By the Book: The Jungle Book

Disney’s current obsession with live action remakes has a lasting impact on my posting schedule. More often then not I end up delaying an article until I have seen a remake (which is not in theatres), just in case that it might end up being relevant. Usually it isn’t and I end up throwing in my two cents – or a long rant – at the end of a finished article. But I guess there is an exception to every rule. I have finally gotten around to watch The Jungle Book and to my delight Disney not only created for the very first time a sequel which I would recommend, but one worth discussing. And not just in a “By the Book” context, this deserves a “Double Take” article.

So I’ll do the following: I’ll adjust my approach to “By the Book” a little bit to fit this particular situation and compare both adaptations to the source text and each other. But I’ll leave technical aspects and a deeper analysis of the characters and the structure of the respective movies for “Double Take”.  So, don’t expect this one to get too analytical, I’ll focus entirely on the differences this time around.


1. The original Jungle Book

Technically there are two Jungle Books, but they are usually published in one book nowadays. Each is a collection of short stories, and between each of the short stories is a poem.  And not all of them are about Mowgli, nor are all Mowgli stories in those books. Mowgli actually makes his first appearance in the short story In the Rukh. It describes an English forest ranger encountering a young man named Mowgli with extraordinary tracking abilities and a strange connection to wolves, eventually discovering that Mowgli was raised by wolves. It further describes Mowgli falling in love, marrying and fathering a son before returning to his wolf brothers.

The two Jungle Books pick up Mowgli’s story again, describing his childhood. There are overall eight short stories covering the events before In the Rukh as well as six related poems: Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack,  Road-Song of the Bandar-Log, Mowgli’s Song that he Sang at the Council Rock when he Danced on Shere Khan’s Hide, The Law of the Jungle, Mowgli’s Song against People and The Out-Song. The short stories which are relevant for discussing the Disney adaptations are Mowgli’s Brothers (which tells the story about how Mowgli was raised by the wolves and his fight with Shere Khan), Kaa’s Hunting (a midquel to the previous story about how Mowgli once got kidnapped by the apes/Bandar-Log) and some elements of How Fear Came (covering the events during a Water Truce). The other five stories, Tiger! Tiger!, Letting in the Jungle, The King’s Ankus, Red Dog and The Spring Running explore Mowgli’s relationship to humans and to his former pack.

One can’t understate the influence The Jungle Book had on literature, especially children’s literature. But it also shouldn’t be unmentioned that Kipling himself is a controversial figure. I mean, what can one expect, he was an Englishman growing up in India during Imperialism, he had attitudes which were certainly questionable. And I certainly won’t go and defend him or his work as a whole. However, I’ll say that I consider it questionable to read imperialistic messages into The Jungle Book, because this approach always ends up with the claim that a specific group of animals supposedly presents a specific group of people, and I find little indication of this in the story. Plus, one shouldn’t forget that Mowgli is representing humanity in the story, meaning humanity is represented by an Indian boy and not (like it is the case in the Tarzan stories) some lost British aristocrat.

Now, the stories which involve other humans, they might be a little bit more iffy, especially once British characters turn up (though that happens only in one story which isn’t even part of the Jungle Book). I can understand why it might not sit right with Indians that some Jingoist writer went and criticized their caste system, as well as portraying them as superstitious and greedy. However, I also don’t think that the stories would get the same scrutiny if they had been written by someone else or maybe even an Indian.

I myself read the stories always more as a collection of morality tales, being an exploration of the relationship between humans and nature (with humans rarely being portrayed all that positive) as well as an exploration of what it means to grew up between two completely different societies. Especially greed and egoism are portrayed in a negative light, but above all there is a heavy emphasis on the need to respect the laws of society. In the book those laws consist of a combination of obedience towards the ones which are older and wiser (or higher on the food chain) as well as acting socially responsible. The emphasis on obedience is a little bit troubling from a modern point of view, but the idea to act for the good of all and not just for your own good certainly isn’t. At the end of the day, though, this are mostly vague ideas and some aspects of them are even discussed in the stories, with no clear cut conclusion made in the end. Which might be why they have endured so long, because whatever Kipling might have thought, the stories are more about exploring concepts than presenting any kind of judgement about them.

2. The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book is commonly considered the last movie Walt Disney has done. In reality, Walt Disney wasn’t really involved in the everyday business of the animation studios anymore when the production on the movie started. But he certainly took an interest in this particular project, more to the ones which came beforehand.

Originally The Jungle Book was supposed to be way closer to the source text. But when Walt Disney saw the first storyboards, he felt that the approach was too dark. He gave the soundtrack to the Sherman brothers with only “Bear necessities” remaining and set a new team of animators on it with the order to ignore the storyboards completely. If you pay attention to the credits you’ll notice that the movie claims to be “inspired” by the Jungle Book, rather than being an adaptation. Because that is what Walt Disney intended.

Consequently it is a little bit pointless to compare the Disney version to the source material. The only thing left is the setting and the names of the characters. It is basically a completely original story based on the same concept. The end result is a movie which is popular but not particularly ground breaking.

I am not sure about the current generation, but back in the day, The Jungle Book was big. Maybe partly because it was released in the middle of what is considered the Dark Age of Animation. Just take a peak into my coverage of the 1960s when I was looking for the winner of the swanpride award. With so few high-quality animated movies being released, The Jungle Book must have looked like a masterpiece. I am not sure how it stacks up compared to the Disney Canon in general. It is certainly a good movie, but I would dispute that it is a great one. It is certainly influential, though. Most adaptations which were released after contain at least some elements and ideas from this one.

Nowadays it often comes up in “Disney is racist” discussions. To get this out of the way, too: This accusation is mostly based on the role of the apes play in the movie, especially King Lois. They are seen as racist caricatures of blacks. Here is the thing though: There was the idea to have a few better known artists doing the songs of the movie. King Lois was supposed to be voiced by Jazz Legend Lois Armstrong and the vultures were supposed to be voiced by the Beatles. But Walt Disney felt that the Beatles would soon be forgotten (well, he was maybe the most visionary producer of all time, but that doesn’t mean that he was always right) and wanted to avoid the unfortunate implication of casting a black man to voice an ape. So in the end, the role went to Louis Prima, the king of swing – apes, swinging, do you get it?

Nevertheless the apes are still often accused of being caricatures of black people even though this was clearly not the intention. And the song “I want to be like you” is sometimes read as a black person wanting to be a white one. Which, to be frank, makes no sense to me whatsoever. Even if we assume that apes acting like apes is supposed to refer to certain racist imaginary in which humans act like apes (though that would beg the question how exactly animated apes should act if not like apes), how exactly does Mowgli qualify as “white”? As I pointed out above, he is an Indian boy and he clearly looks the part. If you take the song out of context maybe you could argue that Jazz music is inherently linked to the Black community, but then there is still the fact that it isn’t sung by a black man, but by an American with Italian roots.

Bottom line, if you want to see racism in it, you will be able to find it.  But I really doubt that there are many people out there who look at this and immediately go “oh, yeah, those silly blacks will never be as good as we white people”.

3. The Jungle Book (2016)

When Disney decided to do a live action remake, was sceptic, but less annoyed than I am usually are. After all, I knew how much of the source material Disney left untapped the first time around. There was a difficult balance Disney had to maintain, though, since this wasn’t just supposed to be a new take on The Jungle Book, but also a remake of the animated movie. The result was an entirely new version of the story, which borrows from both sources and still managed to create something completely new.

To illustrate the point, here some back-to-back comparisons of the three versions:

Original: Mowgli is found by Wolves, who defend him against Shere Khan.

1967: Mowgli is found by Bagheera in a wrecked boat and secretly brought to the wolves.

2016: Mowgli is found by Bagheera after Shere Khan killed his father and openly brought to the wolves.

Original:  Bagheera and Baloo are both Mowgli’s mentors, Bagheera because he was raised by humans and therefore knows about their ways and Baloo because he is old and wise.

1967: Bagheera visits Mowgli from time to time. Baloo his a lazy, go lucky personality Mowgli happens to encounter during his travel.

2016: Bagheera is Mowgli’s mentor. Baloo is both old and wise as well as displaying a lazy, go lucky personality. He becomes a second mentor figure for Mowgli after rescuing him from Kaa.

Original: In order to get to Mowgli, Shere Kahn is convincing the younger wolves in the pack to usurp Akela so that they can send Mowgli away.

1967: Akela decides that Mowgli has to go. Bagheera suggests to bring him to a village he knows.

2016: Mowgli, seeing the pack arguing, suggests to leave himself. Bagheera suggest to bring him to the village. Later on Shere Khan is trying to poison the mind of the young wolves against Mowgli.

Original: Kaa is a wise python, who helps Mowgli multiple times. Hypnose is mentioned, but it is a Cobra who does it to the Apes and Baloo and Bagheera while Mowgli seems to be immune.

1967: Kaa is a secondary villain and comic relief who hypnotizes and tries to eat Mowgli multiple times, but always gets districted long enough that Mowgli can escape.

2016: Kaa is secondary female villain who hypnotizes and reveals the truth about his past to Mowgli and then tries to eat him, but is attacked by Baloo.

Original: Hathi is the leader of the elephants and another mentor figure of Mowgli.

1967: Colonel Hathi is a caricature of English colonialism, acting like a particularly idiotic English officer and constantly talking the story about how he was awarded the Victoria cross.

2016: The Elephants, including Hathi, are god-like creatures in the eyes of the other Jungle animals.

Original: Shere Khan disturbs the water truce and is driven away by Mowgli

1967: No mention is made of a water truce

2016: Shere Khan turns up during the water truce, discovers Mowgli and threatens him.

Original: King Lois doesn’t exist. The apes are outsider in the jungle because they don’t accept any form of authority or rule. They kidnap Mowgli an bring him to the old city simply because they are curious, but he is rescued by Baloo, Bagheera and Kaa, who breaks down a wall to free Mowgli.

1967: King Lois is the ruler of the apes who desires to be like a human and kidnaps Mowgli because he wants to learn how to create fire. When Baloo and Bagreera rescue him, enough pillars are destroyed that the city breaks down.

2016: King Lois is the ruler of the apes and kidnaps Mowgli because he wants to harness the power of the “red flower” and become the most powerful being in the jungle. During the rescue attempt he follows Mowgli into a room in which he destroys enough pillars that the whole building falls down on him.

Original: Mowgli uses the “red flower” to rescue Akela’s life and drive Shere Khan away. But having done so, he has embraced his humanity and can therefore no longer stay in the Jungle. He lives a while in the village but eventually returns into the Jungle, just to leave again and returns to the humans when he is around 17 because he “feels restless”.

1967: After having established Shere Khan’s fear of fire earlier, a convenient lighting stroke provides Mowgli with fire he uses to drive Shere Khan away. At this point Mowgli could stay in the jungle but ends up leaving anyway because, he sees a beautiful girl and can’t resist.

2016: Mowgli steals the “red flower” from the village an intends to use it on Shere Khan, but, seeing how much the other animals fear him, decides to throw the weapon away, showing himself worthy of the jungle. He then lures Shere Khan into the flames, though. At least in this movie he stays in the jungle, but who knows what will happen in the sequel.

There is more, but I those are the main events and I think they bring the point across pretty well.  The 2016 adaptation is closer to the original version than the movie from 1967, but it borrows heavily from both and introduces a number of new elements. Ie the hunt for the honey. The cliff with the bees is mentioned in Red Dog, but in a completely different context, and Baloo is way more cunning than in either the source text (where his main characteristic is wisdom) or the animated movie (where his main characteristic is being extremely laid-back). And thematically, it tells a completely new story. But that is something for the next article to discuss.

4. Other adaptations

Normally I would now judge the movie (or movies) on their merit as adaptation and as movies. In this case, though, this seems to me a at least partly useless exercise. There are a number of adaptations and every single one of them is very different, depending on which story was picked. In addition, a lot of the ones made after 1967 have been influenced by the animated movie one way or another. Disney itself went back to the well multiple times, in both movies and TV shows, sometimes by doing some sort of spin on the animated movie (or should I say TaleSpin?), sometimes by trying their hand at a live action adaptation.

But here is a list of the ones which stick out:

An absolute must-watch is The Jungle Book from 1942, starring Sabu. Loosely based on three of the later short stories –  Tiger! Tiger!, Letting in the Jungle and The King’s Ankus – it is a true gem of classic cinema. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Favreau ends up borrowing some ideas from it for the upcoming  Jungle Book 2.

The closest adaptation is a series of animated movies created between 1967 and 1971 in the Soviet Union. Unlike the Disney take this version takes the source material very serious and doesn’t even try to make the animals look cute.

I guess I should mention Disney’s first live action take from 1994. This one mostly sticks out, though, because it is a terrible adaptation. I suspect the original idea was to do a combination on In the Rukh and The King’s Ankus, but the end results comes off more as Tarzan in India than a Jungle Book story. It’s not the worst movie, but a fan of either the book or the Disney animated movie will certainly feel let down by this take.

Japan naturally did their own take on it in 1989 (honestly, is there any classic children’s book which hasn’t been turned into an anime?).  Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli follows the original story pretty closely, but with some elements from other adaptations as well as some new ideas thrown in. A particular oddity is Mowgli using a boomerang instead of a knife. Overall, though, it does take the source material serious enough to tackle some heavy material for a children’s show.


5. The Conclusion

The Jungle Book offers a lot of material for adaptations, which led to a number of different takes on the story. I think, everybody has to decide for himself what kind of adaptation he wants. For something fun, the Disney version of 1967 is certainly a good pick, while the remake of 2006 offers both, the serious elements from the source text and the fun of the animated movie.

For a deeper analysis, well, tune in next time. For now I hope you have gotten an idea how those two adaptation relate to the source material and to each other.



2 responses to “By the Book: The Jungle Book

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: