The Inside Story of Rudyard Kipling and 'The Jungle Book'

As a new star-studded Jungle Book hits movie screens today, here's a look at the original classic and its creator.
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As a new star-studded Jungle Book hits movie screens today, here's a look at the original classic and its creator.
Rudyard Kipling Photo [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of Rudyard Kipling from the biography Rudyard Kipling by John Palmer, first published in New York by Henry Holt and Company in 1915. (Photo: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Published in 1894, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book proved to be a hit with young and old alike. The Jungle Book’s stories of a human boy named Mowgli raised by animals in the wild made for riveting reading. In these tales, the animals proved to be both Mowgli’s allies and adversaries. Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and Shere Khan the tiger have all become famous characters in children’s literature. They even appeared in Kipling’s sequel, The Second Jungle Book, which debuted in 1895.

A new adaptation of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, makes its debut today with a dazzling array of celebrity stars voicing its animal characters. Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba are the voices of Baloo, Bagheera and Shere Khan respectively. As The Jungle Book hits movie screens, now is the perfect time to take a look at the original classic and its creator Rudyard Kipling.  

Baloo and Mowgli in The Jungle Book Photo Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray) and Mowgli (Neel Sethi) in The Jungle Book. (Photo: Walt Disney Pictures)

Kipling wrote The Jungle Book while living in the United States. Kipling had been good friends with American writer and editor Wolcott Balestier, and he ended up marrying Wolcott’s sister Caroline “Carrie” Balestier, in January 1892. The couple bought land from one of her other brothers, Beatty Balestier, in Vermont where they built their dream home, called “The Naulahka.” Naulakha means “jewel beyond price” in Hindi, according to the home’s website. The name is also shared with a book Kipling worked on with Wolcott Balestier. 

Becoming a father inspired Kipling to write for children. He had started The Jungle Book around the time he and his wife were expecting their first child together. Daughter Josephine was born in 1892. According to BBC News, he gave her a special copy of The Jungle Book to his daughter, in which he wrote: "This book belongs to Josephine Kipling for whom it was written by her father, May 1894." The Kipling family soon grew to include daughter Elsie, born in 1895, and later son John in 1897. Sadly, Josephine only lived to be six years old. Both she and her father came down with pneumonia in 1899, and she ended up succumbing to the illness. Her death left Kipling heartbroken, and he never fully recovered from this tremendous loss. 

Kipling never even visited the jungle mentioned in The Jungle Book. Despite spending years in India, he chose to set his stories in the Seonee jungle (now known as Seoni), an area he’d never visited. Kipling instead drew from the experiences of others. According to Angus Wilson’s The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works, Kipling saw photographs of this jungle taken by his friends, Aleck and Edmonia “Ted” Hill, and listened to their experiences there. He also likely found inspiration from the works of Robert Armitage Sterndale, including Mammalia of India, according to Martin Seymour-Smith’s Rudyard Kipling: A Biography. Others point to Sterndale’s 1877 book Seonee: Or, Camp Life on the Satpura Range, as an important influence on Kipling’s tales.

The Jungle Book Illustration Courtesy Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons

An illustration from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. (Photo: Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons)

Another significant source was likely to be Kipling’s own father, John Lockwood Kipling. The elder Kipling was an illustrator, museum curator and art teacher. He produced Beast and Man in India: A Popular Sketch of Indian Animals in Their Relations with the People, which was published in 1891. John Lockwood Kipling also provided the images for some of his son’s works, including The Jungle Book and the 1901 novel Kim.

Another classic children’s tale, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” also comes from The Jungle Book. While most remember the Mowgli stories, they, in fact, only make up part of The Jungle Book. And like the Kipling’s tales about Mowgli, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” explores the relationship between the human world and the animal world. In this case, a mongoose seeks to protect a family of humans from a pair of deadly cobras. This battle of mongoose versus cobras has enjoyed some success outside of The Jungle Book, having been published as a stand-alone picture book several times over the years. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” was also turned into a 1975 animated short with Hollywood heavyweight Orson Welles voicing one of the cold-hearted cobras.

The Jungle Book has inspired countless adaptations. The first live action film debuted in 1942, but the best-known movie version up until now was the 1967 animated Disney tale. Disney took a lot of license with the original story and transformed it into a feel-good family musical. One of its songs, “The Bare Necessities,” was even nominated for an Academy Award. An interesting mix of actors lent their voices to the project. Sebastian Cabot, best known for the TV show Family Affair, played Bagheera, and bandleader Louis Prima played King Louie of the apes. Phil Harris, who was Baloo, went on to voice another animated bear for Disney, playing Little John in 1973’s Robin Hood

The voice of Mowgli, however, came from a rookie performer. Bruce Reitherman, the son of the film’s director Wolfgang Reitherman, played the endearing “man cub” in the film. He told the Express newspaper that “The voice of Mowgli required something special, in the sense that he had to be absolutely ordinary. It had to feel like a really average kid.”

The Jungle Book Movie Poster Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

The Jungle Book movie poster. (Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures)

The Jungle Book opens in theaters on April 15.