Like most people I first came into contact with Tarzan via one of the many versions of the character. In my case it was the Ron Ely TV series, closely followed by the Johnny Weissmuller films. In fact, it took me quite a while before I approached the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a writer who has had a profound effect on my imagination and the kinds of things I write about in my books and short stories.
Now this new film, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN has a go at bringing the Lord of the Apes to a modern audience – and it succeeds, without having to contemporise the setting or impose some latter-day values onto proceedings. Where other recent versions have made Tarzan a kind of environmental warrior, this one lets the character’s duality come to the fore. It’s not just a question of man/animal but decent/uncivilised. Here we see the horrors wrought by so-called civilisation, as white male capitalists commit atrocities in the name of financial gain. In this case it’s the Belgian exploitation of the Congo Basin, enslaving the locals, double-crossing a chieftain, kidnapping a not-so defenceless woman, in the pursuit of blood diamonds. Tarzan aka John Clayton III aka Lord Greystoke aka Alexander Skarsgard aka one of the fittest men on the planet, is at first reluctant to leave his stately home and go back to Africa, having adapted to life in a shirt and tie and an impeccable cut glass accent. Once back though, his former instincts resurface and his specially developed abilities are soon called into play when feisty wife Jane (Margot Robbie) becomes a pawn in the machinations of boo hiss villain Rom (Christoph Waltz). Samuel L Jackson is along for the ride, providing most of the humour – it is through his eyes that we mostly see Tarzan in his element. The growing friendship between the two men also provides one of the film’s most feel-good moments.
For the fans, the script is peppered with references to earlier versions, acknowledging the character’s place in cultural history for over a century, although these are throwaway moments that do not puncture the film’s integrity and the world it conjures.
The action sequences are fast-paced, the animals excellently presented – even the ostriches are scary. The resolution is satisfying and apt. The good end happily and the bad unhappily – which, Oscar Wilde tells us – is what fiction means.
Years ago, I had my own idea for a version of Tarzan. It eventually became my novel JUNGLE OUT THERE, which is still out there as an ebook. In my story, a character called Man, his aristocratic wife Lady Jane, and their adopted son, Baby, move to a semi-detached house in Dedley – a fictionalised version of my own home town. In the book, I poke a lot of fun at the characters, but more importantly, I satirise the way we live today. Have a butcher’s at the book here.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work has more directly influenced my science fiction. My wild west sci-fi trilogy set on the cowboy planet VULTURES’ MOON owes much to his Barsoom novels and also his Westerns. (The film version of JOHN CARTER is my all-time fave!) Mosey on over to the first in the series here.
Above all, the cinematic quality of Burroughs’s writing – some of it published while film was still developing its own language – has influenced the way I write. Nothing is too sensational or fantastical. If you can imagine it, you can write about it. And genre fiction is nothing to be ashamed of!