Lord of the Jungle

I’m going to reveal something here, that I have mentioned in private conversations but haven’t really revealed online – or if I have I don’t remember where.

I decided at a young age that I was going to write, and a little bit after that, that I wanted to be an actor too. The main reason I wanted to be an actor – was Tarzan.

I really wanted to be Tarzan. Even went as far as decorating my room with weeds and foliage from the back yard… leading to minor insect infestation my parents weren’t too happy about.

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I collected all the Ballantine Book’s paperback versions of each of the Tarzan novels that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote – the ones with the amazing covers by #NealAdams and #BorisVallejo (Neal’s is above, Boris’s below)
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I read and re-read them, transported to a dark and forbidden continent, and also back in time – to the time when Burroughs was writing them — when most Americans had never set foot on The Dark Continent – to a time when the perception of Africa was more fantastical than real, a place where hidden kingdoms and fabulous riches lay in wait for intrepid explorers and greedy pale-skinned invaders.

Tarzan was one of the first ‘pulp heroes’ – a man of the new century, a demi-god that walked in ranks of others like him: Doc Savage, Conan the Barbarian, and Flash Gordon.

At some point in my early twenties I realized I would never achieve my ‘dream’ of playing Tarzan – I just hadn’t been blessed with the height or the genes to make me the 6’5″, 0% body fat, two-fisted, half-naked, tree-swinging macho man that Tarzan needs to be.

What captivated me about him? I can’t really put my finger on it – maybe it was the TV series with Ron Ely that was running in syndication, or Daktari – another show from the 60’s set in Africa – or maybe it was Henry Mancini’s score to Hatari! a John Wayne film that makes it seem as though the entire continent was in danger of being burned to the ground in a massive brush fire there are so many people smoking in it…

Whatever was the catalyst, at some point I picked up a copy of Tarzan of the Apes and read it. And I was hooked.

The original novel is a true masterpiece of pulp heroics – and its quite dark and bloody – a far cry from the tame versions of the character that have graced film screens and TV sets. A straight adaptation of this book has never been made – and probably never will be… for reasons that escape me.

Tarzan was a staple of Hollywood for a great number of years… and fell out of favor around the same time that Westerns began to decline. Why? There’s a great number of reasons – but a big one, especially for Tarzan – is that he is very much a man of a certain time or era. Tarzan outside of the early 1900’s just doesn’t ring true… a naked white man dispensing justice in Africa? Yeah, not too believable.

But set in that time, with the over-the-top trappings of pulp-adventure? You can’t do much better than John Clayton, Lord Greystoke – Tarzan of the Apes.

The latest incarnation of the character appears in  The Legend of Tarzan which arrives in theaters the summer of 2016 and which stars Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan and also includes Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz and Djimon Hounsou.

Like almost every other adaptation, they’ll get some things right… and some things wrong. Everyone has their own mind’s-eye view of their favorite heroes – how they look, how they move, etc. This one (and grant you, this is only a teaser and we’ll get more images and longer trailers I’m sure) gets one thing right – at least for the first 20 seconds or so: Africa is front and center. A character. Which it should be.

Africa is a major part of who Tarzan is – its savage and untamed. A mirror of who he truly is. That they seem to get right… however —

There’s far too much CGI in the trailer — both the Mangani and Tarzan himself seem to be rendered in CG for a lot of the jungle scenes — in my mind’s eye, no one has ever really gotten how Tarzan moves right. How he traverses the jungle and landscape is either portrayed in tepid or timid ways (lame shots of him holding a vine and swinging slowly from one side of the screen to the next), or too elastic and too surf-board/rollerskating cartoon craziness. In my mind, its very parkour-like and quite unsustainable for a human being to pull off – apes and monkeys can move through the trees because they are built to – we just don’t have the arm and limb strength to do what they do.

Also, the film is awash in the blue and orange color palette – reasons for which you can read about here and here. Basically to suggest moral associations for characters and places… so darkest Africa is washed in blue to suggest maybe not evil but some place that’s dangerous and deadly.

I haven’t read much about the film, other than it is set in the time when the first novel was, i.e. 1880’s and so it’s a ‘period’ piece and not “modern” per se. This may be a turn off for some, but for me… that’s at least keeping true to the what makes the character work. And that we start off with Lord Greystoke (Tarzan) already “civilized” and living in England – no longer Lord of the Jungle.

If you’ve read the books, you know that Tarzan straddles both the civilized and the savage worlds – is able to transition between the two very easily – because not only is he a brute, but he’s also a brain. He is a meta-man – a more advanced version of us… and if you are familiar with the Wold-Newton Family (as posited by #PhilipJoseFarmer) you’ll be given an insight as to why that may be… but suffice it to say, that Burroughs character is the pinnacle of what each man should be – strong, sufficient and erudite – both beast and gentleman.

So, already we get a different through-line from the novel – not necessarily a bad thing, considering they are showing us Tarzan’s transition in reverse. So by film’s end we will no doubt get the Ape-Man and rather than the English Lord.

Much like a number of other hero movies – superhero or otherwise – Tarzan’s origin story is so well known that there really isn’t a reason to go over it – and yet we see glimpses of it in the trailer – again, not a bad thing, but also not necessarily something we need to see again.

It’s really too early to tell if the film will be better than the last few attempts at making the character interesting again. I’m excited to see the character back on the screen – and hope that its going to be better than others… but I’m also prepared to know that it won’t ever match my expectations.

I still hold out hope that someone somewhere will be brave enough to just take Burroughs novel and make that into a film. I doubt it will ever get made – but, you never know…

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