I give the book that inspired the famous Disney movie...a 97/100!
Disney has been a household name in our childhoods for years, decades even. The movies he, and his company, would put out since the 1930s have been a constant presence in our lives, whether they were actually good or not. The movies I remember in my childhood were Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. My parents said I used to watch them all the time, though I do remember other ones such as Bambi and The Aristocats. I rewatched Bambi a few years ago, and I found it to be a lot better than I remember it being, and now I consider it to be my favorite Disney movie. But only later did I manage to find the book that inspired it, Bambi: A Life In The Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten. I know some of my recent reviews of what many consider to be classic books haven't exactly been kind, and it's nothing personal against anyone who likes those. I just didn't find some of them to be to my taste. Thankfully, that isn't the case with Bambi, which I feel not only absolutely deserves to be called a classic, but now consider it one of my favorite books of all time, ever.
Similarly to the Disney movie, Bambi tells the story of a young deer who is born into a forest, grows up, and lives his life. He experiences all that nature has to offer, from beautiful spring flowers to the harsh winters that make food scarce, meeting all sorts of animals, both friend and foe. The book doesn't really have much of a linear plot or an overarching conflict, as a lot of it consists of Bambi just living his life and learning about the world. I tend to like those kinds of stories, as I'm of the belief that while conflict can be necessary when writing a novel, it doesn't need to be so depending on what you're going for. But that doesn't mean there isn't any in Bambi at all, as during several points in the story, Bambi and the other forest animals have encounters with a human being, whom they refer to as Man, a hunter who shoots at the animals, killing some in the process, with Bambi's mother being one of his victims. Yeah, I know, spoiling a big event, but at this point, anyone who's even heard of Bambi knows his mom dies, so I don't really see any point in hiding it. It's not even a spoiler IMHO.
Just from reading the book, it's a very different entity from the Disney movie. For one, Thumper and Flower don't exist, as they were original creations by Disney. The only characters who get named or get the most focus are the deer characters, such as a male cousin of Bambi's named Gobo, his aunt Ena, mother of Faline and Gobo, an elderly deer named Nettla, a teenaged doe named Marena, and several male bucks, Ronno and Karus, both of whom become his rivals for Faline's affection. Yeah, getting this out of the way here, Bambi and Faline are cousins and they get together romantically...yeah. Apparently marriage among cousins was common in 1920s Austria, though that aspect is still rather...irksome. That's the only reason the novel doesn't get a pure 100 out of 100 from me. Furthermore, Bambi and his family are roe deer rather than white-tailed deer as depicted in the movie, and the animals aren't depicted as being overly cutesy and nice, either.
But before I get to the biggest difference between the book and the movie, let's talk about the prose! Now, from what I've heard, Bambi was originally published in Germany even though Felix Salten was from Austria, and it was translated into English by one Max Schuster, co-founder of Simon and Schuster, and then published by them in America in 1928. There have been differing views on the translation. Some see it as admirable, while some thought it was terrible, with one person accusing Schuster of projecting his own values and opinions into it. Now I can't comment on the accuracy of the translation, as I'm not German nor can I read German, but I can say that the translated English prose is absolutely beautiful. The forest and its wonders are deliciously described in sumptuous detail, from dewdrops hanging off of leaves in the morning to the wild, ravaging storms that rip through the forests. Often times, I felt like I was right there in that forest, smelling the moisture in the air and walking along a tree-lined dirt path in the woods. There's hardly any purple prose, making the writing very easy to digest and process. It helps that Salten avoids telling a lot of the time, actually showing the characters' feelings and emotions through their actions, since they're animals and don't display the same characteristics as we humans do. The characters don't talk like cutesy Disney animals, and every bit of dialogue has meaning and is impeccably written. Nothing is ever taken for granted, from how the deer behave and take care of their young, to exploring how a human's actions can impact animals. I can wholeheartedly say that Bambi: A Life In the Woods has the best prose I've read so far.
In terms of the characters, those who are more familiar with the Disney movie might be surprised to find that Thumper and Flower are completely absent, which is totally fine. There are quite a good chunk of characters in the book, with Bambi obviously getting the most focus and development, though several other characters get fleshed out as well. Faline's brother, Gobo, who doesn't exist in the movie, starts out as a shy, weak, cowardly fawn who's afraid of the world, but after being taken in and raised by some humans, he sees the humans for what they really are, but his behavior no longer aligns with how the deer live, and his survival instincts deteriorate to the point where he lacks caution when confronted with danger. Character development doesn't always have to be positive, as Gobo demonstrates, and it's utilized to great effect here. Bambi is a lot more proactive and social as a fawn, in contrast to his meek portrayal in the movie, but gradually becomes more mature and stoic as he grows up and learns more about nature's blessings and hazards. Ronno was born with a limp and puts on a tough guy act, to the point where he bullies Bambi continuously throughout the book, in order to compensate for it. Even Bambi's mother, who still doesn't have a name, is given more complexity as a character than her portrayal in the movie would suggest, as small as her scenes are. Nobody is truly good or evil here, and Salten's other books taking place in Bambi's universe build upon this. All of the characters are wonderfully layered and complex, even though they may not necessarily be three dimensional, and I love the whole ensemble.
As much as I love the book, there are times when it can get a little weird. One chapter is entirely about sentient leaves talking to each other. That chapter is a common subject of debate as to its place in the narrative. Some say it's a good chapter that has a lot of symbolism and meaning in its discussion about life and death, and possibly a metaphor for Salten's experiences as a Jewish man in Austria before World War II. Some say it's a pointless waste of space and paper that doesn't add anything to the overall narrative. I'm kind of in the middle, as while I did find it jarring, as this doesn't happen again in the book, but I didn't outright hate it, as I did like how it was written and how it raised questions about how short life is. Also, apparently Salten has inserted chapters like these in other books as well, so you might say this is his signature.
If you're thinking about maybe showing this book to your four or five year old, don't, because the biggest difference from the Disney movie is that it's not in any way light-hearted or cutesy whatsoever. Not gonna lie, this book is dark. Not Sakura Gari-level dark, nor supremely grimdark or edgy. Predators are shown attacking and eating their pray in detail (Mostly animal on animal), characters get shot and/or killed, with blood being described without any hint of censorship, and themes of life, death, growing up, and the cycle of nature play a huge part in the story. At the same time, it never goes into emo or melodrama territory, thereby staying genuine and never dragging on more than is needed. I wouldn't recommend this to children under the age of ten or so, but I also wouldn't let the book's darker moments be a reason to not read this book. Bambi: A Life In The Woods is heartwarming, intense, savage, exquisitely naturalistic, impeccably written, and doesn't talk down to its audience.
I was originally going to say Elana K. Arnold's A Boy Called Bat trilogy is my favorite book (or in that case book series) of all time, but the final book's ending wasn't the best. Thus, I can proudly claim that Felix Salten's Bambi: A Life In The Woods is my number one favorite book ever. A true masterpiece, and that is not a comment I make lightly. I highly, HIGHLY recommend it for anyone who loves reading, animals, and pretty much everyone who wants to read something truly good. No, seriously, just read it!!!