The Rudyard Kipling Cinematic Universe

This journey began with a Penguin book of classic short stories, in which I read Wireless, a very strange story indeed, by Rudyard Kipling.

That lead me, after weeks of time-wasting, to pick up and devour a volume called Strange Takes, which collects many of Kipling’s tales of the uncanny but NOT Wireless, which is incomprehensible to me since Wireless is, as noted, a very strange story indeed. With telepathy compared to radio as its theme.

Strange Tales shows a fantastic breadth — there are fairly straightforward accounts of supernatural vengeance, but also an uncanny dog story, the healing of a sick building, an account of what the Victorians termed “maternal influence” and an encounter with something called a “wishing house” — a creepy element in a story that’s otherwise plain tragedy.

Two features recur — the casual racism of the time, and a fear of madness so persistent that I wondered about Kipling’s own mental health history. He seems familiar with manias, persecution complexes, depression, the horrors, and all manner of malaises of the mind.

A character called Strickland recurs only twice, in the first two stories, written at the outset of the Great Man’s career, both tales of native revenge and both fairly horrid — contemporary reviewers were repulsed by the grisly imagination displayed, one critic declaring that the author would end in the madhouse.

Strickland is described as the sort of man things happen to, a throwaway line to account for the sheer implausibility of High Weirdness striking twice in this character’s life. He’s like Kolchak. Strickland is an effective sort of bastard, driven to grisly extremes in his first appearance in Mark of the Beast, and I was sort of looking forward to reading more of him, but he doesn’t appear again.

Still, Kipling’s prose and imagination lead me to pick up Kim, which is free of racism and cultural prejudices to a striking degree, magnificently written, and combining high adventure with still loftier spirituality. And here comes Mr. Strickland, walking into the book and out again within a page or two.

I’d started reading Edward Said’s intro but discovered to my fury that it was full of casual spoilers so I set it aside. Now I’ve finished the novel I’ll go back to it, but right now I’m following Strickland’s trail on the internet and discover he’s in four more short stories so I’ll have to read them too. Mark of the Beast is not his actual first canonical appearance. And he’s one of these masters of disguise the Raj seemed to be full of, dragging himself up as natives like the hero of The Deceivers.

But first I’ll watch Victor Saville’s film of Kim — from the one scene I remember of it, it’s clearly going to be a travesty, but then Kipling’s novel is not conventionally filmable. I did recognise a line of dialogue from the book repurposed for the movie, dropped into another character’s mouth in another situation, and I sort of appreciate that kind of effort.

16 Responses to “The Rudyard Kipling Cinematic Universe”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    KIM? “You’re a better man than me, Gunga Cairns”

    There’s a little yellow idol to the North of Katmandu…”

  2. Kipling’s a damn sight better than J. Milton Hayes, though The Mark of the Beast teaches essentially the same lesson as The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God. It just does it with far more vivid language and more authentic horror…

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Jack London wrote an affirmative essay on Kipling – “These Bones Shall Rise Again”. He was referring to his literary style there. Do you remember that 1963 BBC TV series THE INDIAN TALES OF RUDYARD KIPLING with Joss Acland playing an older, fictionalized version of the author, Kenneth Fortescue as Young Lockwood portaring his younger self with recurring characters such as Barbara Murray as Mrs. Lucy Hawksby and Georgina Cookson as her friend?

  4. bensondonald Says:

    In the animated 60s TV series “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo”, they cast Magoo as Gunga Din. At least he was the central character instead of the British officers.

    The show had Jim Backus playing Magoo playing Gunga Din, Dr. Frankenstein, D’Artagnan, Puck, the Count of Monte Cristo, Noah, Cyrano, Ishmael and Don Quixote, among others. They were played straight — far too straight for under budgeted, g-rated half hours — without Magoo’s defining bluster or nearsighted schtick except in brief dressing-room intros.

    It was, if nothing else, a monument to executive thinking. If Magoo was a big success as comically cranky Scrooge in a holiday special, of course the public wanted to see him in “Moby Dick”.

  5. Amazing! Never seen the Magoos or The Indian Tales (I was minus four when that aired first).

    John Huston, of course, did very well by Kipling, and in the 70s he could play the racism and imperialism straightforwardly and get laughs with it and nobody had any problem with it.

    A 90s version of Kim casts an Indian boy as the hero — Kipling’s Kim is of Irish parentage — Kimball O’Hara — and it’s conceivable that his father appears in an early story, for there’s an O’Hara in Black Jack.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Man Who Would Be Magoo”

  7. There are a couple of sequels to Kim, by T.N. Murari, which show why Kipling had to drop the character as a boy.
    Gide was asked “Quel est, selon vous, le plus grand poète français?”
    “Victor Hugo… hélas.” was his answer.
    I feel the same way about Kipling, sometimes. I wish the old bastard wasn’t such a good writer so we could just disregard him. If you read “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, about his own childhood, you’ll see where the fear of madness and the hatred came from.

  8. David E, That’s perfect.

  9. Roger, you make a strong point as well.

  10. bensondonald Says:

    Herewith Magoo:

    And the opening title, arguably the best part of the show:

  11. bensondonald Says:

    There’s also a 1960s nudie titled “Kipling’s Women”, but trying to find a video online kept leading to dubious clickbait.

  12. I’ll be reading Baa Baa Black Sheep shortly, I think. I think Kim is, though founded on the assumption that the Empire was wholly good, mostly free from the racial nastiness that crops up elsewhere. And this may be because it’s a fantasia inspired by his happy Indian childhood, BEFORE his horrible boarding school experience. I gather they tried to beat his racism out of him, and he doubled down, feeling his whole identity was under siege. A sad story.

    I think, painful as the irruptions of animus are, they’re valuable as a portrayal of Victorian attitudes. So long as the reader is suitably repelled.

    I like the Magoo titles. If they’d made the episodes PARODIES with Magoo in myopic mode, they might have rejuvenated a one-joke character and made something that made sense. I mean, as a Classics Illustrated thing it’s hardly a suitable primer.

  13. I doubt if Kipling’s school – or his carers, portayed in Baa Baa Black sheep – “tried to beat his racism out of him”. Racism was the late nineteenth century norm. Where we would say it was society or culture, the Victorians said it was race. Kipling’s racism was curious in that he could switch it on or off, you might say. It would be a trope with a secondary character, but when he looked directly at someone he forgot about race. In Gunga Din, for example, the narrator is a racist thug, but he is willing to admit “You’re a better man than I am, Gungs Din.”
    The other write with a similar background and response was Saki. There’s the same mixture of inhuman artistic self-control and repressed hatred.

  14. theredshoes1 Says:

    Spike Milligan also seemed to be racially confused. He was a child of the Raj. He spoke Urdu fluently and even played an Indian character in the disastrous Curry And Chips. Later in life a journalist asked him if he was a racist. There was a short pause, then he said, “Yes. Yes, I suppose I am.” It’s kind of difficult to know how to deal with a self aware racist. There aren’t that many of them around.

  15. I think — and I’ll have to see if it’s true when I read the story — Kipling’s teachers beat him for using the “n” word. Which was probably just regarded as vulgar rather than racist. “It’s common,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter, and he’s meant to be a good guy.

  16. La Faustin Says:

    Do read “Baa Baa Black Sheep!” Also interesting, his mixed feelings about Jews — see, among others, “Jews in Shushan.” And his very different feelings about Hindus and Muslims, which I believe come out fascinatingly in comparing “Beyond the Pale” and “Without Benefit of Clergy.”

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