The Jungle Book Characters: Books and Movie Adaptations [Ultimate Guide]

Thanks in large part to Disney’s many animated and live-action adaptations, few children in the entire world have grown up without some notion of the fantastical world of Mowgli, Baloo, and Shere Khan.

But how much do children—and you—know about the original Jungle Book characters and stories by Rudyard Kipling?

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling first published his collection of stories that would later come to be known collectively as The Jungle Book in magazines back in 1893 and 1894.

First edition Jungle Book cover

First edition copy of The Jungle Book
Photo from Wikicommons

At the time these stories were written, Kipling lived in Dummerston, Vermont. A handwritten note found in 2010 has proved that Kipling wrote these stories for his daughter Josephine, who was six years old and ill with pneumonia. She sadly died of the disease in 1899.

When talking about Rudyard Kipling, it’s worth pointing out that his place in English literature isn’t without controversy. As Michael Dirda says, many recent scholars and critics point to Kipling mostly for his “racial insensitivity, colonialist arrogance and anti-feminist caricature.” (However, Dirda goes on to make a fair argument for why Kipling is a great writer and deserves serious consideration in spite of his imperialist views. It’s worth a read.)

Rudyard Kipling signature

Rudyard Kipling’s signature
Photo from Wikicommons

But back to The Jungle Book: because The Jungle Book characters are animals who primarily serve to teach moral lessons, both The Jungle Book and its sequel The Second Jungle Book are often considered fables. The most famous stories of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling are the three stories about the adventures of Mowgli, a “man cub” who was abandoned and raised by wolves.

Other well-known stories included in this classic are “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the story of a mongoose who was a hero, and “Toomai of the Elephants,” a tale featuring a young handler of elephants. Characteristic of Kipling’s stories, each story is followed by a poetic piece of verse.

If you’re ever in the mood, you can read The Jungle Book in its entirety online for free on Project Gutenberg.

The Jungle Book Characters: Mowgli, Baloo, and Others

Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories are filled with anthropomorphic animals, from monkeys and cobras to seals and sea cows. Although there are dozens of characters and groups of characters, a few play central roles in the main Mowgli stories.

Mowgli the Man Cub

The first character, of course, is the little man cub Mowgli. At the start of the story, a wolf pack hears that the tiger Shere Khan is hunting humans. The wolf pack is alarmed because they follow the Law of the Jungle, which forbids the hunting of humans since they are defenseless.

When an Indian child comes to the wolves’ den, they lovingly take him in and name him Mowgli. (Kipling claimed that Mowgli meant “Frog,” but he later admitted to making this up entirely.) Being raised by wolves and panthers, it is only natural that Mowgli would be crazy, wild, and brave. Knowing no other life, he thinks everything about his life is normal, but, of course, it isn’t. Home for him is the jungle, not the village where men live.

One day, Shere Khan comes to the wolves’ den and demands the man-cub. Knowing that the only thing that will defeat Shere Khan is fire, Mowgli cleverly goes to the village and brings fire back to defeat Shere Khan.

Father Wolf

Father Wolf believes in the Law of the Jungle. When Shere Khan changes his home, Father Wolf becomes angry since this is against the law and will make the villagers angry.

1894 The Jungle Book Mowgli illustration

Father Wolf (Left)
Photo from Wikicommons

Father Wolf hears the loud whine of Shere Khan, and Mother Wolf tells Father Wolf that Shere Khan plans to hunt man. Father Wolf is wise and knows that hunting man will bring trouble to all the animals because men will bring gongs, guns, torches, and rockets. All  jungle animals will suffer.

Shere Khan demands that they give him the man-cub, but Father Wolf is brave and refuses, saying that the wolves are free and take orders only from the head of the pack.

Mother Wolf

Mother Wolf sees the man cub and quickly agrees to care for him. She is the eternal loving mother and cares for Mowgli as if he were one of her own cubs. She and Father Wolf introduce Mowgli at the Council Rock so that the other wolves will accept him.

However, Mother Wolf is also brave and feared by Shere Khan, who knows that Mother Wolf will fight to the death. Mother Wolf is also wise. She predicted that one day Mowgli would hunt Shere Khan. In the end, this did indeed happen.

Shere Khan the Tiger

Shere Khan is undoubtedly the villain of the story. What he seems to want most is to capture Mowgli. He lives without following the Law of the Jungle. He hunts where he knows he should not, and he wants Father and Mother Wolf to give him Mowgli. What makes Shere Khan a cruel character is his desire to kill Mowgli, who was just a baby at that time.

Meeting at Council Rock illustration from The Jungle Book

Shere Khan watches over the wolf council
Photo from Wikicommons

Shere Khan has been lame since birth and whines loudly when his hunt is unsuccessful. This is foolish of him since the other animals of the jungle can hear his whining and know he is unable to hunt.

In the end, Mowgli traps Shere Khan between two herds of bulls who killed Shere Khan, making Mowgli the ultimate victor.

Baloo the Bear

Baloo teaches Mowgli the ways of the jungle: how to swim and climb, how to speak to bees, and how follow the laws of the jungle. Mowgli is quick at learning how to communicate with the many jungle animals, and Baloo is a real friend to Mowgli and a very patient teacher. Baloo is brave and caring, especially when he joins Bagheera to rescue Mowgli from the monkeys.

Bagheera the Panther

Bagheera is another friend and teacher of Mowgli. When the monkeys of the jungle led Mowgli away to the Lost City, Bagheera and Baloo join forces to find Kaa the python and work together to rescue Mowgli from the monkeys.

Being protective of Mowgli, Bagheera convinces him to go to the man village where he will be safe.

Kaa the Python

A huge python that weighs over 100 pounds, Kaa has earned the fear and respect of other jungle animals. Kaa is able to hypnotize animals, which Baloo and Bagheera use to their advantage to save Mowgli from the pack of monkeys. However, Baloo and Bagheera themselves become hypnotized, and Mowgli ends up breaking the spell for them.

Although Kaa did save Mowgli, his trickery and self-serving nature makes his character a bit questionable.

Movie Adaptations of The Jungle Book

Over the years since the publication of the original Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, there have been many movie adaptations with varying degrees of popularity and commercial success.

The Original Jungle Book 1942 Movie

The 1942 live-action film, The Original Jungle Book, was based on a screenplay adaptation of Kipling’s Jungle Book stories and was produced and directed by the Korda brothers. Starring Sabu Dastagir as Mowgli, you can actually watch the entire movie (all hour and 45 minutes of it!) on YouTube courtesy of Hollywood Classic Movies.

The Jungle Book 1967 Movie

Disney’s 1967 animated adaptation of The Jungle Book is without a doubt the most famous. If nothing else, it’s the one that’s given us all those Jungle Book songs that get stuck in our heads so easily! (It’s just the bare…necessities…the simple bare necessities…)

Interestingly, although this adaptation is the most well known, it is also probably the least similar to Kipling’s original Jungle Book stories. This animated Jungle Book is much lighter, happier, and funnier—altogether more family-friendly, less survival-of-the-fittest. Walt Disney himself reportedly made his writers change their early screenplay by giving them a copy of the original Jungle Book and telling them: “The first thing I want you to do is not to read it.”

If you’re curious about the cast of the 1967 Jungle Book movie, here’s a great YouTube video by TheGenerationWest:

The Jungle Book 1994 Movie

This live-action movie version of The Jungle Book was also produced by Walt Disney pictures. It was directed by Stephen Sommers and starred Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli. This version is perhaps most notable for the fact that the animals do not speak. Like the 1967 animated version (but perhaps for different reasons), this Jungle Book movie adaptation veered noticeably from the content of Kipling’s original stories.

Famed film critic Roger Ebert had choice words for this version of Kipling’s beloved stories:

The credits say it is “based on characters” from the Kipling stories. It would be more honest to say the characters have “names from the Kipling stories,” since that is the only connection. The sweet innocence of Kipling’s fables about a boy who learns to live among the animals is replaced here by an “Indiana Jones” clone, an action thriller that Kipling would have viewed with astonishment.

The Jungle Book 2016 Movie

The most recent Jungle Book movie adaptation was Disney’s live-action movie of the same name, released in 2016 and reimagined as a live-action film by Jon Favreau. Favreau uses CGI to create his own striking and lifelike versions of The Jungle Book characters, focusing on the man cub Mowgli, played by Neel Seth.

This adaptation of The Jungle Book made history for being 100% filmed in front of a green screen. It’s also darker and

The cast of The Jungle Book 2016 film also packs a punch with huge names in Hollywood voicing the characters:

  • Shere Khan: Idris Elba
  • Bagheera: Ben Kingsley
  • Baloo: Bill Murray
  • Kaa: Scarlett Johansson
  • Raksha (Mother Wolf): Lupita Nyong’o
  • King Louie: Christopher Walken

Check out this Disney-approved behind-the-scenes look at how the directors, producers, artists, and cast of The Jungle Book came together to make this CGI movie such a success:

Even without these many film adaptations, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling would probably still be considered one of the best children’s classics of all time. But having the multibillion Disney engine continuously revamp the series, adapting it to fit advancing technology and changing culture? That can’t hurt either.

Can’t get enough of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book? Check out our full-text Jungle Book poster set:

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