Book to Film: The Jungle Book

Posted April 17, 2020 by Amber in Bookish Things / 0 Comments

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I don’t know if I’ve mentioned before, but these page-to-screen posts are my favorite to write.  I get to revisit stories I’ve enjoyed in a different format, and there’s that rollercoaster of emotion that every reader gets watching an adaptation, reader to squee at the correct interpretations and groan at the incorrect ones.  You guys know what I’m talking about, right?

Like many classics, The Jungle Book has been adapted multiple times.  While I may go back and review other versions in the future, I wanted to focus Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale of the man cub in the jungle and his adventures.

It’s interesting, because Disney’s adaptation hits lot of the points in Kipling’s early stories, but in a different order and with slight alterations.  For example, Mowgli’s adventures as they appear in this adaptation introduce Shere Khan when Mowgli is ten years old, whereas in the book he has been a threat to the child since birth.  In this way, Mowgli’s character is changed from the way the story was originally written.  Neither are bad, in particular.  Mowgli in the book is a lot more stubborn, brave, and petulant… but in this film, he’s more likable, which has its own merits.

One of the most pointed differences, to me, is Kaa’s character.  In the book, Kaa is a dangerous character, but he’s a friend.  In this version of The Jungle Book, Kaa is a minor enemy.  He’s not as frightening as Shere Khan, but he’s still a danger.  I actually enjoyed Kaa as a friend in the book, and he opened the door to more adventures for Mowgli, so while the change works fine to add an extra level of danger in the film… it’s not quite as fulfilling as his role in book.

Another major difference is “The Elephant March”, and the elephants in general.  I think may be a nod to another one of the stories in The Jungle Book, one of the ones that didn’t include Mowgli.  I’m not really sure what the motivation was for including the elephants otherwise, as they don’t add much to Mowgli’s story in the film.  While not every poem and story in The Jungle Book is related to Mowgli, Kipling provided enough content for Mowgli that additional scenes weren’t necessary.

Another slightly shifted role is Baloo’s.  Voiced by the incomparable Phil Harris, who also brought Thomas O’Malley in The Aristocats to life, Baloo in the film is a lazy, laid-back character who Mowgli meets after parting ways with Bagheera (for a while).  If for no other reason, Baloo’s demotion seems to be to create some comic relief in the film.  He’s a memorable, lovable character even 50+ years later, but in The Jungle Book, Baloo was a respected old bear.  All the wolves would send their cubs to Baloo for teaching and training of the Jungle Law.  While Baloo tries to teach Mowgli a little in “The Bare Necessities”, it doesn’t have the same level of respect as the wise old teacher.

Finally, while you do get to meet the bandar-log in The Jungle Book, the monkeys are not nearly as prominent in the book as they are in this adaption.  In fact, the monkeys and he rest of the jungle animals generally keep separate.  The animosity between the orangutans and the other jungle creatures makes it into this film, but they are certainly more involved than in the book.  There’s definitely no King Louie and no “I Wanna Be Like You” in the book.  This section of the film, pulled from the story “Kaa’s Hunting” is another place where the use of the serpent as a friend instead of an emend would have been worthwhile.

Worth noting – orangutans like King Louie aren’t even native to Seeonee jungle in India, so this was pure invention on Disney’s part.

Disney takes no political stance in this film.  While there’s a decent helping of colonialism in the book and there’s a shining opportunity to discuss the way humans destroy the environment in a story so rich with he beauty of nature… Disney did what Disney does with this content.  They created a sweet family film with catchy tunes, a two-dimensional villain, and many memorable characters.  It’s a simplified story of found family and belonging and adventure.  It’s still an enjoyable film to watch.

I would say that Disney’s reliance on the original text of The Jungle Book is referential at best.  It’s rather like watching a movie that reminds you of a book you once read, and nods enthusiastically to it from time to time.  There’s a lot pulled from the book, but it’s sort of pulled in its own way and applied in its own time.  There’s bits and pieces from maybe three different stories here, and while there was a lot more available content, I think that what Disney did with the film worked well.  Ultimately, they were challenged with a set of short stories and they pulled together characters, themes, and plots from a few and wove them together in a journey story.  There are pitfalls and surprises and dangers.  It’s also a short film, and I think the 78 minute timestamp is just right – any longer, and the film would have dragged.

It’s word-for-word true to the book, but the general sprit Rudyard Kipling wrote into the book is still very present.  In general, The Jungle Book has been a bit of a pleasant surprise for me this year.  It was really nice to revisit this old film form my childhood.

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Which adaptation of The Jungle Book is your favorite?  I admit – I’ve resisted the “live action” but I’ve heard it’s very good!  Is there another version you really enjoy?  Let me know in the comments!

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