If, as many argue, movies and television have become Western culture’s premier storytelling media, so too have they become, for most members of society,
the primary source of encounters with the natural world – particularly wild animals.
The television fare offered nightly by national and cable networks such as PBS and the Discovery Channel provides millions of viewers with their only experience of the wilderness and its inhabitants.
The very films that so many viewers take as accurate portrayals of wildlife, however, have evolved primarily as a form of entertainment, following the established codes and conventions of narrative exposition.
The result has been not the representation of nature, but its wholesale reconstruction and reconfiguration according to film and television conventions, audience expectations, and the demands of competition in the media marketplace.
I have long enjoyed watching wildlife programs on PBS and the Discovery channel, but I was surprised by both the breadth and depth of their treatment here. There is a wealth of information about the genre, and many interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the films and their makers (the bit about Frank Buck is priceless!). The author is evidently a media scholar or film historian of some sort, and is clearly at home analyzing how films work, how audiences receive them, and how the economics of the film and television industries shape content.
He makes some good connections between wildlife films and written animal stories, animated films, myths, fables, etc. I admired the way he outlined the historical development of wildlife films by constantly showing the relevance of that history to contemporary programs. His discussions of how wildlife films depict the complexities of evolutionary biology were of particular interest to me, and in my view were very astute.
He makes a good case that profit-driven and formulaic media images have done little to help the general public toward a better understanding of scientific facts related to contemporary wildlife issues, and that they really are not meant to.
I’m amazed the whole subject has been overlooked for so long, and am delighted to see it get this kind of treatment.
5.0 out of 5 stars A groundbreaking work! By William A. Mikulak
For anyone seriously interested in wildlife films, this book provides a compelling argument that they share many traits with mainstream Hollywood moviemaking, often to their detriment as scientific educational tools.
Bousé traces how traditions within the film and television industry have constrained wildlife films from the silent era through the present. He gives numerous examples of how evolution and behavioral biology have been misrepresented by filmmakers intent on telling stories about animals behaving in ways analogous to human heroes, villains, parents and children.
Particularly fascinating is his account of how the Walt Disney Company drew from conventions in its animated films when entering into wildlife filmmaking with the True-Life series, which subsequently influenced other wildlife films.
This is an eye-opening read that should enhance critical viewership of these films and inspire future filmmakers to rethink their approach to the animals they depict.