Art of the Adaptation: The Jungle Book

By July 20, 2016Main

About halfway through the latest version of The Jungle Book — written by Justin Marks and directed by Jon Favreau — Mowgli, the man-cub raised by wolves, bows in reverence to a distressed group of elephants around a ditch. Once he sees the cause of their alarm, he grabs a rope he’s made from vines—a human “trick” of invention that his wolf family frowns upon—and clambers out of sight.

Soon, he’s used the elephants’ strength and his rope to rescue a stuck elephant calf—something neither of them could do alone. It’s a magnificent moment that illustrates a theme in the film: Mowgli is special, so don’t force him to fit in the jungle world or the human world. Just let him be what he is.

From a writing standpoint, this moment also carries lessons for adaptation. What works for a story in one medium or era might not work in another. So don’t be so set upon one path that you can’t see what makes your story special.

Let’s take a deep dive into this mix of CGI and live action that Entertainment Weekly just named as one of the ten best films so far of 2016 to examine the changes from the 1967 animated film that work.  (Naturally, spoilers abound.)

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories, both films weave a story around a young boy raised by wolves who journeys to the man-village for safety after Shere Kahn, the tiger, targets him.

In the animated film, Mowgli washes ashore in a basket, where Bagheera the panther (voiced by Sebastian Cabot) finds him and takes him to be raised by wolves. He later volunteers to take Mowgli to a village, despite Mowgli’s protests, once Shere Kahn enters the story. The tiger hates all humans because they grow to be hunters, but the overall danger is vague. Mowgli balks at leaving the jungle, but the tone stays light because of the Oscar-nominated music (“The Bear Necessities”) and animated touches, like the color-changing, hypnotic eyes of the hungry python Kaa.

This latest version clearly defines the stakes. It gives Mowgli more agency as a protagonist and Shere Kahn a stronger motive to destroy him.

The film’s opening scene shows Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) at play with his wolf-cub siblings, racing away from Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who pretends to hunt them. Mowgli’s instincts urge him to climb a tree to escape, but that’s not the wolf way, and Bagheera catches him once the tree branch snaps. The boy didn’t know the tree he’d chosen was dead.

The first act continues to set up how Mowgli is not quite part of his pack. He walks on two legs, for starters. He likes to make things, such as a drinking cup vine so he can scoop water from the river instead of crouching to sip from the edge. His parents gently scold him for not acting like a wolf, and he feels dejected.

Shere Kahn (voiced by Idris Elba) arrives during the “water truce” of the drought that allows predators and prey to drink from the remaining water—and announces his hatred of man and grudge against Mowgli in particular. While traveling years earlier, the boy’s father defended them against Shere Kahn’s attack by striking the tiger with a torch, scarring its face and blinding it in one eye. The traveler died, leaving the child to toddle into the jungle, where he met a curious Bagheera.

“Mowgli… they've given it a name! When was it we came to adopt man to this jungle?” the tiger sneers. “Does my face not remind you of what a grown man can do?”

Shere Kahn threatens the wolf pack if they don’t hand Mowgli over to him. This isn’t a simple matter; Mowgli’s wolf mother, Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), especially doesn’t want him to leave. Yet Mowgli volunteers to go to the village, where Bagheera suggests he’ll be safe, saying he doesn’t want anyone to be hurt because of him.

Along the way, the story lays the groundwork for that midpoint scene with the elephants and another at the story’s end. The troop appears almost silently from the trees, and Bagheera urges Mowgli to bow as if before royalty. The elephants created the jungle; their tracks made the paths through the trees and dictated where the rivers flow. They deserve respect, the panther says.

Mowgli and Bagheera are separated for a bit, and Mowgli meets Baloo, a sloth bear voiced by Bill Murray. Baloo first sees the child’s inventiveness as a way to help him gather more honey and encourages Mowgli’s problem-solving skills.

Yet once Mowgli helps the baby elephant to safety—bowing as he approaches them, as Bagheera taught him—the bear urges Bagheera to let Mowgli follow his own nature, not go to the village where “they’ll make a man out of him.”

The third act differs the most from the animated version, with payoffs to the set-ups established earlier. In the animated film, Mowgli resists heading to the village right until the moment he hears a little girl singing as she gathers water. He goes to help her as she bats her eyes and follows her willfully through the village gate.

In this new version, the mutual love between Mowgli and the jungle community saves all of them. Mowgli approaches the village long enough to take a burning torch to keep Shere Kahn at bay, inadvertently setting part of the jungle on fire with embers. The animals are frightened, but just as Shere Kahn seems on the verge of swaying them against this human, Baloo, Bagheera and Raksha quote what’s called the law of the jungle, something the wolf cubs repeat daily: “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

Fight him like a man, Bagheera encourages, and Mowgli taunts Shere Kahn into following him up a dead tree, just like the hunting game. This time, Mowgli counts on a branch to break—and it does, sending Shere Kahn to his death.

Then the elephants arrive. They’ve come to repay Mowgli for his help earlier and use their trunks to nudge logs and other debris into the river, routing the water to extinguish the flames.

By the film’s end, Mowgli is back with the pack, only this time beating the cubs at their game by being himself. He rests up in a tree with friends Bagheera and Baloo, comfortable in his uniqueness.

The rare moment that doesn’t work comes when this film tries to be faithful to the animated version with instances that feel forced. The giant simian King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken), for instance, who wants Mowgli to live with his pack and spill how to make fire, loses his selfish menace once he sings “I Wanna Be Like You.” Save it for the closing credits.

Whenever the film stays true to Mowgli, his dilemma, and his growth, it comes out a winner. So reduce your adaptation to the bare necessities—and allow the story to go where it wants. Audiences just might be delighted.