressors. “Many other writers, like George Orwell, chose animals too because you’re freer to tackle problems that might make your readers bristle. And you don’t want them to bristle, you want them to say, at the end: this is a tragedy.”

When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Salten managed to flee to Switzerland. Stripped of his Austrian citizenship by the Nazis, he spent his final years “lonely and in despair” in Zurich and died in 1945—like Bambi, with no safe place to call home.

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