Saturday 3 April 2021

The Jungle Book on the Silver Screen

Today's special post comes by way of the 2021 Classic Literature on Film Blogathon. Click on the banner above for more interesting articles on the cinema's sometimes tense relationship with literature!

Published in 1894 as a series of moralizing fairy tales for his daughter, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is a classic of adventure literature. For those of us raised on cinematic versions it can be surprising to learn that Mowgli's exploits comprise a relatively small portion of the book. In fact, they are drawn from only three chapters. Absent are the white fur seal Kotick, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose, and even Akela the proud wolf whose name was officially lent to the leaders of Cub Scout packs. Yet it's the stories of Mowgli that have most inspired filmmakers and audiences for generations: a reiteration of the "wild man" myth that has endured from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Tarzan of the Apes

Kipling, the great poet of the British Empire and jingoist of British Imperialism, was born and mostly raised in India. After his family moved back to England for a spell, he returned to India for employment as a newspaperman. It was during this time that he picked up material for his many books, including The Jungle BookKim, and Just-So Stories. His enthusiasms for the British Empire led to his insurmountable popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his being reviled and nearly forgotten from the late 20th century into the 21st.

Kipling was an expert at the turn of a phrase, a wordsmith with a hubristic but nonetheless keen understanding of the British Imperial project. Of course we rightly recognize Kipling today as a jingoist, racist, classist, and colonialist, nevertheless he understood how the British Empire actually functioned and how people functioned within it. As George Orwell said of him:
Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly... Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions... Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. 

And even then, Kipling's sympathies are often less with the actual ruling classes than with the functionaries of the Empire: the soldiers, sailors, engineers, and in the case of The Jungle Book, even the beasts of burden. The closing chapter of the first book looks at British military life from the perspective of the military's horses and oxen. And both the first and second Jungle Books are permeated with high British ideals of duty, responsibility, and law. The chapter about the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi - one of the most charming in the book - describes his fight with cobras thusly: "This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment." It could very well have come from one of his militaristic novels.

For the portions most familiar to popular culture, The Jungle Book better exemplifies the myth of the Wild Man. Mowgli was one of the inspirations behind Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, much as Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel were templates for Batman. Both Mowgli and Tarzan are ultimately inspired by Enkidu, the wild man of the 5000 year old Epic of Gilgamesh. In that most ancient of Babylonian writings, Enkidu represents untamed nature and the untrammeled spirit of man against the powers of civilization. He is brought to heel eventually, first by the temple prostitute Shamhat and then by combat with the warrior-king Gilgamesh. The Wild Man myth has endured through the millennia, sometimes as a cautionary tale about the need to suppress violent, natural urges, and more often as a romantic vision of savage nobility. The wild man character is usually brought into confrontation with civilization, to varying effects. Tarzan had his run-in, and discovered that he operates best on the fringes of both the wild and the civilized worlds, not truly a part of either. Mowgli makes his own discovery as to his place in the world. This encounter of the Wild Man with society allows the author of any given tale to divulge his or her own thoughts about society. Through Mowgli, Kipling satirizes the caste system and the self-importance of the humanity's wise old men and so-called great hunters.

Species in The Jungle Book are, naturally, based on those found in India. Specifically, Kipling found his inspiration in the Seoni District of central India. Baloo, for instance, is a sloth bear. The former range of this insectivorous bear stretched across the entire subcontinent, though finds itself restricted from the edges and large parts of the south today. Kipling's name undoubtedly derives from the Hindi term for the sloth bear, bhālu. The author was, however, no naturalist. Certain of Baloo's habits, like eating honey and nuts, are more typical of the Asian black bear which is not found in India. The two species are not closely related. Bagheera is a black Indian leopard, a regional subspecies of the same leopard that spans Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Typically leopards are yellow with black spots, but a recessive gene can give them an excess of melanin. Black leopards still have their spots, but are a beautiful black-on-black. Shere Khan is, of course, a Bengal tiger. Ironically, a male lion in Hindi is called a sher and a tiger is called a baagh or vyaghra. The Seoni District, where The Jungle Book is set, includes the Pench Tiger Reserve.

With this moralizing and themes of duty, and its intentional appeal to children, it might not be totally surprising that its names and images found use in the Scouts. In 1916, after inadvertently beginning the Scouting movement, Robert Baden-Powell asked his friend Kipling if he might use The Jungle Book for a newly-formed junior division. The leader of a Wolf Cub, or Cub Scout, group is called an Akela, after the lone wolf who lead Mowgli's pack. Nor is it surprising that The Jungle Book should be adapted to film a multitude of times.

Though Tarzan first swung into film as early as 1918, his spiritual ancestor would have to wait until 1942. This version, a Technicolour spectacle when that was still a rarity, was directed by Zoltan Korda, produced by Alexander Korda, and starring Indian actor Sabu Dastagir. 

Sabu was discovered by the Korda Brothers in 1937 at the age of 13. They were in India filming the Kipling story Toomai of the Elephants with Robert J. Flaherty, the documentary pioneer who produced Nanook of the North. The story Toomai of the Elephants, first published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1893, was republished in The Jungle Book. Born Selar Shaik, Sabu was the son of an actual mahout, an elephant trainer for the maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. In wrangling elephants for the production, he stood out as an ideal lead actor. Despite never having seen a movie in his life, his effortless charisma and innocence was instantly appealing. The film was released as The Elephant Boy and Sabu became a star.

The complete Elephant Boy (1937).

Though The Elephant Boy makes changes to Kipling's original story, as all Kipling adaptations do, it gains corresponding sympathy for the plight of Little Toomai (Sabu), drama from the reworked plot, and intrigue from the on-location footage among the mahouts of India. It is a surprisingly unaffected film given that Sabu was reciting his lines phonetically, and is altogether one of the better films to be based on The Jungle BookThe Elephant Boy was followed by The Drum (1938), starring Sabu as an Indian prince. He reached his peak in the 1940 remake of The Thief of Baghdad, opposite Conrad Veidt as the evil grand vizer and John Justin as the prince. Then came Sabu's round as Kipling's more famed Jungle Book hero, Mowgli.

Due to the limitations of film, the 1942 Jungle Book is far less about Mowgli's relationship with the animals than about his run-ins with humankind. Not that there is a lack of animals... The film is rich with wildlife, from black panthers to bears, tigers to wolves, and a small legion of monkeys. With the exception of a few voiced over snake puppets, there is little anthropomorphism. Mowgli finds his way into the human village, where the villainous hunter Buldeo (Joseph Calleia) mistrusts him as a jungle devil. Yet he carries on a romance with Buldeo's daughter Mahala (Patricia O'Rourke) and carries her off to the lost, treasure-laden city of a long-gone, Ozymandian maharaja, rendered in stunning matte paintings. This version is mainly derived from the "Tiger! Tiger!" chapter of The Jungle Book and "The King's Ankus" chapter of The Second Jungle Book

The complete 1942 version of The Jungle Book.

Time, however, has decreed that Disney should own a near-monopoly on Mowgli's story, beginning with its 1967 animated adaptation and continuing through live-action adaptations, some direct-to-video fodder, and recycling the characters for the TV cartoon Tale Spin. The "Kaa's Hunting" chapter of the book provides the bulk of the plot for Disney's 1967 Jungle Book adaptation. Mowgli is abducted by the monkeys, who take him to an ancient abandoned city so they can make him their leader. In the novel, Baloo, Bagheera, and Kaa run in for the rescue. Baloo is actually the sterner disciplinarian, the Teacher of the Law, while Bagheera is the more lackadaisical and indulgent of the man-cub. These roles are flipped in the Disney film. Furthermore, Kaa replaced the jackal, Tabaqui, as Shere Kahn's sidekick.  

A large part of the credit for the film's success goes to its stellar voice cast. Sebastian Cabot, George Sanders, Phil Harris, Louis Prima, and Sterling Holloway as the principle cast (in addition to director Wolfgang Reitherman's son Bruce as Mowgli) do a fantastic job bringing life to the wildlife. Walt decreed that it should be primarily a character-driven film rather than a plot-driven one, leading to an episodic feel along a simple, inexorable path from wolf's den to man's village. Reitherman in turn seized the opportunity of Walt's death to showcase the animation, allowing scenes to linger simply to show the superior draughtsmanship of Disney's animators at work. The most memorable thing about The Jungle Book are its musical vignettes... "Bear Necessities," "Wanna' Be Like You," "Trust in Me," "Col. Hathi's March," with little recollection of what falls in-between. The finished product is not as fully polished as one would like, though it is oddly reflective of the episodic nature of the original Kipling book. 

Trailer for the Blu-Ray release of The Jungle Book (1967)

A strong, coherent plot is something that would have to wait for Disney's 2016 live-action remake. That was, in fact, the strongest part of the remake and legitimized its existence. Director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks borrowed chapters, scenes, and themes from both The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book to create a more fully-fleshed out story with real heart. It became a rare example of a live-action Disney remake that actually improved upon a flawed original instead of rehashing and diminishing an already perfect film. The "Law of the Jungle" poem from The Second Jungle Book became the thematic thread of the 2016 version, to great emotional effect:
Now this is the Law of the Jungle—as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back—
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
Trailer for the 2016 live-action Jungle Book.

In-between the 1967 and 2016 versions came the 1994 live-action version, a 1998 live-action prequel, and a 2003 animated sequel. These were forgettable and have largely been forgotten. The 1994 version has certain charms of its own as a kind of British Imperial version of Indiana Jones completely divorced from the actual books. It came from the same episode of modestly entertaining live-action period pieces by Disney, including The Three Musketeers (1993), The Rocketeer (1991), and Newsies (1992). 

This version of The Jungle Book is virtually in name only, owing far more to Tarzan and bearing no resemblance to Kipling's work except for a few set-pieces. Lena Headey plays the Jane to Jason Scott Lee's fully-adult Mowgli, who herself becomes a pawn in rogue British officer Cary Elwes' plot to have Mowgli lead him to the treasure chamber of the lost city of monkeys. Sam Neil plays her father and Elwes' commanding officer, at the height of his early 1990's, post-Jurassic Park coolness. Bagheera, Baloo, the wolf pack, and Shere Kahn are all represented, as is King Louis (yes, named for the King of France, in one of the few attempts at humour that the film actually lands). To its credit, this "Poor Man's Indiana Jones" echoes the 1942 version by opting not to anthropomorphize or voice over the animals. It is somewhat shocking that this film owes so much to Tarzan, and that entire scenes (like using a magic lantern to teach Mowgli English) were lifted practically verbatim into Disney's 1999 animated Tarzan film.

Trailer for the 1994 Jungle Book.

Between 1967 and 1971, Soviet studio Soyuzmultfilm released their own 5-episode animated adaptation called The Adventures of Mowgli. As in many such cases, a Soviet animated version provides an interesting contrast with the more familiar Disney version. Soyuzmultfilm was itself created in 1936 with the commission to develop the "Disney-style" animated film in Russia. Its 1957 adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen is perhaps the finest Soviet animated film from the period.  

Soyuzmultfilm always provides an interesting contrast with Disney. There is always a temptation among the public to downplay the creative accomplishments of Disney, but this is warrantless. One needs only look at Fantasia or The Three Caballeros or even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length cel-animated film ever made. Nevertheless, Disney did have a distinctive style of art and storytelling that contrasts greatly with the more stylized forms of Soviet animation. The Adventures of Mowgli bears more resemblance to the pop-art modern style of UPA or even Hanna-Barbera than the style of a Walt Disney or a Chuck Jones. It also retains much more of the original story, with episodes pulled from both Jungle Books, including rarely-filmed incidents like the war between the wolves and dholes. It is probably the most faithful and stylish adaptation of the Mowgli stories.

The anthologized Adventures of Mowgli feature film released
direct-to-video in 1998 and narrated by Charlton Heston. 

Though most famous for his Looney Tunes classics, Chuck Jones struck out on his own in the 1970's and produced three adaptations of stories from The Jungle Book. These made-for-TV adaptations are Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975), The White Seal (1975), and Mowgli's Brothers (1976). Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is likely the most adapted story from The Jungle Book after those of Mowgli. A decade prior to Chuck Jones' film was another by Soyuzmultfilm (again), and a live-action Soviet-Indian production was also released in 1975. Once again, these provide an interesting contrast in American and Soviet, traditional and pop-art modern animation styles.

The 1975 Chuck Jones version of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

The 1965 Soyuzmultfilm version.

Mowgli's Brothers adapted the chapter of the same name from The Jungle Book. In it, Jones manages to capture the fearsome and alien aspect of Mowgli's transition into manhood. Film since Disney has often portrayed this transition as something wistful and melancholic (as in 1967), or avoided it altogether (as in 2016). Mowgli's Brothers shows it as something Biblically terrifying... An encounter with a wrathful, divine Other. 

Mowgli's Brothers (1976) by Chuck Jones.

Though lacking the sheer volume of films featuring Tarzan, Mowgli, Kipling, and The Jungle Book rarely stray far from theatres... Or streaming. The most recent version is 2018's Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle produced and distributed by Netflix. Sadly the all-star cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Kahn, do little to offset the uncanny valley of the animals. CGI has allowed the integration of live-action human and animated animal actors in ways that were impossible in 1942 or 1994, but like all CGI it needs to be done well to be watchable at all. 

Trailer for Netflix's Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018).

If anything, Mowgli has actually picked up his workrate in recent years. Far from slipping into obscurity - as Tarzan sadly seem to be doing - there seems to be a growing appetite for Kipling's stories from the jungles of India. Just, perhaps, downplaying that they originally came from Kipling.   


Norman Hugh Redington said...
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Norman Hugh Redington said...

Curiously, Kipling wrote The Jungle Book neither in India nor in Britain, but in Brattleboro, Vermont. One could argue that Mowgli is an American, like Huck Finn whom he somewhat resembles.