Lucy Knight — March 21, 2023
Walt Disney made Bambi a cutesy schmaltzfest for kids. But the original story was a brutal allegory by a Jewish writer who later fled the Nazis. As the character hits 100, we look at the iconic fawn’s extraordinary life.
When Love Island stars Molly-Mae Hague and Tommy Fury announced that they had named their daughter Bambi earlier this year, it caused a bit of a storm. Some approving fans claimed to be “obsessed” with the name, but Atomic Kitten star Kerry Katona called it “ridiculous” (although she later apologised).
Meanwhile, writer Jason Okundaye poked fun with the tweet: “Does Molly-Mae not know what happened to Bambi’s mum?” Yet, among the many arguments for and against, nobody mentioned the reason why such a name might actually be quite timely.
The iconic fawn is this year celebrating a very significant birthday, it being a century since the German imprint Ullstein Verlag first published Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Written by Felix Salten, an Austro-Hungarian, the coming-of-age novel would go on to be banned by the Nazis before eventually winding up in the hands of Walt Disney and becoming the animated children’s film many know and love.
While Salten’s Bambi was far from the cutesy romantic hero of the Disney film, both versions see the eponymous fawn learning about the natural world, losing his (yes, his) mother after she is shot by a hunter, then growing into an adult. Faline – Bambi’s love interest and also, in the book, his cousin – appears in both, but she and Bambi are estranged by the end of the original, not living as a happy family as Disney has it.
Perhaps the most crucial difference between Salten’s novel and Disney’s film, however, is that the former was aimed at adults. Bambi: A Life in the Woods initially appeared in 1922, as a serialisation in the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse, before being published as a book the following year. But Disney was not the first to market the deer’s plight as a children’s story: the 1939 English-language translation of Bambi’s Children, Salten’s sequel, toned down the violence and gore, to be more child-friendly. Salten was affronted, writing 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.”
While the threat of being hunted is a memorable feature of the film – leading Stephen King to call it the first horror movie he ever saw – this danger looms much larger in Salten’s work. Bambi’s mother and his cousin Gobo (replaced by Thumper the rabbit in the film) are both slain, while Bambi is shot too, only to be saved by the stag implied to be his father. But this stag then dies, leaving Bambi not surrounded by a happy family, as in Disney’s version, but completely alone.
Salten’s ending has “a very deep meaning” says Jack Zipes, translator of Princeton University Press’s 2022 edition. “How do we deal with our loneliness? How do we deal with life in a brutal situation?” Zipes’s translation reinstated the anthropomorphism found in the original, but softened in the first English translation in 1928, to show how Salten used his animal characters to make points about humankind. “It’s quite evident,” says Zipes, “that the shooting and the treatment of the animals are an allegory of the situation Jews found themselves in at that time.” While the moral of the Disney film might be that hunting animals is wrong, Salten’s message seems to be more that hunting humans is wrong.
In fact, Salten hunted animals himself. “He was a very contradictory man,” says Zipes, adding that the author, who changed his name from Siegmund Salzmann in his teens to sound less Jewish, was “perfectly aware of what was happening to the Jews in pogroms. So my interpretation – and a lot of other authors or critics have realised this – is that Bambi was really not about animals but about Jews or other minority groups.”
This was the Nazis’ interpretation too: in 1935, both of Salten’s Bambi novels were banned and burned by the Nazis, who viewed them as Jewish propaganda. Because of this, few first editions of Bambi remain, despite it having been a bestseller. Salten and his wife, unsafe in Austria, fled following the German annexation in 1938, moving to Switzerland where the writer remained for the rest of his life.
In the biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler describes how Disney associated with a group of antisemitic members of the Motion Picture Alliance. He either did not read Bambi as an anti-fascist parable, or chose to ignore that aspect. His 1942 film stripped the story of its political and historical roots, sanitising, beautifying and Americanising the tale to serve his own taste and audience. Even the species was altered: Bambi becomes a California mule deer rather than a European native roe.
Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, knew only of the Disney Bambi when he was asked by Princeton to translate its 100th-anniversary edition. “Are you ridiculous? I would never do that,” he remembers saying, believing the story to be flimsy. “And then I read the novel and thought: ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to call this editor.’”
Zipes is extremely derogatory about the film. “Disney mutilated the novel,” he says, noting that Salten didn’t seem to make much of it either. The novelist was, he points out, “in a dreadful condition” when he saw Bambi in Zurich in 1942, three years before he died. He offered only the briefest response . “It was a simple, ‘Yes, it was a very fine film and I liked it.’ And then he left. And that’s all we know about how he felt.”Yet it is the Disneyfied Bambi that has endured decade after decade. This has partly been via direct reproduction of the character, who appears in the video games Kingdom Hearts and Disney Magic Kingdoms, and has made cameos in Disney films as recently as last year, appearing in Chip’n’Dale: Rescue Rangers. Bambi is also reportedly in line for a Disney live-action remake.
Why has the character lasted so long? Sabine Strümper-Krobb, German literature lecturer at University College Dublin, thinks it’s because Bambi is no longer just a character: he is a cultural reference point understood way beyond the world of films, games and merchandise. “The name Bambi,” she says, “has become code for cuteness and helplessness.”
This association goes right back to the original: Strümper-Krobb believes that one of its key messages is that “all creatures are fragile and vulnerable”. But at some point over the past century, that message has simplified, eventually fusing into Bambi being a byword for big-eyed cuteness. Even the more interesting instances of Bambi’s influence on popular culture, such as the 1980 Sex Pistols/Tenpole Tudor song Who Killed Bambi?, play into this trope. The opening lines of the song, written by Tudor and Vivienne Westwood, are: “Gentle pretty thing / Who only had one spring.” Meanwhile Scott Jeffrey’s forthcoming horror film Bambi: The Reckoning will recast the beloved fawn as a “vicious killing machine”, its shock value coming from Bambi generally being assumed to be exactly the opposite.
Bambi’s “cute-ification” has also meant a gender switch, most likely a result of the sexist conflation of naivety and sweetness with femininity. Adidas’s clothing range featuring Disney’s Bambi and L’Oréal’s Bambi mascara are both marketed at women. Meanwhile, just as Hague and Fury’s baby Bambi is female, according to the latest ONS data, the four British babies named after the character in 2021 were all girls too.
So Bambi now seems to be regarded as a cute, decorative name, the kind of out-there, riskier choice celebrity parents can get away with, for the moment anyway. Given the character’s astonishing 100-year history, both on the page and off, such a fate seems slightly unfair. Perhaps, for Bambi Fury’s sake and that of all the similarly christened babies likely to follow, it is time to reclaim the name – and resurrect Bambi’s progressive, anti-fascist, Nazi-scaring roots.