Part 1: Getting The ‘Pig-Headed’ Master To Write A Script
Around this time last year The Jungle Book was showing in cinemas worldwide. It was a delightful movie that deserved its millions, but purists know it took too many liberties with Rudyard Kipling’s original story.
Kipling dreaded seeing his works mutilated by studios and so, for years, he refused to have anything to do with them. The Jungle Book (1894) and Edison’s first studio were born a year apart, yet Kipling did not allow anyone to adapt any of his stories for the screen until 26 years later, when he himself wrote the screenplay of Without Benefit of Clergy.
It was the era of silent movies and to Kipling, perhaps, adapting a story without “the verbal graces, the happy phrase, the glowing description, the animated dialogue with its unrivalled power of establishing character” was sacrilege.
He was unbending, immovable, “pig-headed” on the subject. There is a story about an American production house that tried to soften him with a stupendous offer of dollars. They chose a famous lawyer “noted for his impressive speech and manner to go to England and ‘bring back a Kipling contract’.” The lawyer managed to get an appointment, but the meeting ended abruptly when he offered Kipling a million dollars:
“As to what my proposition means to you, Mr Kipling,” the visitor is believed to have said, “I have full authority to state that seven figures — not less than one million dollars…” But he could not complete the sentence. “On the word ‘million’ the novelist had seized his hat. On ‘dollars’ the door slammed with Mr Kipling outside.”
Million dollars was an astronomical sum in the early 1900s. Today, the Nobel prize money comes to about that much, but in 1907, when Kipling became the youngest Nobel laureate for literature, he got only $40,000 (about a million in today’s money). The incident became a legend, and after that everybody in Hollywood knew “the surest and speediest way of bringing out that uncompromising negative was to ‘talk money’ to Mr Kipling.”
Getting him to agree
When Paul Brunet, president of the film production company Pathe Exchange, approached Kipling around 1920, he made a subtler pitch. He tried to convince the writer that cinematic techniques had advanced greatly to aid literary storytelling, and many people across the world now consumed literature through cinema rather than the printed word. Cinema, he said (in the words of a contemporary American newspaper), “was capable of presenting human life and character with realism and with art.”
Instead of asking Kipling to sell Pathe the rights to adapt a book, Brunet requested him to write the script himself, and promised “the screen would faithfully and brilliantly interpret his creations.” It was something new that the 55-year-old author could not refuse outright. But he hesitated. He had no experience of writing for a silent medium without narration and dialogue, he told Brunet.
That problem was solved easily. Before leaving with his contract, Brunet promised that he would lend Kipling a very capable assistant who would not only help him write the script but also supervise the movie’s production in Los Angeles on his behalf. This assistant was Randolph Cooper Lewis, a scriptwriter and Kipling fanatic who “knew his Kipling backwards”. He too had his doubts about showing a Kipling story on the screen without ‘atmosphere’, but agreed to do the job.
When they worked together in England, Lewis found Kipling had read up on cinematic techniques and screenwriting. He also did not have any objections to reproducing scenes from the Lahore of Without Benefit of Clergy in the grounds of Brunton Studios. Thus began Rudyard Kipling’s second career as a Hollywood screenwriter for his own books.
This article is the first in a series about Kipling and his first film, Without Benefit of Clergy, that released in 1921. Follow my blog to stay updated about the rest of this story.