Tuesday morning. May 31, 2016.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and his panther mentor Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) prepare to meet the elephants in The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau’s reimagining of the Walt Disney cartoon classic as a heroic action-adventure tale in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s novel and stories.
Immediately below him the hillside fell away, clean and cleared for fifteen hundred feet, where a little village of stone-walled houses, with roofs of beaten earth, clung to the steep tilt. All round it the tiny terraced fields lay out like aprons of patchwork on the knees of the mountain, and cows no bigger than beetles grazed between the smooth stone circles of the threshing-floors. Looking across the valley, the eye was deceived by the size of things, and could not at first realise that what seemed to be low scrub, on the opposite mountain-flank, was in truth a forest of hundred-foot pines. Purun Bhagat saw an eagle swoop across the gigantic hollow, but the great bird dwindled to a dot ere it was half-way over. A few bands of scattered clouds strung up and down the valley, catching on a shoulder of the hills, or rising up and dying out when they were level with the head of the pass. And “Here shall I find peace,” said Purun Bhagat.
James Alan McPherson turned out to be a very shy man. Jim, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction---he won it in 1978 for his short story collection Elbow Room---wasn’t a reason I chose to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop, but he was a reason I was glad to be going there. I looked forward to having him as a teacher. I was hoping some of the Pulitzer luck would rub off. I was relieved when he turned out to be kind, patient, tolerant, and encouraging. Writers don’t always make the best teachers. I’d heard stories about other writers who’d made life hell for their students. John Cheever had taught at the Workshop. It didn’t go well. Jim was not like John Cheever. He did have one serious drawback as a teacher, however. He didn’t talk.
Not much, at any rate. Not in class. Less outside class. In class he let us do most of the yakking and kept discussions on track and arguments from getting out of hand with judicious nods and shakes of his head, wry smiles and doubtful frowns, and the occasional joke, muttered quietly, so quietly that if you were at the far end of the table you only knew he’s said anything, let alone something funny, by the laughter of the two people sitting on either side of him. He kept his opinion of whatever student work was being workshopped that week to himself, and you only found out what he thought of your story or novel chapter in the one on one meetings he held in his office later. And then it was indirectly. He let you know where he thought your story needed work but he didn’t tell you how he thought you should go about fixing it. Instead, he’d suggest something to read. “So and so has a scene like this in his/her short story/novel,” he’d say. Then you’d have to go puzzle out for yourself how whatever he’d had you read could help you fix whatever it was he thought needed fixing. It was a bit like having to solve a zen koan. At any rate, that’s how I got to reading Isaac Babel’s short stories...without ever quite understanding what particular lesson I was supposed to learn from them.
Jim thought I should read "The Story of My Dovecot."
I left our meeting heading straight for the library where I checked out Babel’s Red Cavalry and The Odessa Tales, determined to have all the stories in both read by next week’s class.
I also left disappointed that we hadn’t gotten around to talking about---or, really, that I hadn’t managed to steer the discussion around to talking about---a writer I assumed was a mutual favorite, Rudyard Kipling.
At our first class meeting, after introducing himself and his goals for the class and letting each of us do the same, and with no stories ready yet for us to workshop, rather than sending us on our way early, Jim had surprised me and I expect the whole class by reading us “The Rout of the White Hussars”. In all likelihood, I was the only one in the room beside Jim to whom the story wasn’t new. Students at the Workshop then weren’t a particularly widely-read bunch. My friend Ann took an informal poll once and discovered that out of the fifty students in the fiction writing program only a handful had read Moby-Dick. And I’m pretty sure I was the only one at the table (Ann was in a different workshop that semester) who didn’t think it was strange that Jim had chosen to read us a story by Kipling.
But it was strange.
Not going to get deep into why it was strange that a writer teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-1980s was reading Rudyard Kipling to his students. It simply was and it shouldn’t have been.
Kipling is a problematic figure in the history of English literature and there’s no use in pretending he wrote only The Jungle Book and the Just-so Stories. But it’s also mistake to read him as if all he wrote were variations on “The White Man’s Burden.”
Kipling is a terrific poet and one of the greatest prose stylists and storytellers in English literature. Mark Twain rated Kipling among his favorite writers. Kipling is who Hemingway wanted to be when he grew up and learned how to tell a joke.
But most of us at the Workshop at the time were writing with the ambition of getting published in The New Yorker and that meant most of us were diligently imitating the likes of Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Quirky, minimalist, domestic realism was the fashion.
I say most of us, but I really wasn’t one of us, yet. Jim’s reading Kipling meant a great deal to because it made me feel at home.
I’d come to Iowa more than half-convinced I was going to be out of my league and when Jim started reading those old, familiar, beloved words I suddenly thought, Hey, maybe I’ll be all right here.
I wouldn’t have said Kipling was one of my major influences. But Twain sure was, and Twain was a major influence on Kipling and I’ll bet I picked up on it. And I arrived at Iowa after at least a year’s worth of immersion in Kipling’s direct literary descendants Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene---the line of succession goes, I think, Stevenson, Kipling, Conrad, Maugham, Greene, le Carre---so if I’d become the famous writer I thought I was going to be, there’d have been someone’s Ph.D dissertation in teasing that out.
More to the point here is that Kipling was one of my favorite writers back in junior high when my reading was mostly boy’s own adventure stories and I read as much of his work I could squeeze in between Stevenson’s, Twain’s, Melville’s, Conan Doyle’s, Jules Verne’s, and Alexander Dumas’. “Gunga Din” was one of the first poems I memorized on my own. In fact, I didn’t find my way into Kipling’s world through the Just-So Stories or The Jungle Book as I suspect a lot of young readers do. Gunga Din was my guide. And in that world Mowgli and Baloo and Bagheera weren’t my brothers as much as Mulvaney, Learoyd, and Ortheris were my mates.
Fact is, if there was one work by Kipling I didn’t love, it was The Jungle Book.
It may just have been that I came to it a little too late and I thought it was too much of a little kid’s book. But I think it was more Kipling’s own fault. He’d taught me to expect one sort of thing from him and The Jungle Book didn’t deliver it. There was nothing in it I wanted. No soldiers. No Soldiers Three. No Mulvaney, Learoyd, or Ortheris. No battles with guns and cannon blazing. No men who would be kings. No captains courageous. No Tommy this and Tommy that. No Din! Din! Din! Where the mischief ‘ave you been? No villages, towns, or temples. No crowds. Herds and packs but no crowds. Kipling was good with crowds. No romance. No ghosts. And no good jokes. At least none that I understood as jokes.
Just animals talking, and talking pompously, thou-ing and thy-ing at each other like characters in a biblical epic.
Of course you know why I’m bringing all this up.
We finally got around to seeing Disney’s new movie version of The Jungle Book the other day.
Because it wasn’t among my favorites, I can’t say it bothered me that there’s not a whole lot of Kipling’s Jungle Book in it. There’s more of it than I expected, however, and more of the spirit of Kipling than that. There are scenes and images that reminded me of Gunga Din---the movie not the poem, but the spirit of Kipling is very much alive in that---and others that reminded me, more obliquely, of The Man Who Would Be King---again, the movie, but still.
Of course the artist whose spirit this Jungle Book’s meant to conjure up isn’t Kipling’s. It’s Walt Disney’s.
This Jungle Book is a re-imagining of Disney’s Jungle Book, famously the last full-length cartoon Walt himself steered through to completion. And here’s something I can’t tell you. How good a job it does at that. I’ve never seen the original in order from start to finish. I’m not sure I’ve seen all of it. I refused to go see it with the family when I was a kid on the grounds that it was a little kids’ movie and it wasn’t on the Mannion guys’ To Be Watched Over and Over Again Until Mom and Dad Run Screaming From the House List when they were little kids. They both claim to have seen it more than once but I can’t recall ever having been forced to sit through it with them.
Both songs are in this Jungle Book. I’d be inclined to say it would have been better if director Jon Favreau had left them out (although I’m sure the powers that be at Disney didn’t give him the choice, even if he’d wanted it), because they come across as breakings of the fourth wall and actually take you out of the onscreen story. But Christopher Walken does such a surprisingly delightful job with “I Wanna Be Like You” that I’m glad Favreau didn’t have the choice, if he didn’t, or chose to leave the songs in if he did.
I can tell you, with pleasure, that Favreau does an excellent job working in homages and parallels to at least two other but more recent Disney classics. Tarzan and The Lion King. There are nods as well to some non-Disney movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the second Hobbit, the most recent Planet of the Apes, and The Wizard of Oz. But those two, Tarzan and The Lion King figure most prominently. At several points, Favreau includes extended visual quotes from The Lion King and even restages the stampede in the ravine, and he’s almost made Mowgli’s story into another retelling of Tarzan’s origin story.
Favreau knows how to tell an origin story. He directed Iron Man, which I still rank as the second best of the Avengers movie franchise. (Guess which one I think is the best.) He also knows how to direct what’s essentially a live-action cartoon---and all superhero movies are essentially live action cartoons. He takes the material and the characters seriously but isn’t over-serious in going about it. He has a light comic touch and is skilled at mixing comedy with drama. He hasn’t directed all that many films, but you have to admire a career that includes Made, Elf, Iron Man, Chef, and now The Jungle Book.
Kipling’s Jungle Book isn’t the little kids book about talking animals I took it for when I was a kid myself. It’s a Boy’s Own Adventure Story. I probably don’t need to say that I don’t think it’s Kipling’s best of the form---although it’s been a long time since I last read Kim and Captains Courageous and both pale in my memory compared to their obvious inspirations, The Prince and the Pauper and Treasure Island. I told you. Kipling was one of my favorites. But he wasn’t one of my very favorites. ---but that’s what it is, the epitome of a boy’s own adventure story and that’s what Favreau’s Jungle Book is. In fact, based on my unreliable sense of the cartoon---a lighthearted musical comedy about about a boy playing with his stuffed animals come to life, with Mowgli as a Christopher Robin free from all adult supervision and able to join in the hijinks and share in the danger---I’d say that’s the main point of departure for Favreau’s movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why Favreau wanted to direct The Jungle Book: to make an adventure movie.
He’s made a rousing one.
The many chases, fights, perils, and escapes are genuinely thrilling and surprising, the dangers and violence are shocking and terrifying. Favreau keeps it all moving briskly without the characters and story getting lost in the action. He varies the tempo and the scale and mixes things up so that the movie isn’t just one, extended action scene. And his Mowgli isn’t just a lucky boy who grows up and learns a lesson. He’s a true young hero.
Thirteen year-old Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli. Stars is the right word. It’s very much his movie. His movie-star voiced animal co-stars are his supporting players and sidekicks. His Mowgli is brave and curious, of course, but he’s smart, active, energetic, clever, and competent, without his becoming a miniature adult in a kid suit. He has a wide-eyed look of astonishment that comes over him in the dangerous moments that lets you know he’s still a little boy making it all up as he goes along and regularly surprised that there’s more to the world than he has even begun to know.
What he does know, however, he knows. This Jungle Book isn’t about a young innocent learning lessons. It’s about a young hero putting to work lessons he’s already learned and teaching himself new lessons on the run...and the climb.
One thing I can say for sure about the cartoon Jungle Book. The voice work of the four main animal stars was excellent. It would have been hard to top Phil Harris as Baloo, Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera the panther, George Sanders as Shere Khan the tiger, and Louis Prima as King Louie the orangutan. But Walken, as I said, is a delight as Louie, doing a bit of Robert De Niro. Idris Elbla as Shere Khan scared me. Ben Kingsley is Obi-wan-esque as Bagheera. Imagine the younger, post-Revenge of the Sith Obi-wan, getting to know Luke as a little boy, which happens, and maybe we’ll get a movie that shows that.
Bill Murray is Baloo because who else?
Add to this, Scarlett Johansson as an unnervingly seductive, gender-bent Kaa the python.
The CGI work on the animal characters is exquisite. There were very few moments when I noticed those aren’t real animals up on the screen.
And Favreau doesn’t forget that the jungle and all the terrain through which Mowgli travels are as intrinsic to the spirit of the story and the formation of Mowgli’s character as the animals. The sense of place is as important here as it is in all Kipling’s fiction. Favreau pauses from time to time---but never for too long---to give us the visual equivalent of passages like this from “The Miracle of Puran Bhagat,” one of the stories in Kipling’s Second Jungle Book:
There was a sigh in the air that grew to a mutter, and a mutter that grew to a roar, and a roar that passed all sense of hearing, and the hillside on which the villagers stood was hit in the darkness, and rocked to the blow. Then a note as steady, deep, and true as the deep C of the organ drowned everything for perhaps five minutes, while the very roots of the pines quivered to it. It died away, and the sound of the rain falling on miles of hard ground and grass changed to the muffled drum of water on soft earth. That told its own tale.
Never a villager — not even the priest — was bold enough to speak to the Bhagat who had saved their lives. They crouched under the pines and waited till the day. When it came they looked across the valley and saw that what had been forest, and terraced field, and track-threaded grazing-ground was one raw, red, fan-shaped smear, with a few trees flung head-down on the scarp. That red ran high up the hill of their refuge, damming back the little river, which had begun to spread into a brick-coloured lake. Of the village, of the road to the shrine, of the shrine itself, and the forest behind, there was no trace. For one mile in width and two thousand feet in sheer depth the mountain-side had come away bodily, planed clean from head to heel.
At the end of my two years at Iowa, I asked Jim McPherson to be on my thesis committee. He declined. Politely but reticently, with no more explanation than was absolutely necessary. He had already agreed to serve on too many other students’ committees and simply couldn’t take on even one more. This was almost certainly the truth. There were twenty-five of us with essentially whole books that needed reading, and, although there were three other members of the faculty, each of the four of them had to serve on five or six committees. Jim would have been the first choice of almost of us and had probably already turned down at least ten requests by the time I asked him. Assuming I wasn’t one of the first five to ask him. Which I tried to assume.
I tried not to take it personally. Jim was in fact my third choice. I’d already nabbed Ron Hanson and I’d had the bright idea to ask one of the poets teaching in the Poetry Workshop, James Galvin, and in going over my thesis (a pair of novellas) Galvin gave me one of the best pieces of advice I got while I was at Iowa: boiled down it was “Make it sound like you talking.”
That, by the way, as Galvin explained, not permission for lazy, “colloquial” writing. Read some of his poetry and you’ll see what he meant.
Anyway, I was happy with my committee, they seemed happy with me, and I was able to tell myself that Jim’s---the first Jim, McPherson---begging off was not a judgment on my writing.
I told myself that. I still tell myself that. I’m telling myself that right now.
It nagged at me and still nags at me. There’s some insecure part of me, which is to say the whole writer part of me, that can’t help suspecting that whatever else he might have thought, he was certain of one thing.
I was no Rudyard Kipling.
The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Justin Marks, based on the novels by Rudyard Kipling. Starring Neel Sethi. With the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Espisito, and Gary Shandling. Rated PG. Still in theaters.