Our Jungle Book obsession: two films planned by rival studios

A bear necessity of life. Walt Disney Productions.

It may seem a little strange to some, but currently there are two rival Jungle Book films planned. Idris Elba is to voice Shere Khan in a Disney remake, potentially along with Scarlett Johansson and Lupita Nyong'o. And Andy Serkis is to direct a Warner Brothers version.

Both films are currently at very early stages. We don’t even have release years confirmed for either film, but it will be interesting to see how the companies nod to both Disney’s 1967 classic and Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. It may be even more interesting to see how each production attempts to gain the edge on its rival.

Of course, at this stage it is impossible to comment on either of these films. There are assumptions in some quarters that the Warner Brothers’ version will be “darker, or more realistic”, but really this displays nothing more than an unfounded prejudice that Disney produces films that are inherently lighter and happier. This is an odd reputation for Disney to have, given the number of psychopathic would-be child murderers and thugs who inhabit so many of its films.

The next Shere Khan. EPA/Paul Buck

Perhaps not everyone considers it “dark” when you make a film about the consequences that befall a teenage girl after her step-mother puts out a hit on her (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), or a girl who is enslaved by her step-mother (Cinderella), or characters who, variously, are under a death curse (Sleeping Beauty, Hercules) or threatened by ruthless villains (The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, The Rescuers, The Black Cauldron, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph). Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyway. The Jungle Book that everyone thinks of is of course the 1967 version, which was an enormous box office success in its initial theatrical run. While there is evidence that the film’s success, at least in part, may have been connected to sentimentality triggered by Walt Disney’s death just a few months earlier, it was probably due more to what was seen as a film with great music (“The Bare Necessities” was nominated for an Oscar) and what Richard Schickel described in his 1968 review for Life as Disney doing “what they have always done better than anyone – a succession of hilarious caricatures of anthromorphised animals in rapid, comic motion”.

Rudyard Kipling. Commonwealth War Graves Commission, CC BY-NC-ND

Of course, The Jungle Book has been adapted (and re-adapted) before. A 1942 film starred Sabu, and in 1994, Disney made another version. Nothing is said about these versions in articles about the two upcoming films, a curious omission given the fact that they, like the new versions, are live-action. It could be argued that the reason these are less well-remembered (despite both films being critical and commercial successes when released) is because they just aren’t as charming as the 1967 film.

Some of the criticism online comes from those apparently unaware that the 1967 version is a very loose adaptation (the credits list four Disney story men as the writers, adding in smaller letters beneath their names that the film was “Inspired by the Rudyard Kipling ‘Mowgli’ stories”). The 1942 and 1994 versions, while still loose, are nonetheless more faithful to Kipling.

But of course arguments about “faithful” adaptations are more often manifestations of literary snobbery than useful critiques of a film. Movies must translate a story to an entirely different medium, and that always means changes. More often than some would like to admit, changes are also needed in many cases to find a sufficiently-large audience. Each Jungle Book adaptation so far has succeeded in that sense.

So perhaps it isn’t so ridiculous that two major Hollywood studios are both making live-action versions of The Jungle Book. After all, there is a great history of the coincidental release of very similar films. In 1991 we had Robin Hood as well as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A Bug’s Life and Antz were both released in 1998. Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror were both last year. The list goes on. What is really interesting about this is the question of what is it about today that these new versions of The Jungle Book will address.

If they both are made, it will be interesting to compare them with the other extant Jungle Book films – not as some test of literary “fidelity” to the original, a hierarchical and ultimately meaningless practice – but instead to examine how the film brings to the fore our era’s ideas about colonialism, race, gender, and (potentially) animal rights (a theme that made its way into Disney’s 1994 version). But that discussion must wait for the films to be made. Whenever that happens.