Page to Screen is a monthly column in which Matt Melis explores how either a classic or contemporary work of literature made the sometimes triumphant, often disastrous leap from prose to film. This time, he sets off by elephant for the jungles of India to encounter a man-cub, wolf pack, and singing, dancing bear. He’s gone, man, solid gone.
Disney doesn’t adapt literature – they redefine it. The cultural impact of the Mouse’s animated canon alone on the reshaping of age-old stories across several generations is remarkable. For instance, a hunch tells me that even a global polling of bell-ringers would only count a handful who have actually read Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, but any child of the ‘90s who grew up on Disney clamshells will have quite a bit to tell you about Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and their talking gargoyle friends: Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. Since Snow White first whistled while she worked back in 1937, Disney has been animating the de facto definitive versions of classic literature (Alice in Wonderland), history (Pocahontas), mythology (Hercules), and more fairy tales than you can wave a magic wand at. It’s really no surprise then that what most of us know about Rudyard Kipling’s famed man-cub comes not from the author’s “Mowgli stories” but via the Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks’ new, live-action reboot only sees Disney further supplant Kipling as keeper of The Jungle Book by creating a darker, more dangerous version of the studio’s 1967 animated classic. Every element intensifies here for a modern audience: Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has become an even more diabolical villain (flinging pack leader Akela from a cliff on a wicked whim); Baloo has gone from the jungle’s hippy Tom Sawyer to a veritable Venkman-like conman (Bill Murray) before revealing his better bear colors; Kaa the python transforms from a Winnie the Pooh-voiced hypnotist to a husky-voiced seductress (Scarlett Johansson); and King Louie (Christopher Walken) now shares more in common with a cowbelling King Kong than trumpeter Louie Prima’s original orange orangutan. It’s no surprise, though, that Disney opted to revisit their own beloved property as source material for this project (see: 1994’s live-action debacle), but it also signals a further departure from Kipling’s classic. After all, in those stories, Shere Khan presents a far less menacing nemesis; Baloo serves as a doddering teacher of jungle law (not a nonconformist); Kaa actually acts as Mowgli’s friend and ally; and King Louie doesn’t appear at all. At this point, Kipling’s original stories and characters are source material in a fairly loose sense.
The Jungle Book was never going to be a smooth adaptation. The two volumes of short stories that comprise the cycle only feature Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, in eight of the fifteen tales, and Kipling tells Mowgli’s story from infancy to sophistication in nonlinear fashion, skipping years at a time and teasing readers with comments on all the adventures that he has not been able to accommodate in these pages. The two noteworthy previous live-action adaptations (the 1942 Korda brothers film and Disney’s own 1994 attempt) more faithfully mixed and matched from Kipling’s text, both to disappointing results. The latter — in addition to featuring John Cleese riding an elephant — tried to tame the text with a clunky love story that even the Monkey-People would find painfully silly.
The darkness in many of the Mowgli stories also makes it a difficult adaptation, especially when children are the target audience. Frightening Shere Khan with fire is one thing, but do families of moviegoers really want to see him skinned? And it’s significantly more fun to sing along instep with “Colonel Hathi’s March” than to sit through the torment Mowgli suffers when expelled from the man-village and hunted — all before he “lets in the jungle” and convinces Hathi and his pachyderm progeny to lay waste to the offending village. While all are critical moments in Mowgli’s journey towards adulthood, it’s not difficult to see why Walt Disney himself instructed the Sherman Brothers not to read Kipling’s stories before scoring the ’67 children’s film.
The other major adaptation challenge is that the animals in Kipling’s The Jungle Book actually talk. In the stories, Mowgli must learn all of their languages — from the howling of his pack brethren to the hissing safe-passage words of snakes — in order to survive in the wild. For years, a Disney animated film was the only viable option for creating a sense of anthropomorphic “realism” that didn’t fall into either corny Dr. Doolittle or cringeworthy Look Who’s Talking Now territory. In the 1942 Korda brothers film, it seemed technical achievement enough just to have the actors and animals appear to be in the same time zone together, and Disney’s ’94 live-action attempt avoided the dialogue dilemma all together by simply excising all conversation between Mowgli and his friends. Finally, Favreau’s film, in a good case for CGI technology, allows Jungle Book lovers to see Mowgli maneuver through the jungle and share believable conversations with a speaking Bagheera and Baloo as we always imagined while reading the stories as children.
While those who love Kipling’s stories may lament that we’ve yet to see them faithfully come to life onscreen in a way that does them justice, Disney must still get credit for capturing the basic spirit of the tales. The last Mowgli story (“The Spring Running”), which sees the 17-year-old boy finally leave the jungle, remains ones of the most poignant and insightful coming-of-age stories in literature. As the rest of his companions celebrate the arrival of spring, Mowgli, for the first time ever, feels dissatisfied with jungle life. It’s not the jungle that casts him out but rather that Mowgli has outgrown the jungle. His inevitable farewell is tinged with sadness, as we see him say goodbye to Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa, Gray Brother, and a wilderness that has been far more civilized and square with him than the world of man. In the ’67 film, it’s a silly bit of puppy love that tugs the man-cub away from his jungle brethren, but Baloo and Bagheera perfectly personify the bittersweetness of growing up as the former roots for him to come back and the latter to go on. And in Favreau’s film, though Mowgli has yet to leave the jungle, we still feel all the friendly and familial bonds that enrich Kipling’s stories and will one day make Mowgli’s inevitable decision equally poignant and true to life.
Andy Serkis (Gollum himself) is slated to helm a Warner Bros. live-action version of The Jungle Book for 2018. He has already promised that his take will be “far darker” — and presumably closer to Kipling’s stories — than the Disney reboot. But one wonders if audiences will want or even recognize that story, especially after Favreau’s film has been so warmly embraced. As odd as it initially felt to hear a voice as recognizable as Bill Murray’s breathing life into Baloo, I have to credit the film for providing a genuinely touching moment that nearly had me tearing up. I couldn’t help but smile and hum along as Mowgli, shaggy hair and orange loin cloth, sat atop Baloo’s belly while the bear backstroked down the river singing “Bare Necessities”. I thought to myself, that’s what that should look like.
Again, Disney … redefining.