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PAGE TO SCREEN : Out of the Jungle

Adapting Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” to the big screen has always presented a problem. The problem is that much of the book has nothing to do with Mowgli, the young boy who is raised in the jungles of India by a pack of wolves. So the first thing any screenwriter must do is jettison the Mowgliless tales and find some way to pull the rest of the material together--which, incidentally, is long on animals and short on people.

In past productions, that “some way” drew upon the conventions of the genre the filmmakers were working in. Zoltan Korda’s “Jungle Book” leaned heavily on spectacle and featured Mowgli sparring with the imperialist British. Disney’s animated version (1964), which may be the most faithful of the adaptations, fleshed out the stories with music and dance. Now comes Stephen Sommers’s entry, which takes its inspiration from 1930s romantic adventure films, much like Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (a comparison a number of critics have made).

In fact, with a plot that involves a lost city of gold, etc., it’s easy to overlook who much of this “Jungle Book” is drawn from the stories. For example, the principal human characters are taken from the principal animal characters. “Boone is Kaa the snake,” says Sommers, referring to the villain played by Cary Elwes. “John Cleese is Baloo the bear. Sam Neil’s character is Hahti, the pompous elephant. The only character who doesn’t have an animal counterpart is Kitty, the love interest. She’s my Olivia de Havilland” (or, in this case, Lena Headey).

Had the original script been made, none of these characters would have appeared. Sommers says that it was “a dark documentary, like Truffaut’s ‘Wild Child.’ There was Mowgli running through the jungle, tackling deer, ripping their heads off, and drinking their blood. He’d bite people, spit, and his teeth were green and rotten.” A far cry from star Jason Scott Lee, who has pearly dentition, a washboard stomach, and a quiet, charismatic screen presence. At any rate, Disney came to Sommers with this script and told him that he had their permission to throw it away and start all over.

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As with most scripts, this one was an ongoing enterprise. Some of the scenes grew out of pre-production trips Sommers made to India (the film was mostly shot there). A witty montage in which Mowgli is taught English was created with the help of Cleese (there is something Monty Python-esque about those flash cards). And because the animals often wouldn’t do what they were supposed to, some of the action was retooled on the set. In one instance, a character had to be shot rather than mauled because, according to Sommers, “the tiger wasn’t having any that day.”

“The only animal you could count on was King Louis the orangutan, because he’s practically human,” Sommers says. “Although he’d be pissed that I said that. He’d consider it an insult.”


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