Dear Mr. Kipling,
The first movie I remember seeing in a theatre was ‘The Jungle Book’. This was the Disney one, released in 1967. It was at the vintage movie theatre down the road from my grandparent’s cottage, around 1990, a special screening, I guess. It so appealed to my brother and I, this notion of a wild child living among beasts, no rules, no structure. My brother ran around for years on all fours in his underwear, trying to emulate – and earning the nickname – ‘Mowgli’. There were things to fear in the jungle sure, but it all worked out, and Mowgli eventually went to the village. There was a certain comfort in this, knowing that in the end, Mowgli returned to where he belonged, and, we assumed, he would be safe and well there.
I went to see the new adaptation of ‘The Jungle Book’ last week and I will admit that it really overwhelmed me. The jungle felt real. It felt beautiful and lush and bright and wondrous, but it also felt sinister. There was much to fear. Maybe it was the combination of ‘real’ animals and human voices. Maybe it was Jon Favreau’s gorgeous directing, or Justin Marks’ seamless screenplay. Maybe it was this spunky little badass kid flinging himself so bravely inside this wilderness. But I was struck again: in Mowgli’s journey among animals, there is so much to learn about being human.
Mowgli grows up in the jungle. He is raised by wolves. He has a mentor. He has a daft but loveable sidekick. He is sometimes misguided. He is headstrong. He doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t belong. He makes some false friends. He makes an enemy. He develops skills. He finds a weapon. He runs away, fails, falls, succeeds, saves, loves, loses. And then, after he defeats his enemy, after he brings destruction and is forgiven – he carries on. He does not leave. He keeps swinging.
I realized how much I had riding on the assumption that after he got through the snake and the monkeys and the tiger he would meet a nice girl on the edge of the village and follow her there and grow up and go to university and become an investment banker and have 2.5 kids in a minivan. Now, the clever people at Disney are probably saving this scenario for a sequel, but what does Mowgli do in the meantime? He can’t just live out there forever, can he? What will happen? He’s supposed to go to the village! He’s going to get lost in the jungle! He doesn’t have a PLAN!
As a society, we are not trained to do well with this sort of open ending. And yet, so many people are living it. We are often just wandering our own wilderness, working through the adversaries as they come, whatever they are. Sometimes, growing up and moving on are terribly hard. Sometimes they are scarier than taking down a tiger. Sometimes, living in the jungle feels safer than starting over in the village.
I know a handful of facts about you, Mr. Kipling. You were born in ‘British India’ and lived there on and off for many years. You were the first English-language recipient of the Nobel Prize and at 41, the youngest recipient to date. You declined knighthood several times. There is a lot of controversy surrounding you. George Orwell rather scathingly called you ‘the prophet of British Imperialism.’ T.S. Eliot defended your undeniable skill as a writer. There are a lot of politics surrounding you, which I will not get into. Although you were a prolific short story writer, I have not read any of yours. I read The Jungle Book when I was very young, and much of what I am speaking to here refers to a movie that has been out for a month. I’ve read almost nothing of yours, but know this one story so dearly.
There is one other piece of yours that I have always carried with me – your poem ‘If-‘. As a teen I was fairly inspired by it. As an adult, it interests me: it is a ‘how-to’ guide for growing up, and it came back to me as I was watching the film. It’s an interesting duality, that you have two such opposing worlds with such a similar through-line – this journey to becoming ‘Man’. I guess many artists do. Maybe it is that I just know the two, and that they intersect so neatly.
Your idea, I guess, is that we do leave the jungle. We do grow up. But there is no clear path, my friend. For one thing, you have to want to leave. There is no straight line to anything. The jungle just doesn’t work that way. We grow up when we’re ready to.