The Secret History of Ferdinand the Bull
Ferdinand, the story of a bull who would rather sit and smell the flowers than fight...
Ferdinand, the story of a bull who would rather sit and smell the flowers than fight, will hit theaters later this month. And while initial trailers tease the same candy-coated, lackluster fare typical of the studio that brought us the Ice Age series, Rio, Epic, Robots and more fine-to-forgettable films that seem doomed to play second fiddle to Disney/Pixar, it’s worth, with the film release imminent, to consider its fascinating provenance. That would be The Story of Ferdinand, a children’s book that has had a profound affect, not only on its readers, but also on international culture and politics since its publication in 1936.
The Story of Ferdinand was the creation of writer Munro Leaf and an out-of-work illustrator friend, Robert Lawson, who, as the story goes, sat down one rainy afternoon and wrote out the book in its entirety, over coffee, in under an hour. Upon publication, the book had an immediate impact: Life magazine called it the greatest juvenile classic since Winnie the Pooh.
But the book was far from universally loved. In the United States, some interpreted it as coded communist propaganda — maybe it was the book’s bright red cover. Or maybe it was perceived that to be a pacifist was somehow un-capitalist. Then, as much as now, capitalism is confused with democracy.
Funny enough, it was that same interpretation of pacifism that led to the book being banned in Franco’s Spain (a ban that was only lifted in 1975 after Franco’s death) and burned in Nazi Germany (after the country’s surrender, 30,000 copies were quickly printed and handed out for free to German school children in the hopes of encouraging peace for the next generation). You might think that all this would cause a decline in sales, but The Story of Ferdinand was a hit. Since its initial publication it has been translated into over 60 languages, has never gone out of print, and has sold well over two million copies in the United States alone.
In 1938, Disney adapted the book into a short film, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject. That cartoon is still broadcast during Christmas in Sweden as part of the traditional Kalle Anka, a compilation of Disney shorts that has been shown religiously in the country since 1959. In 1982, fierce debate arose when Ferdinand the Bull was supplanted with The Ugly Duckling in the medley. The Swedish papers caught wind of the change before Kalle Anka’s regular airing, the uproar was tremendous, and Ferdinand was added back to the schedule the following year. Since then, no attempts to change the Kalle Anka have been attempted.
How the Disney short resonates in Sweden is not an isolated phenomenon. Though the book is over 80 years old, it continues to influence popular culture. For example, in The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock’s character, Lee Anne Tuohy, refers to her adopted son, football player Michael Oher, as Ferdinand for his gentleness. And, in a criminally under-viewed youtube video, Seth Rogen performed a live reading of the book, accompanied by a full orchestra.
The Story of Ferdinand the Bull has proven to be ahead of its time. Even now, pacifism is misinterpreted as unpatriotic, and being true to oneself as wrong. Truly, Ferdinand was one of the first modern children’s book characters who demonstrated gender nonconformity. As the other bulls glory in fighting, butting heads and locking horns, Ferdinand unabashedly sits under his cork tree and smells the flowers — an act somehow perceived as unmasculine. Of course, what we know, and what the bulls of the story can’t know, is what happens to the bull in a bullfight: The bull never wins. It’s a clever piece of dramatic irony on the part of Munro that speaks, if not explicitly about gender politics, then at least about the realities of war — that nobody wins. This irony is reinforced by Lawson’s brilliant black and white etchings that accompany the original writing. In one scene, Lawson draws Ferdinand fully grown, examining the notches on a tree stump marking his age and height. And atop the stump perches a fat vulture that smiles knowingly down at the bull that’s nearly ready to enter the arena.
Blue Sky’s Ferdinand does boast a terrific cast, headlined by Kate McKinnon, David Tennant, Anthony Anderson, and Gina Rodriguez. So there is a chance it won’t be all bad. It’s just a shame that they all must play support to wrestler John Cena, who voices the titular bull. It’s a strange casting decision until you see the trailer, which seems like a circuitous fever dream only loosely derived from Munro’s classic. Still, it remains to be seen how much of the source material remains in this newest permutation. After all, a film doesn’t have to be a shot-by-shot retelling of a book to capture the emotion, feeling, or message of it.
At the very least, Ferdinand’s release provides a good chance to reflect and reconsider Munro’s classic, and to identify other films and books that espouse the values of gender fluidity over conformity and pacifism over aggression. It would be a bonus if the new film captures and highlights these still-too-uncommon themes, but, even if it doesn’t, there is always the book.