Invisible Ink: No 206 - the Disney authors


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The Independent Culture

As we know from Saving Mr Banks, Walt Disney was good at persuading authors that he could turn their treasured works into films, but Pamela Travers was not his only conquest. Nobody now remembers the Swiss beekeeping pastor Johann David Wyss, but in the late 18th century he was so impressed by Robinson Crusoe that he wrote a book for his children which would act as an adventure and a series of life lessons.

The Swiss Family Robinson is the tale of an ordinary family who become shipwrecked on an uninhabited tropical island and christen it “New Switzerland”. Their chronicle of survival against pirates, wild animals, and the elements went on to become a beloved classic and the most popular book ever to hail from Switzerland, but it’s the Disney version with John Mills that sticks in the mind, and readers of a certain age will not be able to see an ostrich without thinking of the film’s animal race. Jules Verne wrote a direct sequel, The Castaways Of The Flag, which no one I know has ever read.

Wyss wasn’t the only author to reach a wider audience because of Disney. Fred Gipson was a journalist on The Daily Texan. His novel Old Yeller was filmed by Disney in 1957 and became a massive hit. The moving story of a 14-year-old boy left in charge of a homestead, helped only by the titular stray dog, filled cinemas with sobbing children. Gipson wrote two sequels, Savage Sam and Little Arliss, but he never topped the original.

Felix Salten was a Jewish Hungarian-Austrian whose books were banned by Hitler. He sold the film rights to his most famous work, Bambi (below), for $1,000. Walt Disney used two further works for the basis of his films Perri and The Shaggy Dog. Before he began writing animal stories Salten was the anonymous author of an erotic novel about a Viennese prostitute.

Dumbo, hastily made to bail-out the studio after the disastrous Fantasia, was created by Helen Aberson for a novelty toy called “Roll-A-Book” which never took off, unlike its big-eared elephant star. And Song Of The South was structured from stories collected by Joel Chandler Harris, but was never released in its entirety on US home video because the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” echoes the racist folk song “Zip Coon”.