The Legend of Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, Lord of the Jungle, Apeman, whatever you may know it as there is no disputing the allure of this Edgar Rice Burroughs story. How many other stories have had so many iterations? This is not like a Batman ‘franchise’ where the beloved hero takes on a new villain in each retelling. Tarzan’s origin story has been told so many times that the latest high-budget film from Warner Brothers Studio, found critics attacking the only thing they could, ‘why didn’t the filmmakers tell this tale differently?’
Part of this comes from the Burroughs’ estate; as I recall, (I worked on Disney’s animated feature TARZAN), the estate is very hands-on in how the material is treated. Apparently, they have no problem letting countless creators for theaters, stage, and screen tackle the material – as long as it is true to the original. Even Wikipedia says there have been too many productions to count. Part of this, I discovered is all of the title variations.
My question is what makes the material so appealing that studios are willing to invest in it time and time again AND audiences are still intrigued enough to turn out? I hear that the latest from Warner Brothers is not a blockbuster, but it is fairing well. [It is a sad state of affairs when an estimated $38M weekend is considered a flop]. I saw it opening weekend and even though I knew the story, I was entertained. More importantly than my opinion, the small town theater in Nowhere, USA, was packed, much to my surprise — not only that, they applauded and cheered when it was over.
I recall our head honcho of development when he came in a Monday morning meeting and announced we were doing TARZAN. He was given the book to read before he boarded a flight over the weekend, (I believe it was from the director, if not it was definitely someone who pitched the material in hopes of getting it made).
Thom said by the time the plane had landed he was certain that we had to do this film – there were so many things that were right about it.
As I watched the film last week, I played that meeting back in my mind, and decided to go home and pick up the book – thinking it would be a perfect 1st 10 pages analysis of a book (I don’t do a lot of 1st 10’s on books due to rights issues, etc.).
As I re-familiarized myself with the material, two things stood out: 1) the adaptation I had just seen was true to the book from page one (the version I worked on was not) and 2) the 1st 10 pages of the book were a bit of a bore and I understood why most adaptations, including the latest, condensed it down or did away with it altogether.
So what does make this story so appealing? What made my boss step off the plane knowing we had to do this film that had already been done countless times? And for novelists, how can that same evergreen magic be re-created? What is so special about a boy who grows up in the jungle with apes for a family?
First, it is not the fact that Tarzan lost his parents – though heartbreaking, he did not know them.
I will even go as far to say that it is not the ‘beauty and the beast’ component – the fact that Jane falls in love with an ape man (albeit a buff ape man) and he has to decide whether to leave the only home he’s ever known. This is a nice sub-plot, but I think it is the C story in the grand scheme of things.
The B story is his ape family and the fact that they are his family and he had to fight to belong to them, and fight to help them survive — in most stories the B story is the love story — in Tarzan’s case it is his love for the animals that raised him.
The main story is one of survival — a life and death match against an invasive society which has no regard or respect for life.
Tarzan, the man, is the ultimate defender of justice. He sees the beauty in life, no matter the form, and he sees the ugly in villainy and in greed. His upbringing has made him so in tune with all that it means to be alive, that he respects even the most animalistic traditions, habits, and habitats, allowing each species to have their say and their space (and he does so with just a sniff and a glance, not a soapbox).
Tarzan is at his core, what is at the core of humanity and all living things, he just happens to look really cool in the process.
There are beliefs and maybe even evidence that we change every cell in our being every seven years, and generations are defined by decades give or take a few years. As long as life is being regenerated, Tarzan will hold an appeal because he represents the essence of what life is, and he is a true reminder that we all need to live and heed his respect for all life and fight greed, and disrespect of other species, and lifestyles and maybe find a little love in the process.
Attached is the 1st chapter of the original book, which just so happens to be the 1st 10 pages. The first line is very successful at drawing us in, and I thank the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs for insisting on fair representation of the material.