We Bought A Zoo by Benjamin Mee

Have just finished this book, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I picked up the book as a result of reading about the film made of the same name by Cameron Crowe, starring Matt Damon. This was on my list of films to watch, but I suspect I will find it annoying, having read the book. It wasn’t until I started reading the book, that I realised I had come across the same story before – when Benjamin Mee took over the running of Dartmoor Zoological Park, the BBC made a 4 part fly-on-the-wall series of it, called Ben’s Zoo.

The film claims to be “Based on a true story”. Like many films with this claim, the story is frequently changed and twisted to suit the studio’s/director’s/star’s view of what the story should be. One wonders why they go to the trouble of buying the rights of a true story, if they are going to change it out of all recognition.

Spoilers follow.

A couple of the changes are understandable, I guess. In the film, Benjamin becomes American, and Dartmoor Zoo is transported to Southern California. Since this is an American made film, this is almost inevitable. Benjamin’s young son (who is 7 or 8 in the book) becomes 14 in the film, and is depicted as a bit of a tearaway – bit unfair to Ben’s real son, although they do change his name. Having the son older means they can work in a teenage love subplot.

Not giving much away, the trailer shows Ben (played by Matt Damon) being shown around a house, completely unaware that it is attached to a zoo. “There’s a complication” says the estate agent. “Roar” says a lion outside the window. “It’s a zoo” concludes the agent.

Very funny, perhaps, but it actually negates a large part of the book – Benjamin is living in the South of France with his wife and children, when his sister sends him the details of the zoo for sale, with a note attached saying “Dream Scenario”. And it pretty much is his dream scenario, and something that he would love to do. He did not accidently buy a zoo attached to house. He deliberately bought a zoo that happened to have a large house on the premises. Nor did he buy it alone – it was a joint purchase between him, his brother and his mother, with a large amount of the money coming from the sale of his mum’s house. His sister and another brother also were involved, but didn’t move in.

However, I think the worst change relates to Benjamin’s wife. In the film, he is a tragic widower, who somehow copes with his kids and the purchase of the zoo single-handed. In the book, his wife is still alive, although it is soon established that she has developed an aggressive and ultimately terminal brain tumour. However, despite this prognosis, and her developing illness, she supports Benjamin in his dream. According to my Kindle, she dies precisely half way through the book.

Removing his wife from the picture this way strikes me as particularly heartless, and also cuts a large part of the drama in the book.

Does any of this matter? According to sources, Benjamin approved the changes, and was happy enough to play a cameo in the film. However, I am a little tired of these fictions posing as true stories, particularly when it isn’t initially obvious this is the case.

Many years ago, the book Ring of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell, was adapted into a film. Just as with this film, they greatly simplified the story, and sanitised the characters, including the main protagonist, who was complex to say the least. However, they had the good grace to change all the characters names, and there was no question in my mind what was the true story (the book) and what was the fiction (the film).

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