By Veronica Barnsley, Lecturer in Contemporary Literature, University of Sheffield
In the Jungle Books (1894-5), written at the height of Kipling’s inventive energies when he had just become a father, the jungle itself (based on the Seonee forest in northern India) is both tantalising and threatening, liable to entrap incomers while whispering ancient wisdoms. Some of this sense of menace comes across in Jon Favreau’s new adaptation as the young Mowgli (Neel Sethi), while comfortable with his wolf’s howl, nevertheless struggles to read the jungle’s contradictory signals, particularly in falling prey to the silky voice of Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) who does not turn out to be a friend as he does in the book.
The fluctuating lights and sounds of Favreau’s atmospheric jungle communicate something of the multiplicity of tongues and species in Kipling’s text, which are alienating as much as inclusive and require a resilient hero to navigate them. In the story ‘Red Dog’ that is not drawn on for the film but vital to the book it is the mastery of jungle languages in combination with his steady human stare and his skill with a knife that enable Mowgli to defeat Shere Khan and survive. Clearly the emphasis for Kipling was on the capability of the imperialist, an element of the book which Favreau presumably wanted to keep in check. So what does his take on Kipling’s wild idyll do differently for a contemporary audience?
Favreau’s version certainly doesn’t allow the Bear Grylls side of the man-cub to get the upper hand, a change effected partly by allowing Mowgli’s wolf mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), a more complex role. However, it does give the cacophony of Kipling’s jungle a rawer edge than the 1967 Disney film, rendering animal sounds as eerie as much as charming and reintroducing the collective submission of the animals to ‘The Law of the Jungle’:
‘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.’
Favreau’s Baloo (Ben Kingsley) dismisses this pledge that takes pride of place in the book as ‘propaganda’ and yet he also bows to its power when Mowgli unites his ‘brothers’ in defeating the tiger. In this sense, the film is faithful to Kipling’s jungle as the source of unstable allegories. For the writer christened the ‘bard of empire’ these were primarily metaphors of schooling, hierarchical (military) social organisation and colonial enterprise that were often contradictory. The film, with Disney’s original as its other antecedent, does not of course concede to the kind of coercion that Kingsley Amis called Kipling’s ‘paraded wisdom’: the imposition of Laws that, while non-negotiable, are complex and by no means obvious to the initiate. Nevertheless, where it is undeniably with Kipling is in upholding arguably the most important of those laws: respect for the jungle itself.
Favreau’s vital yet subtle use of special effects acknowledges the jungle’s strange power that was neutralised in the 1967 film in which Mowgli leaves the only home he has known in order to grow up. By keeping Mowgli in the jungle, even though it does violate its hierarchies in a cheap imperial metaphor by having him ride on an elephant (the wisest and most worshipped of beasts in Kipling’s text), Favreau’s film carries a ‘post-Disney’ ecological message and one that could be read as uncompromising and urgent on its own terms.
Kipling’s story ‘In the Rukh’ in which Mowgli joins civilisation and marries was first published in 1893, a year before the much-loved jungle stories, and he later agonised over whether it should be included in editions of The Jungle Books. The story’s undoing of the spell of the jungle as a utopic but also tough space of learning has bothered critics ever since, particularly as ‘The Spring Running’, the last of the ‘Mowgli tales’, deals with goodbyes amongst old friends who are still very much within the jungle’s realm. Favneau’s film restores the boundaries that encase the Jungle, allowing viewers to contemplate not Mowgli’s own development but the intricate ecological and creaturely networks in which he plays and learns. The narrative ends with Mowgli up a tree in a kind of three wise men configuration with Baloo and Bagheera: a brotherhood that will not be broken anytime soon.
Knowledge of the ways and sounds of the Jungle is combined cleverly with Mowgli’s own ‘tricks’ in the film as it exhibits impressively rich CGI beasts while allowing a sniff of nostalgia for the original movie and its globally popular anime spin-off, Shonen Mowgli. Favreau rejects the book’s stony-faced moralism on behaviour but retains a recognition that law-making is about control, not only of humans but also by humans of non-human animals. His ‘man-village’ is shadowy and sinister, with no sense that it will offer Mowgli a welcome (this is also faithful to the book in which, on his first return to his human ‘mother’, Mowgli is rejected as a demon and cast out by the village). In contrast to its peripheral humans, the film’s deliberate investment in lifelike panthers, bears and wolves and their habitat reminds us that they and their jungle, and with them the man-cub they have protected, are under threat from the environmental laws that we make and break. Favreau’s move away from the cuddly creatures of Disney’s first iteration would seem therefore to be not only for novelty and to take part in a trend for ‘live’ animals on screen; it is also a gesture towards taking seriously the ecological destruction of their habitat and diverting our interest, if only momentarily, from the fate of the human to that of the beasts whose ways, unless we are careful, will become as foreign to us as they first appear to the infant Mowgli.