Actors take jobs. Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor, and he’s just taken a job portraying the tiger Shere Khan in Andy Serkis’s Jungle Book (not to be confused with Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book). If all you care about is that Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice will be coming out of a tiger’s mouth, then great, this is your money shot, stop reading. Because the rest of this piece is about the Jungle Book and how it’s awful and racist and I can’t believe there are TWO new versions of it coming down the pipe.
Every generation of literature is compromised by its era. The best writers can be dragged down by the wrong-headedness of the time in which they lived. Even Shakespeare can’t escape the net; The Merchant of Venice features one of his most troubling characters, Shylock, the Jewish money lender. We can argue all day long if Shylock’s over the top affectations and miserly tendencies are the embodiment of Shakespeare’s own bigotry toward Jewish people, or if he meant Shylock to be satirical of the prevailing prejudice of the time, but because Shakespeare never left any explicit instruction or explanation one way or the other, we can’t know, so the debate persists.
In the same way, Rudyard Kipling, writer and India-born Englishman, can’t escape the gross attitudes of his own era. Some of his work is terrific (If, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi) but other works are appalling (White Man’s Burden). Kipling was an imperialist, the child of colonists, and he fell victim to the systemic racism of his time, believing white—and most particularly English—men to be of the highest intelligence and most worthy occupants of the world, and everyone else to be lesser by varying degrees. White Man’s Burden most clearly demonstrates his attitude, and George Orwell wrote a terrific essay in 1942 detailing Kipling’s problematic writing.
To be fair, The Jungle Book is not the worst of Kipling, but you can’t escape the casual prejudice, rampant jingoism, or the pro-imperialist stance. Disney actually managed to make it worse when they released their cartoon musical version in 1967. In the middle of the Civil Rights Movement they inserted King Louie, the jive-talking ape who “wants to be like you”. Disney, aware of some pressure and mounting disgust with King Louie, cast Italian-American singer Louis Prima to voice the character, instead of Louis Armstrong, as originally intended. Even then they had the sense that casting a black man to voice a jive-talking ape was a bad idea.
But The Jungle Book is even more complicated now. Academia has largely accepted Kipling’s faults, the same way that TS Eliot (himself a Kipling defender) has an asterisk next to his name, and his works have largely fallen out of favor with the general population. He’s an uncomfortable author to engage with, not least because his works must make us question how our own modern issues of race, colonialism and imperialism seep into contemporary literature.
So it baffles me that in 2014 we’re making TWO new adaptations of The Jungle Book. And I am mystified that King Louie, an invention of Disney and not Kipling, exists in Favreau’s adaptation (there’s no indication yet whether or not he’ll be in Serkis’s production). Favreau seems aware of the inherent pitfalls and his cast is widely diverse— Christopher Walken will voice King Louie—but why even keep that character? Here’s a chance for Disney, who is producing the movie, to fix one of their bigger blunders. Don’t sweep it under the rug (I’m looking at you, Song of the South), but admit that King Louie was the product of a less informed, less inclusive time and that we’ve grown past that being acceptable.
Although given the events of the past week perhaps we’ve not moved all that far after all. Maybe the best thing would be to make a Jungle Book in which all the animals end up eating each other and Mowgli is just a traumatized child cast out in a wilderness that wholly lacks in compassion, watching the pseudo-society around him collapse. With the right satirical bent, a modern Jungle Book could be a scathing indictment of 21st century race relations—an especially timely story. Somehow I don’t think that’s the movie we’ll be seeing, though. Either time.