Tarzan, Past and Present

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The majority of Disney movies are based on classic tales. These sanitized, Disney-fied animations have become the ultimate version of many fairy tale stories and, as such, have drawn criticism for erasing the originals from the minds of generations of children. But I feel they cultivate interest in stories which children would otherwise never have access to. Yes, the Disney stories are vastly different than the tales they are based on – to be fair, many of the stories as we know them today had already evolved through oral tradition. Disney, the most modern incarnation, brings its own contributions to the table – innovative art and animation techniques, moving music, and unequivocally happy endings. That’s not to say the old stories should be ignored or their darker components completely forgotten. Both versions serve their purpose, and an interesting way to experience these stories is to see them from both perspectives – so I have embarked on a literary journey. I will read the original stories on which the Disney movies were based.

I’ve started with the Tarzan books. That’s right – books, plural. The story of Tarzan was not the subject of one novel. In fact, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote 24 Tarzan books in total. In the interest of time, I decided to stick to the first two novels, Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan, which, as far as I can tell, form a complete story arc from which Tarzan’s other adventures stem. While Borough’s prose is not exactly artful, he effectively weaves a compelling adventure story that must have been especially dazzling to his early 20th century readers. A modern audience cannot ignore the glaring scientific inaccuracies or racist and sexist commentary. However, the observations Burroughs makes through the lens of a man who grew up outside of society and is more perplexed by the behavior of the “civilized white man” than what those men would call “savages” is somewhat progressive for his time in that it rejects the concept of colonization as an inherent good. With the time period in mind it’s perfectly possible to delight in Tarzan’s many adventures.

Interestingly enough, in the original story, it is Tarzan who teaches himself to read and write using the books his dead parents left behind. He educates himself to some extent about the human world long before Jane and Professor Porter ever set foot on the island. The novel spends much more time on Tarzan’s early life, starting when his parents were marooned before his birth and focusing on his path to respect among his primate family. When he does meet Jane, the complications of a sophisticated American (unlike in the Disney film) woman having a relationship with an orphaned jungle wild man whose origins are a mystery are not glossed over. A love triangle does develop between Tarzan, Jane, and Clayton – who, although an obstacle to Tarzan’s desires, is not in fact a villain – and the unusual circumstances of Tarzan’s very existence complicate this.

The second novel, which details Tarzan’s adventures in the “civilized” world after Jane’s reluctant rejection, covers an even wider range of topics. Our hero duels a jealous husband, has multiple run ins with a pair of Russian spies, goes undercover in the Middle East for the French government, is captured by and rescued from a nomadic Arabian people, joins an African tribe, and infiltrates a golden city run by vicious human-ape hybrids – multiple times. Not to mention several nearly romantic encounters with beautiful women and quite a lot of unarmed lion killing. Meanwhile, Jane’s story is not forgotten and intertwines in complicated, unexpected ways with Tarzan’s adventures.

As with most of their films, Disney took the basic premise of the Tarzan stories and ran with it, simplifying the plot to fit neatly into 88 minutes and an inspiring message of self-discovery. A soundtrack was added, sidekicks developed, and a couple of nasty raw-flesh eating scenes removed. Although these changes fundamentally altered the nature of the story, without them the movie never would have appealed to a modern audience and I never would have thought to explore an early 20th century adventure series that turned out to be surprisingly rewarding.

– by Kathryn Blanco

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