Seek the Original: The Jungle Book

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The Jungle Book
by Rudyard Kipling

A collection of short stories taking place from various animals' points of view. The most famous are about Mowgli, an Indian boy raised by wolves in the jungle.

In the opening story, "Mowgli's Brothers," a jackal named Tabaqui begs for food from a den of wolves. He tells them that Shere Khan, the tiger, is in these parts. Born with a limp leg and unable to hunt very well, he stays close to villages to take down cattle. And men. The wolves chase the jackal out of the den and witness the tiger attacking a camp of men. All are gone except a human baby.

The father wolf takes the baby back to the den. Khan claims the baby as his prey and demands the wolves turn the child over to him. The wolves drive the tiger off and then take the baby (whom the mother names Mowgli) to the pack leader, Akela, to be accepted as one of them.

The pack is skeptical of letting a human baby into their ranks. Shere Khan is lurking in the shadows, trying to convince the Free People (what the wolves call themselves) to hand the child over to him. But Baloo, a wise old brown bear who teaches the wolf cubs the ways of the jungle, accepts this human baby. Then a panther in the trees named Bagheera buys the baby's entry into the pack by telling them where to find a dead bull. And thus, to Shere Khan's frustration, a human baby has entered the protection of the wolf pack.

So Mowgli grows up in the wolf pack, learning the Laws of the Jungle from Baloo. Meanwhile, Shere Khan has remained nearby, always watching, making friends with the various younger wolves over the years, swaying them to question why they let a man into their midst, why they're protecting him when they can't even look him in the eye.

Bagheera becomes worried that the tiger is turning the pack against Mowgli, and someday the boy will find himself alone, so when the boy is just coming into his teenage years he tasks him with stealing fire from a nearby village.

Sure enough Akela's authority is challenged, the pack gathers, Shere Khan is present and Mowgli is called out. The tiger has turned the younger wolves against him, and they motion to eject Mowgli from the pack. That's when Mowgli lights a fire in the middle of the counsel, sets a dry branch on fire and swings it around. He burns half the wolves and sets the tiger running for his life. Mowgli leaves the jungle to rejoin his own kind.

This sounds an awful lot like political commentary... I haven't done any research on this; I just picked up the book and started reading, but it sounds so familiar. An old leader who kept the pack prosperous is undermined by an outside influence who installs himself as the leader by turning the younger members of the government against the old leader to get what he wants. I'm sure it's referencing something, but even without knowing who it's a pretty engaging read.

The world it sets up about the jungle and how things work is interesting. It's not completely accurate; wolf packs don't behave this way and a tiger would never have a jackal as his flunky, but it works well for the story. The language isn't too great a barrier to the story, but the dialogue is strange. The people and the animals use the informal you. Thy, thee, wilt thou, etc. Uh, it's the 1800's not the 1600's isn't it? It sounds unnatural and I can't tell if it's a stylistic choice or a reflection on how people actually spoke back then.

The next story, "Kaa's Hunting," takes place during the growing up years when Baloo is teaching Mowgli about the jungle. Mowgli is abducted by the monkeys, and the description of their society is just too funny: they are stupid people who think they're awesome. They think they're so clever, so innovative and sophisticated when in fact they're stupid and never do anything. They're always about to do something great, but as quickly as they decide to organize, they see a nut falling from a tree and forget what they wanted to do. They sit up in the trees all day wishing one of the land creatures would look up and notice how wonderful they are. It sounds like it's making fun of someone, but I'm not sure who. My best guess is the British parliament, pre-liberation India, or Americans.

Anyway, the monkeys think Mowgli could be their leader because he knows how to use his hands to make things, so they take him away to the ruined Indian city they now inhabit. Mowgli tries teaching them, but the monkeys can't concentrate for more than a few seconds before wandering off. Baloo and Bagheera race to find the one person the monkeys fear: Kaa, the python. They forge an alliance with Kaa by reminding the snake of the slanderous way which the monkeys speak of him, and together they break Mowgli out.

The next story, "Tiger! Tiger!" takes place after Mowgli starts the fire and leaves the pack. He joins a human village and tries to fit in. He laughs at their superstitious stories. One story claims that Khan is the spirit of a dead man. They know this because the tiger has a bad leg, and so did the man. Mowgli can only laugh at how they are so ignorant of the jungle, and yet it is right next door to them.

Mowgli kills Shere Khan with the help of two wolves who still accept him as one of their own. The villagers see this as bad magic and run him out of town. Mowgli takes the tiger's hide back to the pack that ousted him. The pack begs Akela to be their leader again because now they have none and the pack is falling apart because of the anarchy. Akela refuses, saying they chose this life by listening to that tiger, so now they must live with the consequences. Mowgli ventures into the jungle with only his wolf family to hunt with him.

This still feels like political satire. I'm sure of it, but I can't quite tell who it's referencing.

And oh yeah there are other stories in this collection.

In "The White Seal," a seal finds a new home for his species. Everyone else is content to let man round up thousands of their children for slaughter, but the white seal spends years searching for a new home where man can't touch them. He has to force them to go to paradise, but he does it. A white seal... teaching the mindless savages how to break free of their old ways and embrace something better... Hmmm... This is coming from the same man who wrote "The White Man's Burden."

"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is about a mongoose killing the snakes in a garden, and there's another story about am Indian boy who gets to see the elephants dance, and one more about animals swapping stories of how they serve in the military and a couple others but who cares. I'm way more interested in Mowgli! Only three stories about him? There must be more!

Well, there are. In The Second Jungle Book, Kipling tells a few more stories about Mowgli, and they are also fascinating peeks into a world where a man lives as part of nature instead an intruder, but for this discussion they're not important except for one more point:

Kipling was certainly a man of his time and country. He believed in colonialism with all his heart. He thought white people were doing the right thing taking over other nations and converting them to Christianity and such because they were spreading civilization and reason to people who needed it. Native people in these stories (especially in the Second Jungle Book) are portrayed as superstitious, ignorant savages. Ah, but the English--the English have laws and procedures and would never kill innocent people without evidence like the primitive, backwards Indians!


Compare that to...

The Jungle Book (1967)

Still the most famous adaptation of Kipling's tales of Mowgli, and the least faithful to the source material.

In the jungle, Bagheera happens upon a baby whose parents were probably killed in a boating accident. Charmed by the baby's laughter, he takes the child to a mother wolf, who accepts it as one of her own.

Ten years later there is talk of Shere Khan coming to this region. The tiger fears man, and he will kill Mowgli before he becomes a threat. The pack agrees to send Mowgli away before the tiger destroys the entire pack to get to him. Bagheera volunteers to take Mowgli to a village some distance away.

Up in a tree, Mowgli meets Kaa, a python. The snake hypnotizes Mowgli, the boy falls into a trance and Kaa is just about to swallow him whole but Bagheera interrupts.

They're woken up by a herd of marching elephants. Mowgli is curious, and tries to join their ranks. Bagheera pulls him away, but Mowgli doesn't want to leave the jungle and refuses to go. The panther becomes fed up with the boy and leaves him. That's when he meets Baloo, the lazy grey bear of the jungle, who promises to tech Mowgli everything he knows so he can stay in the jungle.

After teaching Mowgli the only thing he needs to know is how to be lazy and let the good things in life come to him, the boy is abducted by the monkeys, led by King Louie. They want Mowgli to help them become real men by teaching them how to make fire. Baloo and Bagheera team up to break Mowgli out.

Bagheera tells Baloo why he has to leave the jungle, and when Baloo tries to tell Mowgli his life is in danger, Mowgli runs off on his own. He's almost eaten by Kaa the snake again, then he meets a vulture quartet and faces the tiger directly. Lighting sets a branch on fire, and Mowgli uses the fire to scare Shere Khan away. And after all that, Mowgli ends up leaving the jungle and joining a human village anyway.

All right... for one, Mowgli is very, very white. In the book, Mowgli is Indian. Well, the film was made for American audiences after all. You know us; we won't accept anything that isn't like us, so fine, he's white in this version.

The story is a bunch of different elements from many of the short stories cobbled together into one narrative. Gone are the undertones of political satire among the wolves. Shere Khan is built up as this approaching storm, not a neighbor stalking Mowgli his whole life. I suppose political subversion among wolves would have been too much to ask kids to swallow.

Baloo is no longer a friend of the pack, teaching wolf cubs everything about the Law of the Jungle, but rather the jungle's resident loafer.

The patrolling elephants are based on Hathi and his family, who are introduced in the Jungle Book but aren't shown until The Second Jungle Book. Hathi is the Master of the Jungle, sort of the elder who knows everything and all animals respect. They follow the Law of the Jungle because of him. In the movie, he just marches, and his "authority" is played up for laughs. He thinks he's in charge and keeping order, but he's the laughingstock of the jungle and adds nothing to the movie except to pad out the runtime.

Bagheera's character is actually the most true to the original. He acts like Mowgli's second father in both versions. The movie doesn't go into his backstory though, which is that he was born and raised in captivity, so he has some sympathy for them and that's why he took pity on Mowgli as a baby.

In the story "Kaa's Hunting" (and a couple stories in The Second Jungle Book as well) Bagheera and Baloo know each other and have a camaraderie. They continually insult each other, jab each other, but they still share mutual respect. The movie keeps this relation in tact. It's fairly faithful to the original, except that Baloo in the short stories is not a lazy loafer, but the old wise teacher. Baloo in the movie is a lazyass with a good heart. Bagheera and Baloo respect one another in the original stories, unlike in the movie.

The biggest change is Kaa. Kaa is not a villain in the original stories. He's a benevolent character who helps Mowgli. I always wondered where his ability to hypnotize his victims came from. It puzzled me as a kid; even back then I knew snakes don't hypnotize anybody, so where's this coming from? Turns out it's in the story. The monkeys fear Kaa because he does have the ability to hypnotize other animals into basically walking straight into his mouth. It's a Hunger Dance, not really an eye thing. It even affects Baloo and Bagheera, but Mowgli is immune to it because he is human.

I actually like Kaa more as an ally than a bad guy. He's a gentleman, but he's dangerous, and you're glad he's on your side.

Shere Khan is still the biggest threat of the movie, but in the book he has a bad leg and can't hunt anything but weak cattle and men. Disney left that out to preserve him as a serious threat. It works very well. The movie makes him into a real badass, unlike the book, where he's this conniving, slithering infiltrator of the wolf pack gradually working to turn the pack against Mowgli so he can have his prey. In the movie, his very presence is intimidating. The original story's version is much more complex and I like that, too.

The ruined city inhabited by monkeys, the burning tree branch, Baloo as the teacher... All these elements are in the movie, but rearranged and softened for kids to fit this simpler narrative. Even the vultures are in there... singing "That's What Friends Are For" in four-part disharmony. Ugh... I can tell these guys really tried, but they sound terrible and they have no harmony as a group. The filmmakers definitely wanted the Beatles. The song might have been good with them.

The stories of Mowgli are gritty and adult and laced with social commentary. I think Disney's studio chose it for adaptation because it had a boy, and a lot of talking animals, therefore it was perfect for the kids! It's a bit slow, it's padded, but it works fine by itself and it's much easier to follow than the disjointed narrative in Kipling's short stories.

Taking Mowgli out of the jungle to save his life is nice and simple, and the movie takes the best moments from the stories and adapts them for this storyline. Mowgli's time with the monkeys is the only event to make it directly into the movie, and it deserves to be because it's one of the most memorable. But what makes it memorable is the description of their society. Without that, they're just monkeys. No depth at all.

It leaves me with mixed feelings because there's nothing truly wrong with the movie. It was one of my favorites when I was younger but now that I'm an adult I like the sophisticated Law of the Jungle more than the simplified bear necessities.


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