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Curious History of 'The Jungle Book'

Disney's new live-action remake is just the latest incarnation of Rudyard Kipling's enduring modern myth.

Walt Disney Pictures

Disney's live action reboot of "The Jungle Book" opens in U.S. theaters this week, marking the latest iteration of the classic children's story that has flourished in various media formats for more than a century.

As told in the new movie, "The Jungle Book" is the story of Mowgli, an Indian boy abandoned in the jungle and raised by wolves. He learns to survive with the help of friends Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and his foster mother Raksha the wolf.

The film is a technical marvel, employing the latest in photorealistic digital rendering to create the animals and the surrounding jungle. Also, Bill Murray voices Baloo, which I think we can all agree is the best casting choice ever.

Directed by Jon Favreau, the new movie is technically a remake of the classic 1967 Disney animated musical, but it also hearkens back to the original source material -- Rudyard Kipling's collection of short stories originally published in 1894. In fact, "The Jungle Book" has a particularly curious history.

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Rudyard Kipling worked as a writer and newspaper editor under the British Raj in India. The Englishman would later write his Indian fables while living abroad in Brattleboro, Vermont. | Wikimedia Commons

Author Rudyard Kipling was born in India to British parents in 1865 and lived in Bombay -- now called Mumbai -- until the age of six. As a child, he was fascinated by tales of the Indian jungle and its animals, and learned Indian myths and legends in the local language. After 10 years back in England for formal education, Kipling returned to India and worked as a writer and newspaper editor under the British Raj.

Kipling later said that he conceived the seeds of the "Jungle Book" stories during this period. The author suffered from insomnia and would often take long walks at night through the city and out to the edge of the wilds. Kipling eventually wrote the stories as a series of fables, designed to impart moral lessons to children through anthropomorphic animal characters.

Interestingly, the Englishman Kipling wrote his Indian fables while living abroad in Brattleboro, Vermont.

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An illustration from the 1895 edition of "The Two Jungle Books." | Public Domain

Most of the stories that comprise "The Jungle Book" were first published in magazines in 1893-1894. Kipling was already a popular author by this time, and his tales of exotic jungle adventures and talking animals appealed to both children and adults. For many readers, Kipling's stories were their first introduction to the culture and history of India.

Kipling's stories were initially compiled into the first edition of "The Jungle Book," published in 1894. Stories in this first volume include "Mowgli's Brothers," which introduces most of the major characters, and "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," chronicling the adventures of literature's most famous mongoose. A sequel volume, "The Second Jungle Book,"was published in 1895 and featured five more stories about Mowgli, plus three additional tales.

With the publication of the series known as "The Jungle Books," Kipling became one of the richest and most popular writers in the world. His stories influenced an entire generation of authors, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose famous character Tarzan was inspired by Mowgli the wolf child. Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

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"Mowgli Made Leader of the Bandar-Log," a 1903 painting by John Charles Dollman inspired by Kipling's story "Kaa's Hunting." | Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves is the central human character in many (but not all) of Kipling's "Jungle Book" stories. However, when Kipling first introduced Mowgli to his readers, it wasn't in a children's story -- and in fact Mowgli wasn't a child at all.

In the short story "Into the Rukh," from the 1893 collection "Many Inventions," Mowgli is a young man recruited into the ranks of British forest officers, who are astounded at his extraordinary knowledge of jungle creatures. Mowgli winds up settling down, getting married and essentially joining the civil service. It was only after the publication of this short story that Kipling sat down to write the stories of Mowgli's upbringing and adventures in the jungle.

In the "Jungle Book" stories, Mowgli is told by his wolf family that his name means "frog" -- because he's hairless and won't sit still. But actually Kipling made up the name from scratch and said it had no meaning in any language he was aware of. Also, Kipling intended for that first syllable to rhyme with "cow."

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Bill Murray voices the digitally-rendered Baloo in "The Jungle Book." | Walt Disney Pictures

Mowgli's best friend in "The Jungle Book" is the gentle bear named Baloo, which has a more straightforward etymology: "Baloo" (or "Bhalu") is Hindi for "bear." In Kipling's original stories, Baloo is a much sterner figure than the carefree ursine goofball of the animated film. His function in the stories is to teach Mowgli the Law of the Jungle.

In the new live action film, Baloo is still lovable and friendly, but director Favreau made an effort to revive some details from Kipling's original works. For instance, Baloo is depicted as an Indian sloth bear, a species native to the area that the stories take place, and the most likely to have inspired Kipling's descriptions.

The new movie also evokes Baloo's original function in the stories: "He's that teacher that you have in high school that encourages you to read the books that maybe you weren't allowed to read, and opens your eyes to what the world is really all about," Favreau says in the film's press materials. "He's a subversive thinker."

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Mowgli skins the hide off the dead Shere Khan in an illustration from an 1894 edition of "The Jungle Book." | Wikimedia Commons

In Kipling's original stories, Mowgli's wolf mother is named Raksha, which translates to "protection" or "defense" in Hindi. She's depicted as a strong caregiver who adopts the human "man cub" and defies the evil tiger Shere Khan. In the new film, Raksha is voiced by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o.

The Bengal tiger Shere Khan, meanwhile, is the primary villain in both Kipling's stories and most subsequent adaptations. The name doesn't translate directly, but is associated with "tiger" and "sovereign" in several languages.

Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) meets a rather spectacular end in the new movie, but in Kipling's original works he was trampled to death by stampeding buffalo in the story "Tiger! Tiger!" That story's title was derived from the William Blake poem "The Tyger."

Bagheera (pronounced bug-EER-uh) is Mowgli's first mentor in the Kipling stories, a black panther whose name is derived from the Hindi diminutive for "tiger" ("bagh"). The Kipling Society keeps a handy guidebook for names drawn from Kipling's own author notes. In the new film, Bagheera is voiced by Ben Kingsley.

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A scene from the new "Jungle Book" movie by Disney. | Walt Disney Pictures

More than a dozen feature-length film adaptations of "The Jungle Book" have been produced since the first story collection was published in 1894. Both live action and animated movies have been made in the U.S., Europe, India, Japan and even the Soviet Union. Several graphic novel and comic book adaptations have also been published over the years -- plus TV shows, stage plays and even radio adaptations.

And believe it or not, yet another major Hollywood endeavor is already in the works. In March, principal photography began on Warner Bros. "Jungle Book," starring Andy Serkis as Baloo, Christian Bale as Bagheera, Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan and Cate Blanchett as the serpent Kaa.

Of course, you can always just go back to the source. Rudyard Kipling's original stories are all in the public domain and can be downloaded for free in various e-book formats at Project Gutenberg.

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