Jack Zipes provides a new English translation in the newly released The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest by Felix Salten.
Take everything you know about the 1942 film and forget it even exists. This is the best way to approach The Original Bambi. The 1942 film is not nor will ever be the same. Put it out of your head. Let me pull out a neuralyzer from Men in Black and flash your memory. Maybe it’ll help?
Following publication delays, Princeton University Press will release The Original Bambi on February 22. You think you know the story but you’re wrong. Of course, you’re probably thinking that Bambi is a children’s book, too. Think again because this couldn’t be further from the truth! Maybe a book for young adults but I certainly would not recommend it to elementary school age children. Maybe for middle school? It goes without saying that Salten’s book is an allegory for antisemitism. I’ll probably say this again a few more times.
The Original Bambi is a long-overdue take on Bambi. Readers are finally getting the correct English translation. I say this because the version that Disney adapted was already diluted down. Now that Bambi is in the public domain, we’re free to the version that Salten always intended. Whittaker Chambers wrote the initial translation but was clearly unqualified. Zipes writes that the initial translation is full of errors and does not capture Zalten’s style. The original translation ultimately takes away from what Salten is trying to convey. Because of this, a story about persecution becomes a message about conservation and protecting animals. What a shame. Anyway, the newfound fame and recognition enables Salten to escape the Nazis in 1939.
Some things aren’t different between the book and the film. Bambi’s mother dies in both, only we don’t read about it until after the fact. Aside from this, cousins Faline and Gobo are a huge part of Bambi’s childhood. Gobo is left for dead and taken care of by He and when he comes back, he doesn’t even act the same. Meanwhile, the dogs only serve the purpose of He and does His bidding even if it means hunting and killing other animals. Thumper and Flower appear to be creations solely for the film. I read the large majority of the book over this past Shabbos. All I could think was: HOW COULD DISNEY GET THIS STORY SO WRONG?!? There’s a film starring and about Bambi but it must be some other Bambi.
In so many ways, Bambi is an autobiography in that the roebuck stands in for Salten himself. Chapter 8 makes the allegorical comments about antisemitism clear as day when two leaves are conversing with each other. They certainly do not have this in the movie! If Paul and Chris Weitz are listening, it is not too late to adapt the right version. Felix Salten deserves so much better than the original film. The original book is not a case for animal rights. Instead, Salten is basically writing that we have no choice but to become loners. It is the only alternative to certain death by hunters.
Faline is a love interest but at one point or another, Bambi heeds the old prince’s advice and goes off in the forest by himself. This could not be made more clearly than in Chapter 22. Living alone isn’t the only thing to take away from the chapter. When a squirrel describes the oak tree being destroyed, it can be read as a pogrom against the Jewish community. The old oak tree was one that Bambi knew since he was a child. Where the other squirrels went, nobody knows.
When Bambi had been younger, the old prince had taught him that he must learn to live alone. Then and afterward, the old prince revealed many of his insights and secrets to him. But of all his teachings, the most important one was you must learn to live alone, if you want to protect yourself, if you want to grasp the meaning of existence, if you want to attain wisdom. You had to learn to live alone!
A brief background on Salten: He was born Siegmund Salzmann on September 6, 1869 in Pest, Hungary. His parents were Philipp Salzmann and Marie Singer. Philipp descends from several generations of rabbis but decided to become an engineer. Marie had been an actress but quit when she became a mother. The family left Hungary for Vienna at the end of 1869. Unfortunately, the 1873 stock market crash also means that Felix’s father could never keep a stable job. This is where we start to see a common trend like with the founding Jewish moguls. Felix had a disdain for his father. Together with three brothers and two sisters, they did their best to help the family survive.
Salten may have been a hunter during his lifetime. However, he was also an advocate for animals. It comes as no surprise that he hide an allegory for antisemitism in a book about animals. Zipes writes:
In many ways, Zipes understood animals better than any veterinarians of his day. As a Jew, he also knew what it meant to be pursued and killed. He knew how difficult it was to assimilate and play by the rules of a society that he and his ancestors had not created. And even when some Jews could set the rules, they did not do much better than their persecutors. This is what some historians call the perverse continuity of history. What is also perverse is the manner in which Salten’s “historical” testimony has been sweetened by the Disney corporation and other cultural vultures to eliminate the lonely struggle he fought to be recognized as an Austrian aristocrat–that is, a killer with heart.
Salten took in the arts whenever he could. He was published in 1890 and became a theater editor of a Viennese newspaper in 1894. His reputation as a journalist wasn’t enough in the early 1900s. He wanted more fame. Anyone would want the same, right? While all this is happening, something else is taking place at the same time: the modern birth of Zionism. At one point, Salten considers converting to Catholicism but it’s the rise of European antisemitism that leads him to reconsider. That and the publication of Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in 1896. No stranger to antisemitism as a child, Zionism is what causes the author to be proud of being Jewish.
Salten’s writings during World War I go from one side to another. The Austrian in him leads him to becoming a proud patriot before later condemning the war. He later starts writing about “Jews, war, and social class struggle.” It is during this same time period in which Bambi is also published. Life is interesting because even with the Nazis banning his books and marching into Vienna, Salten still finds himself supporting the right-wing authoritarian government. He eventually gets a permit to move to Switzerland because his daughter, Anna, was living there. Living in Zurich came with a catch: Salten could no longer work as a journalist. Zipes writes that Salten could write books and plays but could not have any involvement in cultural politics. The Swiss might be neutral but living this way seems even worse.
The Original Bambi makes clear that this book is nothing like the film. Disney gives Bambi a happy ending while the roebuck is anything but at the end of Salten’s book.
Princeton University Press releases The Original Bambi on February 22, 2022.
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