Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Every now and then, successful films make the novels upon which they were based superfluous.  Most everyone has seen some version or another of such classic novels as Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield, but very few crack the original texts. 

When Walt Disney released Bambi in 1942, it seemed to erase all memory of its wonderful source-material, the novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods, written by Felix Salten (1869-1945) in 1923.  This is a great shame because in nearly every way imaginable, the novel is infinitely superior to the admittedly classic film.

The Disney film greatly softens the material, providing Bambi with amusing sidekicks and expanding the action with comic set-pieces.  Though there is an emotionally wrenching scene where Bambi’s mother is shot by hunters, it is not overall a somber or lachrymose film.  Indeed, it is one of the most limpid and lovely Disney films of the era.

This is very different from Salten’s novel (originally translated into English by Whittaker Chambers).  There, Bambi is born into a world of largely absent fathers, continual threat from hunters, fierce competition for food and resources, and the bitter reality of death. 

The lessons of Bambi are that life is often hard, and frequently entire populations become the sport of the casually cruel and powerful.  (As Salten himself would learn under the Nazis.)  Bambi particularly in his romantic maturation, often behaves badly himself, as if Salten is saying that we are born into a world where we are hardwired to be selfish and destructive.

While reading classic children’s novels, it is easy to think of their adult counterparts.  (For example, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is the Jane Austin novel of the field).  The prose of Bambi, with all its simple, declarative force and echoes of an incantation, made me feel as if I were reading an anthropomorphic book of the Old Testament

It is also a remarkable meditation on mortality and loss.  While the film focuses on the death of Bambi’s mother, the novel’s most eloquent rumination on death comes between two leaves, anxiously discussing their upcoming fall.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Can it be true,” said the first leaf, “can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others, and more and more?”

“It is really true,” whispered the second leaf. “We can’t’ even begin to imagine it, it’s beyond our powers.”

“It makes me very sad,” added the first leaf.

They were silent a while.  Then the first leaf said quietly to herself.  “Why must we fall?”

The second leaf asked, “What happens to us when we have fallen?”

“We sink down…”

“What is under us?”

The first leaf answered, “I don’t know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows.”

The second leaf asked, “Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we’re down there?”

The first leaf answered, “Who knows?  Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it.”

Salten was a very prolific author, publishing about one book a year on average.  He is believed to be the anonymous author of the erotic novel Josephine Mutzenbacher (1906), which is about a Viennese prostitute.  Clearly a man of versatile literary achievements.

Like many Jewish artists, he fell into Hitler’s crosshairs; Der Fuhrer banned Salten’s books in 1936, and the author fled to Switzerland two years later.  He would die there.

Salter sold the film rights to Bambi to director Sidney Franklin for a mere $1,000; Franklin then sold the rights to Disney.  As is often the case with Disney and copyright, they would argue in the 1950s that the book was in the public domain and attempt to retain greater profits.  (Disney evocation of copyright always struck your correspondent as risible, considering they have made millions of dollars adapting public domain fairy tales.  Perhaps the scariest sequence of any Disney film happens in business meetings away from the camera.)

Adults who consider a “children’s novel” with trepidation should have no fear.  No less than John Galsworthy wrote that: Bambi is a delicious book.  Delicious not only for children but for those who are no longer so fortunate.  For delicacy of perception and essential truth I hardly know any story of animals that can stand beside this life study of a forest deer. 

We cannot argue.

Tomorrow -- the return of People’s Symphony Concerts!

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