Circular Patterns Between Felix Salten’s “Bambi: A Life in the Woods” and Walt Disney’s Bambi
Felix Salten’s book and Walt Disney’s film work together in a Yin-Yang pattern, providing a fully circular thematic canvas, touching on philosophic ideals whilst reveling in character driven pathos. As companions, they provide a full experience to ponder nature and man’s relationship with such.
Felix Salten was a treasured Austrian writer of the 20th Century who had a keen sense for nature. His most famous novel, “Bambi: A Life in the Woods,” was originally published in 1923, its English translation later published in 1928, the same year Mickey Mouse debuted on cinema screens. The novel proved a resounding success both critically and publicly. It stands today as one of the first great environmental novels ever written.
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The book is episodic in form, and did not pull punches from reality. It touches on the violent and brutal truths of life and death, both human and animal caused. It also gave sublime contemplations of the beauty of nature, and of the natural order. It is effectively, a “coming of age” story, where the young buck Bambi goes through many experiences, often involving death or injury, to eventually become the wisest deer in the forest.
|First Edition, English|
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Like the Disney artists later with their drawing and painting, Salten captured the feeling of the forest in his writing, “Through the thick foliage, the early sunlight filtered in its golden web. The whole forest resounded with myriad voices, was penetrated by them in a joyous agitation.” His writings reflect that of both a poet and naturalist, providing both a deep understanding and interpretation:
Round about grew hazel bushes, dogwoods, blackthorns and young elders. Tall maples, beeches and oaks wove a green roof over the thicket and from the firm, dark-brown earth sprang fern fronds, wood vetch and sage. Underneath, the leaves of the violets, which had already bloomed, and of the strawberries, which were just beginning, clung to the ground.
The book is staunchly philosophic, echoing the environmental creeds of later generations:
“Will we fight over food, too, sometime?” Bambi asked.
“No,” said his mother.
Bambi asked, “Why not?”
“Because there is enough for all of us,” his mother replied.
It is not necessarily “anti-human,” but neither is it pro. Because the story itself comes from a human, it lies somewhere in the middle, a reminder of our place in the natural order, a call for understanding and empathy.
The pinnacle of Salten’s achievement may be Chapter Eight. Though only three pages long, it contains the most succinct and effective of his philosophic ponderings. The narrative has progressed through spring and summer, following Bambi and his trials. Then it breaks in Chapter Eight, “The leaves were falling from the great oak at the meadow’s edge. They were falling from all the trees…’It isn’t the way it used to be,’ said one leaf to the other.”
What ensues is an existential conversation between the two remaining leaves:
They were silent for 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, others say 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."
They were silent again. Then the first leaf said tenderly to the other, “Don’t worry so much about it…”
Eventually the two leaves do fall, marking the beginnings of winter and the first major transition in the story. Here shines a beautiful anthropomorphism that again only calls for deeper thought from ourselves.
|An Homage to Chapter Eight in the Disney Film|
Being such a dramatic tale involving animals, “Bambi: A Life in the Woods” was a book widely considered to be “un-filmable”. However, there was one such live action director at MGM, who was inspired enough to take on the challenge, Sidney Franklin. “His own films were marked by a great understanding of the characters in a story, coupled with vast amounts of heart, romantic ideas, and most of all, sincerity,” say animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.
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After acquiring the rights in 1933, he began some early tests with voice actors, including two to play the scene from Chapter Eight involving the two leaves. Franklin soon realized however, that the subject matter was far too challenging for live action. He then decided to seek out Walt Disney to see if he was interested. He would be the catalyst that brought the mediums together.
At this point in 1935, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was still in story development. Walt, however, would never turn down a good idea, and he took on the Bambi project with great enthusiasm. Soon though, it was evident Walt was going in his own direction with the story. “Where Sidney Franklin saw poetry, beauty, philosophy,” says Thomas and Johnston, “Walt Disney saw an entertaining cast that would give him an opportunity to fully utilize the talents of his staff, as well as his own, in giving life and character traits to everything that lived in the forest.”
|Bambi's Dedication to Franklin|
“When I read the book, I got excited about the possibilities with animals,” Walt said, “what we could do with them, not with doing the book the way it was.” Whether it was at Franklin’s urging, or still some kind of influence on Walt from the book, the poetry and philosophy are still there, only subconsciously, within the backgrounds, layout, and music.
The story was “Disney-fied.” It was cut down to Bambi’s narrative solely, and condensed down or eliminated entirely other groups of characters. Perhaps the best contribution of Disney to the “Bambi” mythos was the invention of Thumper and Flower, Bambi’s companions. The audience finds its heart, paramount in a Disney film, in these characters. It added a level absent in the book. Salten’s characters were more archetypal; Disney’s were accessible and contemporary. Bambi’s mother is still lost, to signify the end of innocence, but the addition of Thumper teaching Bambi to ice skate creates such a blend.
|The Disney Touch|
Bambi and Thumper on Ice
Bambi's Mother Dies
We find Salten’s forest surrounding the drama. The backgrounds of Tyrus Wong and crew conveyed the feeling of the forest sensed in the book. “The story was very, very nice,” Wong recalled, “the feeling-you can almost smell the pine.” In Wong’s backgrounds, we can almost touch it as well. They were ethereal, with broad use of color, but undetailed, an impressionistic view, taking full advantage of effects tools such as the multiplane camera and mirror distortions.
Poetic Vision in the forest:
"Little April Showers"
Bambi was released in August of 1942, the last of the “Golden Age” features from the Disney Studio. It came into a world at war, reminding audiences of central themes in life they had long forgotten. Today it is more part of the culture than Salten’s book.
Though Salten’s ideas and Disney’s characters play in different parts of the forest, they still live in the same environment. And within the “Bambi” mythos they clash and collide to create an epic tale of environments and our coming of age. This Yin-Yang pattern fuses the book and film in symmetry. “The painting is a poem, and the poem is a painting,” Tyrus Wong would say.
Though the intricate narratives differ between the two, they still end on the same note. Bambi has made his journey, now the wisest of creatures in the forest. And he looks down on his two newborns with their mother Faline, the process ready to begin over again. The circle of life continues.
-Bambi would not be the end of Disney’s taking inspiration from Felix Salten’s work. Both Perri (1957) and The Shaggy Dog (1959) were based on Salten novels.
-Bambi. Dir. David Hand. Walt Disney Studio/ Buena Vista, 1942. DVD.
-Johnston, Ollie, and Frank Thomas. Walt Disney's Bambi: The Story and the Film. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1990. Print.
-Labrie, Michael. Water to Paper, Paint to Sky The Art of Tyrus Wong. San Francisco: Walt Disney Family Foundation, 2013. Print.
-Salten, Felix. Bambi: A Life in the Woods. New York: Pocket, 1988. Print.