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'Jungle Book' film puts new attention on British author Kipling

| Sunday, April 10, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Neel Sethi as Mowgli in 'The Jungle Book'
Neel Sethi as Mowgli in 'The Jungle Book'
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) talks to King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken) in 'The Jungle Book.'
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) talks to King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken) in 'The Jungle Book.'
An image from Disney's 1967 animated version of 'The Jungle Book'
An image from Disney's 1967 animated version of 'The Jungle Book'
This is an undated photo of British writer Rudyard Kipling in the late 1800's.  (AP Photo)
This is an undated photo of British writer Rudyard Kipling in the late 1800's. (AP Photo)

When Rudyard Kipling died at the age of 70 in 1936, his obituary in the New York Times called him “one of Britain's greatest men of letters.” Accordingly so, his ashes were buried in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey in London next to the graves of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.

Kipling, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, was regarded as the foremost chronicler of the British Empire, his books reflecting England's colonialist achievements and aspirations.

With the April 15 release of “The Jungle Book,” a new film directed by Jon Favreau, Kipling's work and his legacy are again piquing interest. Why do filmmakers return to Kipling for material?

“Certain (mostly Indian) stories and books of Kipling's are intensely cinematic,” says Harry Ricketts, a professor in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and the author of “Rudyard Kipling: A Life” (Carroll & Graf) and “The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling,” (Pimilco).

“They have strong, quite elemental plot lines and, for the West, a continuing sense of the exotic, and now perhaps of the nostalgic,” Ricketts says. “Interestingly, Kipling's later, more complex stories — many set in England — haven't been made into films. This is a pity.”

Other works by Kipling — notably “Captains Courageous” (1937), “Kim” (1950) and “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975) — have been made into movies.

But “The Jungle Book” continually attracts filmmakers; Favreau's version is one of many since 1942, including a TV series, culled from the story collection first published in 1894.

Colin MacCabe, executive director of the Pitt in London Program and an English professor at University of Pittsburgh, thinks “The Jungle Book” appeals to an innate human desire to talk to animals.

“You've got Aesop's fables, as perhaps the oldest one I can think of in the Western tradition,” MacCabe says, “but there are fables of talking animals everywhere. It's a fantasy that lots and lots of children have that they will somehow manage to talk to animals. … Kipling himself is drawing on one of the deepest and most important fantasies in human life.”

Those fantasies were rendered in an indelible style that has not been duplicated. But the popularity of “The Jungle Book” occludes Kipling's multifaceted talents.

“He had great variety as a writer,” Ricketts says. “He wrote wonderfully for children; he wrote intricate stories; he wrote adhesive poems and some brilliant parodies. Some of his stories about the First World War are very moving, ‘The Gardener' in particular. He was a brilliant phrase-maker and a button-holer. There's no flab in a Kipling story.”

MacCabe thinks Kipling was more of a storyteller than a novelist and more a “verse-maker” than a poet. But how Kipling's work is defined is less important than how it reads.

“Poems like ‘Gunga Din' or ‘Mandalay' — these are some of the greatest rhythms and rhymes ever put down,” MacCabe says. “In that sense, he's by himself.”

Part of Kipling's legacy is his embrace of Great Britain's colonial policies. MacCabe calls Kipling “the most gifted writer who ever took the side of imperialism and colonialism.” But a close examination of his work yields stereotypes and images, especially in regard to his views on Indian people, that are uncomfortable today.

Arlan Hess, owner of City Books on the North Side, who taught literature and creative writing at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington County, thinks that Kipling's work needs to be viewed through the prism of the age in which he worked.

“He takes risk in writing in other people's perspectives,” Hess says, “as in Indian servants, which today would be considered appropriation. And that can be a really dangerous thing. I think that if we just view him as if he were writing today and doing all that appropriation, we would really get angry, and we would blame him for a lot of things and we would not think he was a valuable writer.

“But when he was writing, people didn't use words like post-colonial or appropriation and white privilege. Those things existed, but we didn't have language for them.”

Ricketts thinks that Kipling's work can't be read — nor should it be read — without an awareness of its “imperial underpinning.”

“But reading with a sense of cultural reprimand toward the past is itself a diminishing way to read, don't you think?” Ricketts says.

“As the opening sentence of L.P. Hartley's novel, ‘The Go-Between,' puts it: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'

“There's nothing easier than to patronize the past. The future will do exactly the same to us, too. Kipling, like any significant writer, was more than his deducible views.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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