'Ferdinand' The Peaceful Bull Gets His First Full-Length Film

Dec 12, 2017
Originally published on December 18, 2017 4:00 pm

Millions of people have read Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand since it was first published in 1936. Two years later, Disney turned it into it an Oscar-winning short film. Now, the peaceful bull who prefers sniffing flowers to bullfighting is getting an update from 20th Century Fox. And that bull has been on quite a journey to get here.

John Cena, the actor who voices Ferdinand in the new movie, recently read the original story to hundreds of DC public school kids at the Library of Congress. On a table next to him were two early editions of the book from the library's collection. One was from 1938, the other from 1936.

"We're going to look at the 1936 edition but not touch it," Cena told the students. "It's very delicate and very important, and the people from the Library of Congress were very thorough in saying like, 'Hey, don't touch the first book.'"

Precious Ferdinand, even when he grows to be bigger than all the other bulls, still doesn't want to fight. He just wants to sit under the cork tree and smell flowers. But when he sits on a bumblebee, he goes berserk, puffing and kicking. The matadors watching are ecstatic.

The Story of Ferdinand is one of Time magazine's "100 Best Children's Books of All Time." At one point in the late 1930s, it was outselling Gone With The Wind, which is pretty astonishing for something that was written in less than an hour.

NPR interviewed Munro Leaf's widow, Margaret, in 1986, ten years after her husband's death. "The depression was nearly over," she recalled. "We were very poor." One Sunday afternoon, she was reading a manuscript for a publisher to make some extra money.

"I was going to get $25 for reading it, so it was very important, and he kept bothering me, trying to interrupt me. So I finally said to him, 'Get lost, go and amuse yourself. Do something.' About 35 to 40 minutes later, he said 'Listen to this,' and he read me Ferdinand. And there it was in pencil on six sheets of yellow legal pad."

Leaf gave the story to his friend, illustrator Robert Lawson, who brought it to life with detailed, whimsical, pen and ink drawings. The book took off.

There was the Disney short, Ferdinand merchandise, a balloon at the annual Macy's Thanksgiving parade, songs and author interviews.

In 1948, Leaf talked to the Chicago radio show, The Hobby Horse Presents. Children on the show asked him what books he read when he was ten and a half.

"Oh gee, I read everything I could get my hands on really," he said. "Couple of them I know that I read about that time that stand out as vividly today, and that's Treasure Island was one, and The Wizard Of Oz to me was one of the nicest books I ever found."

The book's popularity coincided with the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, Leaf told an audience he received letters complaining that "Ferdinand was red propaganda," others that "it was fascist propaganda." A woman's club said it was "unworthy satire of the peace movement." It was banned in Spain; Hitler burned it.

But Margaret Leaf told NPR that Munro wasn't trying to be political. "He wasn't a pacifist, but he was a peaceful man," she said.

Director Carlos Saldanha is the latest to interpret Ferdinand, in the new feature film adaptation. "I think Ferdinand is this misinterpreted, misjudged character," he says.

Munro Leaf's story is only about 800 words, so with the Leaf family's permission, Saldanha did some fleshing out. The director created new characters, like a goat who lives in Ferdinand's stall, and he gave voices to the other bulls in Munro Leaf's story. When they're young, they make fun of Ferdinand's refusal to butt heads. And then Ferdinand outgrows them.

"He is trying to show them a different side of life, a different understanding of life," Saldanha says. "And for him, you don't really need to fight to be a fighter."

For the voice of Ferdinand, Saldanha picked someone who fights for a living, a 6'1, 251 pound wrestler with the WWE — John Cena.

"He almost represents, visually, Ferdinand," Saldanha tells NPR. "Like he's so big and massive and people interpret him as this massive guy that picks fights and all this stuff but actually he's not at all. And he's super gentle."

Cena confirmed that he's misjudged for his size. He says it's a universal feeling. "There isn't a human walking the earth that [can] say 'Everybody gets me all the time.' That's why I think, another reason the book is timeless. We're all misunderstood."

Munro Leaf died in 1976. He wrote other books, but none that had the global success of Ferdinand. His son, Andy Leaf, says his father was amused by all of the different interpretations. "He was very smart that way. He just let people interpret it as they wished."

In the end, Ferdinand stays true to himself, sitting under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers quietly. Ferdinand, the movie version, comes out later this week, but the book will likely be around forever.

Researcher Jane Gilvin contributed to this report.

This story was edited for radio by Andrew Limbong and Rose Friedman, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FERDINAND THE BULL")

DON WILSON: (As Narrator) Once upon a time in sunny Spain, there was a little bull, and his name was Ferdinand.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ferdinand. Millions of people have read Munro Leaf's "The Story Of Ferdinand," first published in 1936. Two years later, Disney turned it into an Oscar-winning short film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FERDINAND THE BULL")

WILSON: (As Narrator) All the other little bulls he lived with would run, and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand.

KELLY: Now the peaceful little bull who prefers sniffing flowers to bullfighting is getting an update from 20th Century Fox. And that bull has been on quite a journey to get here, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: John Cena, the actor who voices Ferdinand in the new movie, recently read the original story to hundreds of D.C. public school kids at the Library of Congress. On a table next to him were two early editions of the book from the library's collection, one from 1938, the other from 1936.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CENA: We're going to look at the 1936 edition, but not touch it. It's - it was very, very delicate and very important. And the people from the Library of Congress were very thorough in saying, like, hey, don't touch the first book.

BLAIR: Precious Ferdinand - even when he grows to be bigger than all the other bulls, he still doesn't want to fight. He just wants to sit under the cork tree and smell flowers. But when he sits on a bumblebee, he goes berserk, puffing and kicking. The matadors watching are ecstatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CENA: (Reading) And they all shouted with joy. Here was the largest and fiercest bull of all - just the one bull for the fights in Madrid.

BLAIR: "The Story Of Ferdinand" is one of Time magazine's 100 Best Children's Books of All Time. At one point in the late 1930s, it was outselling "Gone With The Wind" - pretty astonishing for something that was written in less than an hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARGARET LEAF: It was the - the Depression was nearly over, and we were very poor.

BLAIR: NPR interviewed Munro Leaf's widow, Margaret, in 1986, 10 years after her husband's death. One Sunday afternoon, she was reading a manuscript for a publisher to make some extra money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

M. LEAF: And I was going to get $25 for reading it, so it was very important. And he kept bothering me, trying to interrupt me. So I finally said to him, get lost; go and amuse yourself; do something. And about 35-40 minutes later, he said, listen to this. And he read me "Ferdinand." And there it was in pencil on six sheets of yellow legal pad.

BLAIR: Leaf gave the story to his friend, illustrator Robert Lawson, who brought the story to life with detailed, whimsical pen-and-ink drawings. The book took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FERDINAND THE BULL")

WILSON: (As Narrator) They had a parade into the bull ring.

BLAIR: There was the Disney short, "Ferdinand" merchandise, a balloon at the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FERDINAND THE BULL")

SLIM GAILLARD: (Singing) Ferdinand, Ferdinand the bull with the delicate ego.

BLAIR: There were author interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HOBBY HORSE PRESENTS")

RUTH HARSHAW: Good morning to all of you people waiting to meet Munro Leaf.

BLAIR: In 1948, Leaf talked to the Chicago radio show "The Hobby Horse Presents." Children on the show asked him what books he read when he was 10 1/2.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HOBBY HORSE PRESENTS")

MUNRO LEAF: Aw, gee, I read everything I could get my hands on, really. Couple of them, I know that I read about that time that stand out vividly today, and that's - "Treasure Island" was one.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Unintelligible).

LEAF: And "The Wizard Of Oz" (ph), to me, was one of the nicest books I ever found.

BLAIR: But there were also people who saw Ferdinand's refusal to fight as a subversive political message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CENA: (Reading) He wouldn't fight and be fierce no matter what they did. He just sat and smelled. The banderilleros were mad, and the picadores were madder, and the matador was so mad that he cried.

BLAIR: The book's popularity coincided with the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, Leaf told an audience he received letters complaining that "Ferdinand" was red propaganda. Others thought it was a fascist propaganda. A women's club said it was an unworthy satire of the peace movement. It was banned in Spain. Hitler burned it. Margaret Leaf told NPR, Munro wasn't trying to be political, nor was he a pacifist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

M. LEAF: No, he wasn't a pacifist, but he was a peaceful man.

CARLOS SALDANHA: I think Ferdinand is this misinterpret - misjudged character.

BLAIR: Director Carlos Saldanha is the latest to interpret "Ferdinand," with a major movie release from 20th Century Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FERDINAND")

CENA: (As Ferdinand) You look at me and think, big. You think, scary. You think, well, at least he's not in a China shop. Oh, no.

BLAIR: There's no bull in a china shop in the original "Ferdinand." Munro Leaf's story is only about 800 words, so Saldanha had to do some fleshing out. He first asked the Leaf family's permission.

SALDANHA: So I told them, one thing that I would love to do - I would love to stay true to the essence of the book, but I need to departure from the book in order to create a movie-length story.

BLAIR: Saldanha created new characters, like a goat who lives in Ferdinand's stall. He gave voices to the other bulls in Munro Leaf's story. When they're young, they make fun of Ferdinand's refusal to butt heads. Then Ferdinand outgrows them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FERDINAND")

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Bones) Ooh, little Ferdinand, you've had a growth spurt. Suddenly, I regret every time I called you weirdo.

CENA: (As Ferdinand) Don't sweat it, Bones. We're good.

SALDANHA: He is trying to show them a different side of life, a different understanding of life. And for him, like, you don't really need to be - to fight to be a fighter.

BLAIR: For the voice of Ferdinand, Saldanha picked someone who fights for a living - a 6-foot-1, 251-pound wrestler with the WWE.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And Cena drives Randy Orton back first.

SALDANHA: The voice is John Cena. He almost represents, visually, Ferdinand. Like, he's so big and massive, and people interpret him as, like, this massive guy that's, you know - you know, pick fights and all that stuff. But actually, he's not, at all. Like, and he's super gentle.

BLAIR: Cena confirmed that he's misjudged for his size. He says it's a universal feeling.

CENA: There isn't a human walking the earth that can't say, like, no, they - everybody gets me all the time. That's why I think another reason why the book is timeless. We're all misunderstood.

BLAIR: Munro Leaf died in 1976. He wrote other books, but none that had the global success of "Ferdinand." His son Andy Leaf says his father was amused by all of the different interpretations.

Did he ever tell you what "Ferdinand" meant to him?

ANDY LEAF: No.

BLAIR: ...Like, the story?

A. LEAF: Nope, he was very smart that way. He just let people interpret it as they wished.

BLAIR: In the end, Ferdinand stays true to himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CENA: (Reading) And for all I know, he is sitting there still under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers, just quietly. And he is very happy.

BLAIR: "Ferdinand" - the movie version - comes out later this week. The book will likely be around forever. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DORENA'S "SEMPER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.