Friday, July 29, 2011

Sources and Origins: Felix Salten's Bambi

If you were to describe the Disney animated feature Bambi and Felix Salten's novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods in the broadest possible terms, they would sound an awful lot alike. Both start with a newborn baby deer named Bambi and follow his as he is introduced to the world by his mother, loses her to the hand of man, and then grows up to mate and have children of his own.

There are many details that are different. Disney granted their Bambi with memorable, loveable companions, especially Thumper, Flower, and the wise Friend Owl. There are hares and owls in Salten's novel, but there have neither the personality nor prominence of the movie versions. No skunks show up at all.

The biggest difference though, isn't one of details, but of tone. Disney's movie is a full of joy and discovery, balanced by a moment of great tragedy and hardships to endure. Salten's Bambi has a few joyful moments near the beginning of the novel, but the overall balance is very different. As the chapters wear on, the tone is increasingly dark and somber. The threat of man becomes nearly constant, and aging, solitude, and depression wait on every page.

Even in those beginning stages of childhood innocence, the other forest creatures are not the sweet, respectful Disney creatures. Many are either preoccupied with their own interests or outright rude when approached. In time, even Bambi's mother grows weary of his constant need of her attention, telling to stop laying up against her like a baby and that he needs to learn to spend some time alone.

When the hunters (always called He or Him in the novel) finally come, their party doesn't just result in the death of Bambi's mother - it's an outright massacre. Pheasants are felled, other deer are killed, and poor friend hare's wife dies in desperate confusion over why she can't seem to move anymore. It's bloody and horrific, and I'm glad my first encounter with it is as an adult rather than a child.

There's a subplot that begins to suggest that humans are not uniformly evil creatures. Bambi's weak cousin, Gobo, is captured by Him rather than killed, and later returns to the forest to explain to the others how much he likes Him now. He was fed and petted and given shelter which he enjoyed during rain and winter. It soon becomes clear, though, that this time among Him has left poor Gobo both ill-equipped to survive in the wild and too stupidly trusting of Him. The next human he encounters kills him.

It's all well written and I'm sure the harsh realities it describes are a much more realistic depiction of the life of wild animals living in the forest, but I'll take the Disney adaptation anyway. Salten's novel is too bleary, too relentlessly dark. Perhaps it is true that we all suffer, grow old, lose the ones we love, lose our passion for life, and ultimately must survive alone, but that's not the lesson I want from my talking animal children's novels.

Like the movie, the novel ends with Bambi encountering his twin children. But where the movie plays that as a note of hope and a sign of the continuation of life, in the book you just kind of feel bad that these kids area going to have to deal with all the things Bambi has already been through.

Also, in the book Faline is Bambi's cousin. Ew.

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