This month, The Walt Disney Family Museum celebrates Walt Disney’s brilliant and timeless 1942 animated feature, Bambi. In this column, Guest Blogger Jeff Pepper of 2719 Hyperion provides a fascinating examination of the literary source of the film.
The death of Bambi's mother is considered to be one of the harsher moments in Disney cinema, yet it generally pales in comparison to some of the intense material found in the novel that inspired the Disney animated feature of Bambi. Make no mistake, Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten is not about benign forest creatures and twitterpation; it is a starkly realistic interpretation of the natural world. Walt Disney chose to soften it into a more palatable and child-friendly walk in the wilderness.
Felix Salten was the pen name of Hungarian born author and journalist Siegmund Salzmann, who spent the vast majority of his life living and working in Vienna, Austria. Bambi: A Life in the Woods was first published in Austria in 1923. An English-translation was published in the United States by Simon and Schuster in 1928. MGM filmmaker Sidney Franklin acquired the movie rights to the novel in 1933. Ultimately concluding that the material would be too difficult to translate into a live-action film, Franklin sold the rights to Walt Disney in 1938. Bambi arrived in theaters during the summer of 1942. Disney would later adapt Salten's squirrel story Perri into a True-Life Fantasy in 1957, and draw inspiration from Salten's The Hound of Florence when creating the 1959 comedy The Shaggy Dog.
Prior to the release of the Disney film, Bambi: A Life in the Woods was always considered an adult novel. In the decades since, the Disney association has inspired publishers to reclassify the novel as children's literature, to the point where it is now considered by many to be a classic of the that particular genre. While the story is not necessarily inappropriate for all but the very youngest of readers, it is indeed a rather direct and at times brutally honest account of forest life. One such example is a passage where Bambi, while fleeing from hunters, encounters an injured hare:
Someone moved feebly in front of him. It was Friend Hare's wife who had called. "Can you help me a little?" she said. Bambi looked at her and shuddered. Her hind leg dangled lifelessly in the snow, dyeing it red and melting it with warm oozing blood. "Can you help me a little? she repeated. She spoke as if she was well and whole, almost as if she was happy. "I don't know what can have happened to me," she went on. "There's really no sense to it, but I just can't seem to walk…” In the middle of her words she rolled over on her side and died. Bambi was seized with horror again and ran.
Over the years, numerous critics and readers have associated many distinctly non-juvenile themes with the story. It was banned in Nazi Germany for being "political allegory." It is seen as an early example of environmental literature, advocating what many have interpreted as an anti-hunting bias. Undercurrents of religious thought and philosophy can also be found within the book's pages. Walt Disney effectively removed any kind of social commentary from his finished film, despite being accused of originating the "Bambi effect," that being the eliciting of an undeserved emotional objection to the death of a sympathetically-presented anthropomorphic creature.