Comparing Disney films with their original stories.
Disney’s The Jungle Book is inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Jungle Books – specifically, the stories of Mowgli, a young boy raised by animals who must one day return to the man village. For anyone unfamiliar with the non-cake-related Mr. Kipling, he was considered to be one of England’s finest writers and poets during the 19th and early 20th Century, and had strong connections to India, since he was both born there and worked there periodically.
He wrote eight stories about the aforementioned “man-cub” in his novel- Mowgli’s Brothers, Kaa’s Hunting, Tiger! Tiger! How Fear Came, Letting in the Jungle, The King’s Ankus, Red Dog and The Spring Running – and Disney pinched elements of each when putting their own story together. Given that relations between England and India had moved on somewhat since the book was written in 1894-5 (the film was released in 1967), you would expect Disney to have made some tweaks to make things more politically correct or family friendly. This is indeed the case, but the two versions differ in so many respects it’s not really possible to compare the different chapters side by side. Instead, I will compare the common events and characters in the film with those in the book, so forgive me if this post ends up Tarantino-esque – i.e. if the story is ordered arse-about-face (don’t worry, no guns this time!).
Mowgli was found abandoned as a baby, and was raised in the jungle by wolves. Like most smart-alecky ten year-olds, he gives as good as he gets from the other animals, and is pretty much fearless, even when faced with man-eating tigers and snakes. The only time he shows real fear is when the “man village” is mentioned, as he has no desire to leave the jungle where he grew up. He is an endless source of amusement for the other animals, due to his gangly form and his failure to do much of anything to survive in the jungle.
He is also an endless source of exasperation for Bagheera, the panther, Mowgli’s friend and self-appointed guardian, who has taken it upon himself to take the man-cub back to where he belongs. Bagheera is wise but also short on patience it seems, although he doesn’t unleash his claws or use his panther-power much at all. He serves as the voice of reason in the jungle, and even when he loses patience with Mowgli and walks away, he returns the instant that something seems amiss.
Mowgli’s best friend is Baloo the bear, who is also naively confident about survival in the wild. Baloo spends his days eating bugs, fruit and scratching himself with trees and rocks, and taking life at a slow pace while being a slave to the beat. Despite his size, Baloo is rather useless at protecting himself or Mowgli, and ends up running to Bagheera for counsel. Although his heart’s in the right place, he’s basically a ten year-old child in the form of an adult bear.
King Louie is an orangutan who apparently wandered out of Borneo and proclaimed himself “king of the swingers” in India. He wants to become a human, and rather than learning to talk or wearing clothes, he naturally thinks that fire is the answer. He therefore turns to (or rather “captures”) Mowgli to learn this secret.
Another character intent on capturing Mowgli is Kaa, the python, but the only secret he seeks is the key to a full stomach. He has the creepy habit of hypnotising his victims before devouring them alive (at least he puts them to sleep first I suppose), and has thus become nightmare fuel for generations of children (myself included), especially since he has the same voice actor as the cute and cuddly Winnie the Pooh.
Finally, we have Shere Khan, the main antagonist of the film. A man-eating tiger, he seeks to kill Mowgli while he’s young and helpless, rather than later in life when he is an adult armed with a gun. Given that Shere Khan is an endangered species, you can’t really blame him for being retroactive, but everyone is afraid of him, and he will not stop in his quest until he has killed the man-cub. He is only spoken about for the first half of the film, so by the time he appears on screen, there is a suitable aura of fear and badassery surrounding him.
Other than the fact his name is pronounced “Mow”-(as in “now”)-gli, one of the first things you’ll notice is that Kipling’s protagonist is stark-bollock-naked throughout the book, and expresses disdain at having to wear a loin cloth when he goes to the man village. He is as fearless as Disney’s Mowgli (if not more), and is actually very cunning and fits seamlessly into the jungle environment. His gangly figure earns him the name of “Mowgli the Frog”, but despite this he can hunt, track and kill just as well as the other predators. His only limitation is that his sense of smell is not quite as good as his companions’, but other than this, he bests many of them in strength and intelligence.
Bagheera is still Mowgli’s wise companion, but their relationship is much more equal, and he arguably has more balls and a background in this version. He was born in a cage in the king’s palace at Oodeypore, and still has the mark of the human collar he wore. He managed to escape thanks to a broken lock, but he has kept this secret from all but Mowgli. He is known as a formidable hunter, and is actually even more feared than Shere Khan. Sadly, he’s not the only character Disney did a number on.
Far from being nightmare fuel, Kaa the rock python is one of Mowgli’s wisest and most helpful companions, and he saves his life on more than one occasion. He doesn’t have any psychedelic eyeball-thing going on, but he does have a strange dance he uses to stun his prey, namely the chattering monkeys.
There is no King Louie in this version, but there is a community of monkeys known as the bandar-log, who have no leader and act like a collection of children with ADHD. They live in ruins known as the Cold Lairs, and they capture Mowgli because they also seek his extensive human knowledge.
Instead of teaching Mowgli fun things like the bare necessities of eating and sleeping, Baloo in the book teaches Mowgli about the Laws of the Jungle, and frequently smacks him upside the head if he gets anything wrong. This happens so frequently that even Bagheera has to step in and ask him to tone down the pastoral violence. Despite this, Baloo is just as devoted to Mowgli’s safety as he is in the film, and helps rescue him from the monkeys.
The wolf pack has a much stronger role in the book than in the film, as several of the members remain with Mowgli throughout his life in the jungle. Apart from Mother Wolf and Father Wolf, there is Akela, the pack leader, and Gray Brother, his, er, brother, who are also there to offer advice and to see him safely on his way.
Last but not least, we have Shere Khan.
Surprisingly, the tiger toes the line between threatening and pitiful. He is lame in one foot, which is why he attacks cattle and humans instead of the more sprightly deer, and on more than one occasion is a victim of his own clumsiness. Nevertheless, he lays claim to Mowgli as he was the tiger’s original target during an ambush. He is a constant shadow throughout the first half of the book, even going so far as to manipulate some of the younger wolves in the pack in the hope of their casting Mowgli out. However, it turns out he is not the most threatening enemy Mowgli has to face in his adventures.
It seems that Disney took away most of the characters’ testosterone from the original book and gave it all to Shere Khan, so that there is a clear and threatening villain and a clear good vs. evil storyline. They also emphasise Mowgli’s awkwardness and how he doesn’t seem to fit in with the other animals, to hammer home the need for him to return to the man village. There does not appear to be such a need in the book, as Mowgli is clearly at home and capable of living in the jungle by himself. This brings us to how Mowgli ended up in this situation to begin with.
One morning, Bagheera the panther finds a baby lying in a smashed up boat along the river. Rather than grabbing an easy breakfast, he decides he should give it to someone to take care of. Fortunately, he knows a family of wolves who have recently had cubs, and thinks they would love to have an extra mouth to feed. He carries the baby basket to their lair and leaves it outside for the mother and father to find. There is barely any discussion involved as both parents are still enamoured by babies, no matter what the species, and so they readily accept Mowgli into their pack.
Bagheera keeps a watchful eye over Mowgli as he grows up, and ten years later, he realises the time will come when he will have to go back to the man village – which begs the question why he didn’t take the baby there in the first place. This turns into a reality after a meeting of the wolves at Council Rock, where it’s established that Shere Khan, the tiger, has returned to this part of the jungle, and has a hankering for human blood. The wolves decide that they are no match for a tiger, and that the best thing to do is take Mowgli from his family and everything he knows and dump him in the man village where he’ll be safe. Bagheera volunteers to take him, as he and Mowgli often went on walks together, and so the next night the panther sets off with him. This is the last we see of the wolf pack in the film.
The book opens with Mother and Father Wolf snoozing, and being interrupted by such things as the sound of Shere Khan burning his feet on a camp fire. A human toddler suddenly appears in the grasses in front of their lair, completely unafraid and apparently amused by Father Wolf’s face. Mother Wolf allows him into the lair to feed from her, and it’s at this point that Shere Khan comes crashing after and tries to grab the child. The wolves lay claim to Mowgli, and Mother Wolf threatens the tiger and says that one day Mowgli will slay him as he tried to slay the boy’s parents. Shere Khan sneers and says that the other wolves would never accept a human child into the pack.
When Mother and Father Wolf present their children, foundling included, to the rest of the pack, there is a bit of an issue as predicted. According to the Law, if there is question as to a cub being accepted into the pack, two non-related animals must vouch for it. Baloo the bear steps in and says he will teach the child the Laws of the Jungle, and Bagheera the panther says he will vouch for him too, and gives the pack a payment of a freshly killed bull in exchange for allowing Mowgli to stay. This sways the pack in his favour, and the oblivious toddler is accepted as a wolf, despite the complaints of a handful of younger wolves and Shere Khan himself, who has been prowling nearby. Akela the pack leader says this is a final decision, and agrees that Mowgli will be useful to them in future.
Disney’s version therefore sees Mowgli raised by wolves from a baby, so the jungle really is all he knows. In Kipling’s version, he is an older toddler whose parents are chased off by Shere Khan, so there is a part of him that is aware of his human heritage. Also, the wolf pack are unmoved by Shere Khan’s presence or threats, and are able to protect the boy effectively. The film sees Mowgli’s destiny as rejoining the man village as a result of this threat, whereas the novel points more towards his destiny of killing Shere Khan the tiger.
Disney’s Mowgli encounters Kaa on two occasions. The first time is his first night away from the wolf pack with Bagheera. The panther ingeniously picked the one tree where Kaa was resting, and the python stuns and prepares to eat Mowgli. Fortunately, Bagheera wakes up in time to give him a wallop, but then pays the price by being hypnotised himself. By this point Mowgli has recovered himself and kicks Kaa’s coils off the end of the branch, making him flop to the ground. Bagheera is revived by a smack around the chops, and he then reminds Mowgli how he couldn’t possibly survive in the jungle alone.
On the second occasion, Mowgli is grabbed by Kaa when he runs away from Baloo and Bagheera on their second attempt to take him back to the man village. Kaa puts him to sleep again, promising the only thing Mowgli is likely to leave is his digestive tract, but is interrupted by Shere Khan. While the tiger interrogates him, he is too intimidated to keep an eye on Mowgli, who wakes up and kicks him off the branch again. Kaa decides he wants nothing more to do with the man-cub and is last seen slithering off into the distance with yet another knot in his tail.
One night, he and Mowgli are relaxing and cavorting in a rock pool, when Kaa says he has a great secret to tell him. It turns out that somewhere in the Cold Lairs, there is a white cobra that is guarding some buried treasure. He and Mowgli venture over there, and find several kings’ ransoms in gold, silver, rubies and jewellery, stacked up over the years. The white cobra then reveals that in exchange for showing him the treasure, he must now take Mowgli’s life, so that no other being knows where the goods are hidden.
Kaa is outraged that this was the cobra’s intention from the beginning and threatens to attack him. Mowgli reassures Kaa that he is able to take on the cobra himself and does so, but the python remains aggressive towards the other snake and apologetic to the man-cub for putting him in this situation.
Perhaps the biggest role Kaa plays is when a pack of Indian hunting dogs known as dholes (rather than a-holes) threatens the wolf pack. The pack is unmatchable in strength – even Shere Khan retreated from them – and Mowgli is trying to think of ways to get rid of them. Kaa carries Mowgli along the river and shows him a ravine where the Little People live. Said Little People are vicious bees which sting to death any intruders, so while Mowgli leads the dholes here, Kaa protects him by holding him underwater where they can’t sting him (he does let him up to breathe every so often though) and prevents the current from carrying him away.
Disney’s Kaa is equal parts devious and cowardly, as he is unable to stand up to Shere Khan. He also provides a couple of laughs due to his impractical form and is pretty much helpless on the ground. Kipling’s Kaa suffers no such indignity, and is not intimidated by or afraid of anyone. He also supports Mowgli in two out of three of the most important challenges he faces in the jungle. The first of which is his abduction by the monkeys.
While Mowgli is chilling with new found friend Baloo, monkeys dive down and snatch him away. Baloo is given a beating of fruit and rocks, and the monkeys carry the man-cub away to King Louie, who lives in the ancient ruins.
As Bagheera and Baloo set off to rescue him, Mowgli is musically greeted and interrogated by King Louie as to the secret of making fire, and in exchange, the orangutan will let him stay in the jungle. Mowgli confesses no such knowledge, but continues to dance and eat bananas with the monkeys until his rescuers arrive. Bagheera decides to sneak up on Mowgli and grab him, but this is somewhat hindered by Baloo’s apparent penchant for dressing up as a female ape and joining in the party.
Said party ends as Baloo’s disguise suddenly falls off, and in the ensuing chaos Bagheera manages to grab Mowgli and get away. King Louie ends up trapped, holding up the collapsing remains of the ruins, and after giving him a severe tickling in his armpits, Baloo follows suit as the bricks and boulders crumble around them.
Instead of chilling with Baloo, Mowgli is nursing his bruises after another beating. The man-cub then reveals that he has been talking with the bandar-log, or Monkey People, as they are the only ones who take pity on him when the bear beats him up. Bagheera and Baloo are angry and shocked at this news, as the lawless monkeys are forbidden to the other Jungle People, and they scold Mowgli for associating with them.
During their afternoon nap, the monkeys come back and kidnap Mowgli, with the intent of one day making him their leader, and whisk him away to their home in the Cold Lairs. Instead of making fire, they want him to teach them how to make huts to shelter from the wind, but like a group of hyperactive children, they quickly get bored of this and decide to keep Mowgli prisoner.
When Bagheera and Baloo hear of this news they’re at a loss at what to do. The monkeys can be a formidable foe due to their superior numbers, so no amount of cross-dressing or singing is going to distract them. They instead seek out Kaa, as he is the only one the monkeys are truly afraid of. The three friends arrive at the Cold Lairs, and there is a vicious life-or-death fight between them and the bandar-log. Kaa manages to free Mowgli using the weight of his twenty-foot body to break down a wall, and he then hypnotises the monkeys using a death dance. Unlike the film, Mowgli is the only one who seems immune to this, and prods Baloo and Bagheera asking them why they are so transfixed by Kaa wiggling about on the ground.
After the fight and once they are all safe and sound, a battered and bruised Bagheera also has a turn at beating up Mowgli, to punish him for getting involved with the monkeys in the first place. Once he has smacked him around sufficiently, they set off for home and say no more about it.
In the film, although Mowgli is initially abducted against his will, he ends up having fun with the monkeys and arguably getting what he wants – a pass to stay in the jungle forever. However, Baloo and Bagheera still come and rescue him in the same way they would if he were found playing with a group of petty thugs or trouble makers. In Kipling’s novel Mowgli is clearly taken and held against his will, and the battle is more brutal than amusing.
The first morning after Mowgli leaves his pack, and a little while later when he has run away again, we encounter Colonel Hathi and his herd of elephants. They call themselves the Jungle Patrol, and march back and forth singing but doing nothing in particular apart from felling trees and unwittingly foiling Shere Khan’s attempts at hunting.
The Colonel is a traditional, pompous and slightly doo-lally military elephant, and as a result doesn’t take too kindly to Mowgli’s attempts at integrating with his herd. However, he is potentially useful later as after some cajoling from his mate, Winifred, and his son, he agrees to help Bagheera find the man-cub and tells his patrol to keep a look out for him.
Hathi is a wise old elephant and the recognised Master of the Jungle. He has three sons who accompany him, and he watches over the Water Truce: during the dry season, he makes sure there isn’t a blood-bath free-for-all at the local watering hole. Even Shere Khan speaks politely to him as he is aware of his status, and he is far from the doddery military figure in Disney’s version.
He doesn’t have a Jungle Patrol, but he does help Mowgli trash an entire man village in revenge. It’s not the first time he has done this either – the previous time, many years ago, he apparently returned from his rampage with blood on his tusks, but the scent of human blood continues to haunt him as a result. This was actually a secret, but Mowgli found out and therefore enlisted his help attacking another village. From this point onwards, Mowgli is more recognised as the Master of the Jungle instead of Hathi.
The elephants in the Disney film feel a bit shoe-horned in, and are just there to give another example of Mowgli trying to fit in with the animals and therefore stay in the jungle. Hathi is a comedic and ridiculous figure here, but in the book he maintains an air of grace and respect, and has great knowledge of the jungle. He also helps Mowgli as soon as he is called upon, and doesn’t need to be persuaded at all.
The second time Mowgli runs away from his guardians, he comes across a group of mangy, completely un-Beatle-like vultures living in a wasteland. As usual, they sing to him and welcome him into their group as an honorary vulture, and, as usual, singing distracts them from approaching danger: Shere Khan has finally tracked down his man-cub.
Mowgli is literally unmoved by this and won’t run from the tiger. This show of spirit impresses Shere Khan, who is very sportsmanlike and decides to give Mowgli a fighting chance by counting to ten before tearing him to shreds. Mowgli grabs a stick to defend himself, but pretty much wets his pants when the tiger finally strikes. Fortunately, Baloo has arrived just in time and grabs the big cat’s tail so he misses, and a fight ensues. The vultures swoop down and whisk Mowgli to safety, but Baloo is not so lucky – as well as a meaty bite on the bum, he gets utterly mauled by the tiger and collapses, dead.
Actually, no, Shere Khan leaves Baloo in a mess and goes for Mowgli, but the vultures mob him. Luckily, lightning strikes at the right time for once and sets fire to one of the dead trees. The vultures tell Mowgli this is the only thing “Old Stripes” is afraid of, and so Mowgli ties a flaming branch to the tiger’s tail. Shere Khan reacts in horror, and dashes off into the horizon, terrified.
The tiger now vanquished, Mowgli rushes to Baloo’s side, but the big bear now seems to be resting in peace. Bagheera gently nudges him away and gives the bear a touching eulogy, during which Baloo comes to, with not a scratch on him despite being mauled by a deadly tiger. Everything is roses again, and now Shere Khan has gone for good, Mowgli is free to stay in the jungle with his Papa Bear.
Kipling’s Mowgli faces Shere Khan not once, but twice. The first time is during an altercation at Council Rock.
Akela has grown old and weaker and one night fails to catch a deer. This means that the pack leadership is now open, and Shere Khan, who has been letting the younger wolves follow him for scraps and teaching them how to snatch children, believes this is his chance to drive Mowgli out of the pack and lay claim to him as his kill. Bagheera sees this coming and tells Mowgli to steal the Red Flower – fire – from the man village to protect himself. Mowgli steals a fire pot, and keeps it alive by feeding it twigs while they wait for the next meeting at Council Rock.
While at the meeting, Akela says that if they make Mowgli return to the man village instead of driving him out and into Shere Khan’s claws, he will not put up a fight when it comes to battle him for leadership. Mowgli then takes a burning branch out of the fire pot, and smacks Shere Khan around the head with it before agreeing to return to the man village of his own accord. He swears that the next time he comes back to Council Rock, he will drape the tiger’s skin across it, and then heads down to the human settlement.
The second and final time he encounters the tiger is a few months later when he is living as a cattle driver in the man village. Gray Brother comes to see him occasionally, together with the aged Akela, and they hatch a plan to get rid of the tiger once and for all. Since Shere Khan is partial to human flesh, he doesn’t stray too far from the village, and one afternoon he is lying up in a narrow ravine near to the farmland.
With the help of the wolves and the herd of buffalo, Mowgli does this:
Unable to climb up the steep walls to escape, Shere Khan is crushed to death by the stampede, and Mowgli then sits and skins him. Akela sits and watches him, and also pins down Buldeo, a man from the village who has a very low opinion of Mowgli, and who stumbled across the scene.
Shere Khan in the film is humiliated in battle by his fear of fire, and although he escapes alive, he will never come back and bother anyone again. In the book, Shere Khan is not so immediate or unstoppable a threat, and you could argue that he was all bark and no bite – it’s Mowgli who instigates the violence towards him, and kills him to fulfill his destiny and get rid of an irritation rather than protect himself. Simply put, in the original novel, Shere Khan is not the all-powerful, terrifying nemesis he is shown to be in the Disney film.
After the fight with Shere Khan, Mowgli, Baloo and Bagheera seem to have wandered unwittingly close to the man village. Mowgli suddenly hears someone singing, and looking over he sees a young girl from the village collecting water in a pot.
Despite Baloo’s warnings about women, Mowgli edges closer for a better look, encouraged by Bagheera. The girl looks up and acknowledges him – somehow missing the black panther and the huge grey bear – and continues singing her song while making suggestive eyes at him (but she’s about ten years old!). She then “accidentally” drops the pot, and so Mowgli hurries up to grab it and fill it with water again.
The girl then entices him toward the village gates. Baloo calls for Mowgli to come back, but the man-cub sort of shrugs and follows the girl into the man village anyway, finally back where he (kind of) belongs. Their work done, Baloo and Bagheera set off back to the jungle together.
Mowgli ends up in the man village on two occasions (what is it with him doing everything twice?); once after his first scrap with Shere Khan, about age ten, and again at the age of seventeen, when he finally stays for good.
The first time he goes and becomes a cattle driver, but when he first arrives he can’t speak any human languages, and thinks the mud huts are leopard traps. He therefore has great trouble adjusting to life among humans, but he is helped by a kindly woman called Messua, who may or may not be his real mother. She reveals Mowgli’s real name was Nathoo, and helps look after him as he learns the human ways of life. In the interim, he falls out with Buldeo, a respected hunter, and many are suspicious of him for having been raised by wolves.
When Buldeo comes across Mowgli and Akela when Shere Khan has been killed, Buldeo is freaked out and runs back to tell the village that Mowgli is a devil child who can transform into a wolf at will. This results in the locals threatening to burn Messua and her husband at the stake for having such an evil child. Mowgli and Bagheera hatch a plan to help them escape to a nearby white settlement, and later Mowgli comes back to the village with Hathi and pretty much raises it to the ground, or in their terms, “lets the jungle in”. He then goes back to live with the wolf pack once more.
A few years later, after Akela has died, Baloo has pretty much gone blind and Bagheera is older and more decrepit, Mowgli comes to the conclusion that he must rejoin his fellow men, as he is not an animal of the jungle. With great reluctance, he bades his animal friends farewell, and goes to the next un-trashed man village. Luckily, the first hut he comes across is where Messua and her new son are now living, and Mowgli presumably stays with them and lives out the rest of his days there.
Disney’s Mowgli is resistant to living in the man village, as he has grown up with the wolf family and has no other real home. He tries being an elephant, a bear and a monkey, but at the end of the day, he must become a man, and only realises this once he actually sees the man village and its (possible future) bounty. Kipling’s Mowgli is the one that decides to go to the man village, and accepts that this must be his fate, especially as he still has some memories of his human heritage, and has a connection to his human mother which makes the transition much easier – despite the issues of language and behaviour, which the Disney version doesn’t touch upon.
Kipling’s novel is more about Mowgli’s internal conflict as he tries to work out who he is, rather than where he belongs. He is a skilled hunter and tracker, and although he is recognised as Master of the Jungle, he is still a man, and must therefore return to his own kind. He knows this not only due to the differences between himself and his companions, but because of his connection with his real parents and how he sees the world. Going back to the man village is largely his decision, albeit a sad one.
Disney’s film is about a boy going back to where he belongs, and making sure everyone is in their rightful place. The jungle can be as fun as it is dangerous, but try as he might, Mowgli can’t fit in and adapt to it as he is a human, through and through. As soon as he lays eyes on the man village, he suddenly can’t think of being anywhere else, despite the wishes of some of the animals that looked after him. Take that, nurture!
As well as downgrading the characters to make them more caring and sensible (apart from Shere Kahn and Kaa), Disney also saw fit to remove any references to the British Empire and white settlements; made sure the local village was portrayed positively, and of course made sure no endangered species were harmed during the making of the film. While this is understandable, they do portray Mowgli as a mischievous little scamp who should listen to his guardians and do as he’s told, glossing over the fact that a) they took him away from what he considered to be his real family without letting him say goodbye and b) that they know better than he does and that children should pretty much be seen and not heard. Conversely, Kipling’s Mowgli is allowed to discover his own destiny by himself.
Both versions, however, show that being naked and having cute animal friends is no substitute for warm clothes and a real human family…
1) The Jungle Book, 1967. Film. Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books. Oxford University Press, U.K. 2008. ISBN: 978-0-19-953645-0