Welcome to the Jungle

They’re making a new Tarzan movie.

I have mixed emotions about that. When my grandfather made that fateful pronouncement that cost him so much money one of the series I went hunting for was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels. It took me a few years to collect all 24 of them, and re- reading them occupied many hours of my childhood. My first impression of jungles came from  the rich descriptions of Burroughs. The mysteries of his Dark Continent kept me forever fascinated. But all of that paled before the excellence of the Ape-man himself.

Tarzan is perhaps the best example of  the Noble Savage in all of literature. Lost in the jungle as an infant, Tarzan is raised by Great Apes, or Mangani, as they call themselves, creatures caught in that nebulous place between animals and men. Despite this, Tarzan’s essential humanity allows him to rise above his circumstances.  For example, while the most iconic first contact between Tarzan and human civilization is immortalized by the words, “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” in the novel Tarzan of the Apes, it was the Ape-man who first made contact . . . by letter! John Clayton and his wife knew they were expecting when they began their ill fated journey and packed accordingly. Among their belongings were several children’s primer’s and young reader’s books. As a child, while fleeing the abuses of the ape clan that raised him, the young Tarzan took refuge in his parent’s old shelter, and taught himself to read and write. In all the movie translations of Tarzan, I have never seen any that kept that facet of the original novel.

Another facet of Tarzan rarely seen in the movies is the violence. While Tarzan is a noble savage, he is still capable of considerable savagery. The Mangani are an inherently violent species. Leadership passes in trial by combat. In Burroughs’ Africa death lurks behind every tree, blood soaked and visceral, waiting for the unwary to stumble. Predators stalk through the trees, waiting to take the unwary.  Once again, no movie has truly captured this aspect of the Ape-man. It’s an issue skirted around for the benefit of the audience.  While Tarzan is frequently shown to be more clever than his opponents, rarely is he shown to be mightier, or more savage. In the books it is a completely different story. The Ape-man wins many of his battles by overpowering his enemies, and several more by crossing lines a civilized man would never cross.

It comes down to faithfulness. Hollywood is renowned for ignoring their source material in favor of what hey believe their audience wants to see. In the process, they frequently forget who their audience is. It happens in their comic genre adaptations a depressing number of times, although in recent years they’ve gotten better. They’ve done it to Stephen King, numerous times. They’ve done it to Tom Clancy. And they’ve done it to Tarzan more than once. Honestly, you can’t really blame them. They were targeting an audience as young as I was when I began reading the adventures of the Ape-man. (And yes, there is a huge difference between reading about bloody battle and watching it on a big screen.) And as much as I want to see Tarzan introduced to a new generation,( this time without the surfer-dude moves, thank you Disney,) Just once, I wouldn’t mind seeing a version aimed at me, who first met our hero in his original, literary form.  I want to see a Tarzan who triumphs over his adversaries by being more cunning  than the ones he can’t overpower, stronger than the ones he can, and savage enough to surprise either if it gives him an advantage. That’s the Ape-man I grew up with. This time, that’s the one I’d also like to see on film.

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2 Responses to Welcome to the Jungle

  1. Ronnie says:

    I really hope they make this version of Tarzan (or should I say the literary version). I have always thought Tarzan represented a natural humanity without the corrupting influences of selfish, societal power struggles. When he comes into contact with “modern” man it is he who has the upper hand because of his true and noble heart. When they, in past iterations, make him the ignorant, uncivilized character of “Me Tarzan, You Jane” they do so in order to place the “civilized” man atop the savage. Tarzan becomes the child that must be taught the proper ways of the adult. He becomes the savage native and we the imperialist masters.

    Instead, give me the Tarzan who writes letters. And if he can show how dangerous living in a jungle actually is then I’ll take that as well.

  2. Pingback: » Movie Review – Tarzan (1999) Fernby Films

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