News, WW2

The Shocking True Story of Bambi: Reclaiming the Anti-fascist Parable on it’s 100th Anniversary

Earlier this year, the stars of the famous TV show Love Island, Molly-Mae Hague and Tommy Fury, named their daughter ‘Bambi.’ The name stirred a bit of drama. While some fans approved of the word, many even called it ‘ridiculous.’ Atomic Kitten star Kerry Katona, writer Jason Okundaye and many more expressed their displeasure publicly. 

Yet, amongst the many arguments, no one made any reference to its noble origins.

Original Walt Disney poster for Bambi (1942). Was the story all it seemed however?

In 2023, the iconic fawn character, Bambi, celebrates its 100th birthday. It has been a century since the German imprint Ullstein Verlag first published Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Felix Salten, an Austro-Hungarian, wrote the coming-of-age novel Bambi, which the Nazis banned. However, eventually, it ended up in the possession of Walt Disney, who turned it into the animated children’s film that we all know and love.

A Critical Analysis of Salten and Disney’s Bambi

Many do not know that Salten’s Bambi was far from a cutesy romantic hero. In both stories, Bambi learns about the world and loses his mother after being shot by a hunter. After that, the fawn grows into an adult. Interestingly, Bambi’s love interest, Faline, appears in both stories too.

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So how are the two any different? The difference is that in Disney, the fawns go on to live a happy life. On the other hand, in Salten’s book, Faline and Bambi become estranged by the end – not the world full of rainbows and sunshine that one would expect.

One should note that while Disney’s film was aimed at a younger audience, Salten’s novel was for adults. 

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The story of Bambi appeared in 1922 in Neue Freie Presse (a Viennese newspaper) before being published as a book the following year. In 1939, an English-language translation of Bambi’s Children made the book child-friendly. Understandably, Disney was not the first to market the book as a children’s story. 

Upon learning it, Salten wrote to his US publisher, “I beg you most urgently, quite apart from softenings, not to advertise my work as a children’s book or to launch it otherwise in such a way.” 

Not the ending you would expect…

The threat of being hunted is a nerve-wracking feature of the film, so much so that Stephen King called it the first horror film he ever saw. However, the danger is much greater in Salten’s version. Both Bambi’s mother and his cousin Gobo (switched to Thumper in the Disney film) are killed.

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As if it was not enough, Bambi is shot too. Luckily, a stag – implied to be his father – saves him. But here’s the twist: the stag dies too, leaving Bambi alone, unlike the Disney film. 

Bambi by Felix Salten,
An original copy of Bambi by Felix Salten. Most were burnt by the Nazis.

Jack Zipes, the translator of Princeton University Press’s 2022 edition, said that Salten’s end has “a profound meaning.” Zipes’s translation reinforced the anthropomorphism found in Salten’s work. He believes Salten used the animal characters to project some light on humanity.

Zipes explained, “the shooting and the treatment of animals are an allegory of the situation Jews found themselves in at that time.” While the moral of the Disney film is that hunting animals is wrong, Salten’s is that ‘hunting humans is wrong.’

Some might think that it is a long shot. But is it really?

A Jewish Propaganda?

Salten hunted animals himself. He would contradict himself if he believed hunting animals was wrong. The author had even changed his name from Siegmund Salzmann to Felix Salten to make it sound ‘less Jewish.’

Of course, Salten was aware of what was happening to Jews back then. Zipes said, “So my interpretation – and many other authors or critics have realized this – is that Bambi was not about animals but about Jews or other minority groups.”

Nazi Book burning
Salten’s Bambi novels were banned and burned by the Nazis in massed ‘Book Burning’ rituals.

The Nazis saw that too. As a result, both of Salten’s Bambi novels were banned and burned by the Nazis, who viewed them as Jewish propaganda. Hence, despite being a bestseller, only a few original copies remained.

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In 1938, Salten and his wife fled to Switzerland following German annexation. 

Bambi and Jews

In Walt Disney’s biography, Neal Gabler shows how Disney had links with antisemitic members of the Motion Picture Alliance. Zipes believes that either Disney did not find Salten’s work as an anti-fascist parable or he simply chose to ignore it. Hence, his 1942 film stripped Bambi of its political and historical morals. He Americanized the tale, in short.

Bambi even became a California mule deer rather than the European native roe!

Zipes, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, only knew of Bambi as the innocent children film that we all know. So when Princeton asked the professor to translate it for its 100th anniversary, he actually got to read the original piece. 

Although Zipes thinks that “Disney mutilated the novel,” Salten only responded briefly when he saw the movie in 1942: “Yes, it was a very fine film, and I liked it.” 

Why has Bambi’s Character Lasted for so Long?

Sabine Strümper-Krobb, a German Literature Lecturer at University College Dublin, thinks it’s because Bambi is no longer just a character. It has transformed into a cultural reference. The name is now beyond the film industry – it is a “code for cuteness and helplessness.”

Strümper-Krobb also believes that the key message of the novel (and somewhat the film) is that all creatures are fragile. However, over the century, the message has been simplified. Or even oversimplified. The word Bambi now has been juxtaposed with puppy-eyed cuteness. 

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Moreover, some believe that Bambi’s ‘cute-ificaton’ also comes from the gender switch. So if you did know it already, you know now that the original Bambi was, in fact, a he. L’Oréal and Adidas have widely commercialized and marketed the character to women across all age groups. Given the character’s extraordinary 100-year history, such a fate seems unfair. 

On its 100th birthday, many believe it is time to reclaim the name – to resurrect Bambi’s progressive, anti-fascist, Nazi-scaring roots. Scott Jeffrey’s horror film ‘Bambi: The Reckoning’ will recast the beloved fawn as a “vicious killing machine” – a shocker that many might not be ready for.