I have a rule: never see a movie “based on the book” until you have first read the book.
There have been some exceptions: Holes was the first exception that proved the rule. It was after watching Holes that I became convinced this was how I should do things, because reading the book was such a different experience afterwards. The movies “based on a true story!” that also happen to be in book form are other exceptions. And of course, if I saw it before I was old enough to read, I’d have to excuse myself.
Such is my experience with Disney’s The Jungle Book (the cartoon), but since the live-action movie is coming out, I thought I’d give the book a chance first.
First of all: it’s actually called The Jungle Books, because it was published in two separate volumes. Second, it isn’t a novel but a collection of short stories originally published in magazines. Finally, the Disney cartoon I grew up with is vastly different from the source material.
For one thing, not every story is about Mowgli, though I can understand why Disney latched on to him. When I began reading a story and realized it had no Mowgli, I became disinterested. The other stories weren’t bad. Several of them were genuinely enjoyable. But after the first couple stories with Mowgli, any story without him had to work twice as hard to capture my attention.
Also, the cartoon is only about his childhood, where as the stories jump around in his timeline. The first tells of him joining the wolfpack, while a later one tells of his attempts to belong in a Man’s village. Even after that, it jumps backwards in time to tell of one particularly difficult drought in the jungle.
Each story features powerful animals, but they also seem to hold a message: there are far scarier things than wild animals. Things like greed and fear.
Also, some of his lines are astonishingly poetic. “I am two Mowglis, but the hide of Shere Khan is under my feet,” he says in “Mowgli’s Song.” This is one of the verses that follows each story, giving it depth and detail by relating back to the characters’ experiences and emotions. But even his prose has the same melodic tone: “he had eaten sour fruit, and he knew the tree it hung from,” he says. “That day saw the end of Purun Bhagat’s wanderings. He had come to the place appointed for him–the silence and the space,” he says. There’s a wildness to his diction that perfectly matches his settings and his characters, though there is a gravitas that binds them all together.
I see why Disney has attached to Mowgli. I’m rather attached myself. But every story in this collection is worth reading, for the language and for the ideas that it brings to the world, a type of jungle in its own right.