There have been many, many film and TV adaptations of Tarzan since the character first debuted in 1912. Some have been good, but most have been rather weak. Few have been truly accurate to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. What does next year’s The Legend of Tarzan need to do to make Tarzan entertaining, relevant and marketable in the 21st Century?
ERB (Burroughs) created Tarzan in a literary serial for All Stories Magazine in 1912, which was so popular it was rereleased as a novel in 1914, spawning a whole series of books, stretching through till 1947. Tarzan has spawned a multi media empire consisting of radio shows, stage plays, newspaper strips, comic books, video games, toys, TV shows and movies. There’s a museum devoted strictly to Tarzan in California and there’s even a town named after the character; Tarzana, CA. This week we saw the first trailer for the next Tarzan cinematic project called the Legend of Tarzan, which is due out next year. This particular version is not based off any of the ERB novels or previous films, but instead is being adapted from a comic book series produced Dark Horse Comics.
Despite being such an iconic character, Tarzan hasn’t had a great track record regarding big screen projects. Not that most were terrible but the vast majority were disappointing and rather lackluster. They didn’t live up to the books. There hasn’t been a good version of Tarzan in quite a while. You’d have to go back 16 years to the Disney animated version in 1999, and before that you’d have to look back many more years. Tarzan movies have been plentiful but good Tarzan movies are a lot harder to find.
Why are there so many lower-than-average entries in the history of Tarzan? A big part of the problem is that most versions stray far from the ERB source material. There’s been very little fidelity to the literary series. Even the most popular version of Tarzan—played by Johnny Weissmuller in the MGM film series—was criticized by ERB himself for being an inaccurate adaptation of the character.
ERB had good reason to criticize the Weissmuller/MGM interpretation of the character. That version of Tarzan spoke only in Pidgin English and referred to himself in the third person. (“Tarzan tired. Tarzan sleep now.”) This has led to generations of people thinking that Tarzan was monosyllabic and inarticulate. This is a misconception and not accurate to the literary Tarzan who was well-spoken and multi-lingual, fluent in English, French, German and Latin, as well as a few other languages. As much good as the Weissmuller/MGM films did in making Tarzan a worldwide moneymaking machine, it also began several misconceptions about the Lord of the Jungle that remain until this day. (For instance, Tarzan didn’t swing on vines in the books.) These misconceptions have led to a skewed view of Tarzan that has caused inaccurate incarnations to keep popping up decade after decade.
So taking all this into account, what does the new film have to do to be an epic adventure that satisfies both new fans and die-hard ERB fanatics like me? Well, it needs to take all the best aspects that made the ERB novels so good and utilize them in live action form. Don’t ignore what made the books so good—use it!
The filmmakers should also look at other similar ‘super’ characters to see what works for them, and try to transfer it to Tarzan. Think of who the two most popular movie super heroes are now….Batman and Wolverine. Coincidentally, Tarzan has qualities very much like both of those heroes. Tarzan has a backstory similar to Batman and personal characteristics similar to Wolverine.
Think about it; Batman was born to a wealthy family but a tragedy that caused the death of his parents changed his life. Seeking to bring justice to a dangerous city, he trained himself to peak physical and mental conditioning, and returned to Gotham City to become the scourge of the underworld. Tarzan was born to a wealthy family but a tragedy that caused the death of his parents changed his life. Seeking to survive in a hostile environment, he learned to develop his body and skills to peak conditioning and became the Lord of the Jungle.
And what about the Wolverine? The ERB Tarzan is a lot like Wolverine. He’s a combination of a savage and a skilled warrior. Like Wolverine, Tarzan has a no-nonsense, “Don’t mess with me or I’ll slice you up” attitude and he has a primal, bestial side that comes out in fits of savage fury when he gets mad. Tarzan is definitely no pacifist and he isn’t big on mercy. The same sort of simmering intensity and pent-up savagery that makes Wolverine so popular is present in the ERB Tarzan.
In a way, Tarzan is a lot like a super hero. First of all, look at all Tarzan’s “powers”: He has almost superhuman strength, speed and agility; his senses are all developed beyond normal human levels; he is an expert archer and knife-fighter; and he can talk to the animals. These are all cool powers that can be exploited for fun action sequences.
Most people today don’t know much about the literary Tarzan. I was surprised while listening to a podcast about the new trailer yesterday because the two young hosts knew nothing about the character beyond the Disney movie. In fact, they thought the Legend of Tarzan would be a live action adaptation of the 1999 Disney film (blissfully unaware that this one isn’t produced or distributed by Disney.) It’s this sort of vagueness and lack of knowledge about one of the most iconic of fictional characters which keeps most of the screen versions in the realm of mediocrity.
The Legend of Tarzan is being co-produced by Village Road Show Pictures and Jerry Weintraub Productions, and will be distributed by Warner Bros. (If they can spare the time with all the Batman v. Superman hoopla going on.) Alexander Skarsgard is tackling the title role of the King of the Jungle, while lovely Margot Robbie (Who will be playing Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad) will play his wife Jane. Christoph Waltz is portraying the villain Captain Rom and the ever-busy Samuel L. Jackson will appear because he’s in everything. The Legend of Tarzan is due out in July 1, 2016.