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If You Think ‘Bambi’ Seems Too Mature For Kids, You’re Not Wrong

The popular novel was even a Book-of-the-Month Club selection

Thanks to Disney, this story is so ubiquitous that 'Bambi' is a common shorthand for 'baby deer.' (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Many adults have a story about the first time they saw Bambi as a child. It was usually sort of traumatic. 

But years before Bambi's terror when his mother is killed by a hunter was immortalized on the screen, the book that bears his name was a popular novel.  Serialized publication of Bambi, a Life in the Woods began on this day in 1922. The story, which went on to inspire one of Walt Disney’s best-known films, had been written in German by Felix Salten – for adults. 

“Few know that Salten, an Austrian Jew who later fled Nazi-occupied Vienna, wrote Bambi in the aftermath of World War I,” writes Elizabeth Spires for The New York Times, “intending it for an adult audience.”

However, readers clearly perceived its somewhat heavy-handed moral overtones and thought that it was perfect for children. “It is a realistic, though anthropomorphized, account of a deer from his birth to his final role as a wise and tough old denizen of the forest, struggling to survive against his chief enemy, man the hunter,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica. “The close parallel between the fawn’s becoming a stag and a child’s becoming an adult gives the book its moral overtone.”

The book was a massive hit, according to Wikipedia. When it was translated to English in 1928, it became an early Book-of-the-Month Club selection. (The Book-of-the-Month Club was–and is–for grownups.) By 1942, it had sold 650,000 copies in the United States, according to Wikipedia.

The relationship with kids was cemented when the novel was turned into the 1942 animated film Bambi. Years earlier, in 1933, Salten had sold the film rights for his novel to a director who sold them on to Disney. Salten made $1000 from the original sale and nothing from the blockbuster film, according to Alona Ferber writing for Haaretz.  

That decade was a bad one for Salten. “With the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, life became increasingly dangerous for a successful Jew,” writes Ferber. “Salten’s books were banned by Adolf Hitler in 1936.” When Austria was joined with Germany in 1938, Salten went to Switzerland, where he continued to write. His second Bambi book, Bambi’s Children: The Story of a Forest Family didn’t make it to the big screen.

Today, as Encyclopedia Britannica notes, Bambi is “almost certainly better known” as the cartoon hero of the Disney movie. That film “changed things dramatically” in the world of American hunting, write Robert M. Muth and Wesley V. Jamison in Wildlife Society Bulletin. “Although not deliberately designed as such, Bambi is perhaps the most effective piece of anti-hunting propaganda ever produced.”

Generations of children have been traumatized by the graphic story of Bambi, the first Disney movie to feature loss of a parent as a theme. At the same time, the pair write, they internalized the two “inescapable messages.” First: “wild nature” in its pure state is an innocent wonderland where a deer hangs out with a rabbit, an owl and a skunk, with no reference to who needs to eat and who would normally be food. “The second message is that human beings are violent, cruel, dangerous and corrupting,” the write. Although these messages helped the idea of animal conservation reach midcentury audiences, it also had a lasting impact on the way we think about people's relationship with nature.

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