Saturday, August 26, 2006

TARZAN- Love & Hate

I’ve been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation since I was a boy. Like many other kids with an appetite for adventure fiction I read the first of the Tarzan novels and fell in love with the stories of the orphaned nobleman raised by gorillas in the African jungle. His adventures fighting predatory beasts, harassing Arab poachers, finding the occasional lost city and battling nefarious bad guys seeking various treasures thrilled me page after page. It’s because I loved the Tarzan of ERB that I could hardly stand the Tarzan of Hollywood.

In the books Tarzan is of noble British blood and by the end of the first novel he is aware of his lineage and has reclaimed his title as Lord Greystoke. Possessing a great intellect as well as amazing physical ability he speaks several languages, is able to mix well in society and is easily the master of his life. ERB’s character chooses to live in Africa with his wife and family on a sprawling jungle plantation with his sworn Waziri tribesmen nearby. ERB’s character was a man to be reckoned with and feared as much for his cleverness as his knife.

When as a young lad I was able to finally see the 1932 film TARZAN OF THE APES I expected to see something close to the definitive screen version of my beloved jungle man. After all- this movie was hailed as the best Tarzan film ever made. I was sorely disappointed! Who was this monosyllabic moron calling himself Tarzan? He didn’t seem bright enough to hold two thoughts in succession much less reason or think. I suspect that Tarzan as played by Johnny Weissmuller would have had trouble negotiating a stoplight regardless of his facility with knife or vine. His inability to form complete sentences even after being around Jane for years pointed to a severe metal deficiency that appalled and finally disgusted me. I caught one of the later films in the series a year or so after seeing the first and could not believe they still had him acting like an idiot. If the dumb ass can’t dope out a spoken language he hears ever day of his life then he’s too damned stupid to be anyone’s hero! So, I decided to stick with reading an occasional original novel for my Jungle Man fix and avoided any other of Hollywood’s attempts to destroy one of fictions great characters.

But then came my college years and a group of friends with similar interests as myself. Among them was a fellow who also loved ERB’s Tarzan but had come to terms with the Weissmuller Tarzan. Pointing out that the books were always going to be around for fans to read he slowly convinced me that the Hollywood version had its good points as well. True- it had more than its fair share of idiotic elements but the films were fun entertainments and worth enjoying as what they were intended to be. No, they’re not the ‘real’ Tarzan and ERB fans may grit their teeth at the knowledge that this is how 99% of folks think of him.

And Hollywood giveth with one hand while it smacketh with the other. I honestly doubt if Tarzan would be as famous and well known if not for the hugely popular Weissmuller films. Perhaps the character endures because the black & white images from these films were absorbed into the brains of a generation or two of children hungry for adventure in the trees? Maybe one of the biggest reasons the original 24 Tarzan novels never go out of print is that young boys are curious for more of the jungle man’s tales than the films can provide?

It’s true that because of the Weissmuller Tarzan films the chances of an accurate adaptation ever being done are nearly zero. But I’ve made my peace with Hollywood’s version of Lord Greystoke. I’m watching those old films with great joy now as they come out on DVD in sets. And I’m even looking forward to each movie with anticipation. In my 30s I’m finally getting that feeling a lot of boys had sitting in a darkened theater or curled up in front of the TV for an afternoon matinee. The thrill of watching a Jungle Man swing though the trees, wrestle lions and kill crocodiles as I wonder what will happen next is wondrful. The books are better, but that’s almost always the case, isn’t it.


Rhatfink said...

So what do you think of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan? This is definitely a step in the right direction for the most part in my opinion.

Rod Barnett said...

GREYSTOKE was a step in the right direction...but it went too far in that direction. A Tarzan movie with no action is just sad. The perfect Tarzan movie would be somewhere in between these two extremes. Closer in fact to the last two film starring Gordon Scott as the jungle lord in the 1960's. They were not perfect but a damn sight better than the 'Me Tarzan' crap.

Randy Fox said...

You went through the same exact arc that I did in regard to the Tarzan films. (And incidentally, Tarzan would be my all-time favorite fictional character if I was required to choose only one [but thankfully I am not required to do so...]) I now appreciate the Tarzan films for what they are, but still secretly long for a 100 percent true adaption to the character!