The latest Tarzan movie still doesn’t get the books right

The latest Tarzan movie still doesn’t get the books right

For more than 100 years now, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan has been part of our popular culture.

From humble beginnings in the pulps to hugely successful movies to TV shows and comic books, it would be natural to assume that most people, and content creators, would know the story well.

I was a fan, reading all of the books. I memorized the known words of the language of the Mangani (more on that shortly). I watched the movies, and the Ron Ely TV series (along with other adaptations).

It surprised me a bit recently when it was reported that a parent outside an event for the new movie version

The Legend of Tarzan

which stars Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan, Margot Robbie as Jane Porter (and who also stars as Harley Quinn in my most anticipated movie of the year, August’s Suicide Squad), Christopher Waltz, and Samuel L. Jackson, among others, said that their children didn’t know who Tarzan was.

Particularly during the 1970s, the books were often not present in school libraries, due in large part to concerns that they were racist. They are also violent, but that didn’t seem to be the main issue.

However, the character did continue, including cartoon series during that same decade of the 1970s.

Importantly, in 1972, author Philip José Farmer wrote Tarzan Alive, a biography which presented Tarzan as a real person, and connected the character to many other fictional characters.

In 1984, Greystoke was putatively closer to the books, and in 1999, there was a Disney animated version. The latter, in particular, made it seem odd to me that a child wouldn’t be  familiar with Tarzan, even if they haven’t read or been read the originals.

I haven’t seen the new movie yet, just trailers…but they are enough to point out a significant change from the original books.

The Mangani who raise Tarzan are not gorillas. They aren’t chimpanzees. They aren’t bonobos, who weren’t even recognized as a separate species at the time.

They certainly aren’t orangutans, or other non-African apes.

Actually, they clearly aren’t even apes at all.

They aren’t homo sapiens like us, but they appear to be another species of human.

There were rumors at the time of hairy humans in Africa, although that is undeniably complicated by racial attitudes and what little was known about gorillas.

Given their language and social structure, you are closer thinking that Tarzan was raised by the African equivalent of Bigfoot than gorillas.

Of course, Bigfoot isn’t a great analogy either, at least in the popular conception of the North American hairy hominid. Most people don’t think of them as having much of a structured culture, and given their reported sizes, seem pretty far from homo sapiens.

There are several species of humans which are recognized from the fossil history in Africa, and apparently, based on the books, Tarzan was raised by a relict population of one of those.

That makes a lot more sense. That’s not to say that gorillas couldn’t hypothetically raise a homo sapiens…there are many reports of various kinds of feral humans raised by a variety of animal species, but they may end up being unable to walk well, or have difficulty acquiring language.

Tarzan walks (and runs) fully upright, and as for language? The “Jungle Lord” is a thorough polyglot, fluent in several languages. Not the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” stereotype (which lots of people think the character says in the 1932 movie, but is actually something Johnny Weissmuller said referencing the role: This Day in Quotes), but fully fluent.

Tarzan first speaks Mangani, learning language from the adoptive culture. Tarzan also learns to read English to some extent from the books left behind from the English expedition. Tarzan also learns to speak French (not realizing at first that there is a relationship between spoken and written language), several African languages, and more.

If Tarzan had been raised by actual apes, and had no exposure to a human-style symbolic language until after becoming an adult (except for overhearing what locals are speaking), my understanding is that it would be quite difficult to learn one language, let alone several.

Let’s address the tantor (elephant) in the room: are the Tarzan books racist? There are insensitive, to say the least, portrayals in the books. Jane’s nurse in the first book, especially, is going to be offensive to many modern sensibilities.

However, the books do not argue that Tarzan is inherently superior due to a racial advantage. That’s the concept some people have: because Tarzan is white (“Tarzan” means “white skin” in Mangani…Europeans are “Tarmangani”, showing that the Mangani consider themselves and the Tarmangani similar ((“white Mangani”)), as they do the homo sapiens of African descent…Gomangani ((“black Mangani”)). Gorillas, by the way, are “Bolgani”…they don’t have the “man” part, indicating a more distant connection, although presumably, the syllable “man” would be a coincidence with the English word), the British Lord does much better in Africa than the indigenous people.

Actually, the Tarzan books are quite critical of the British aristocracy. Tarzan isn’t better than Africans by virtue of European descent; Tarzan is better than Europeans by virtue of being raised in Africa in nature, away from Western civilization.

Tarzan finds the violence within Mangani society, and with other species, more honest than the exploitative Europeans, who claim to be civilized, but behave much worse (in Tarzan’s view) than the other animals.

The movie certainly may be an enjoyable adventure, and it may present this view of Tarzan’s (other works have shown Tarzan’s distaste for European culture). Without portraying the Mangani as human, though, it can’t really be accurate to the books.

I don’t know that we’ll ever get type of Tarzan movie, in the mainstream. To suggest that there are other humans in Africa today than homo sapiens clearly would have to be handled very carefully.

If you choose to read the original books, expect to find things that are jarring, including racist portrayals (note that the books are also critical of European ethnicities and others), sexist characters, and serious violence. Part of that is the time in which they were written…see my post from more than six years ago,

The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

Don’t expect the main message, though, to be one of Caucasian superiority. Tarzan doesn’t have many non-Mangani human associates (the relationship with Jane is very deep, but that’s different), but they do include Muviro and others.

I’ll probably see the movie eventually, but I’ll be prepared for it to not be like the books.

What do you think? Did you read Tarzan as a child? Should children read the Tarzan books today? If so, is there context they should be given first or during it? If you have a close connection with children, how do you deal with them reading older books which presents ideas and events which can be considered offensive today? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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4 Responses to “The latest Tarzan movie still doesn’t get the books right”

  1. jjhitt Says:

    Sigh… I love books from the “pulp era”, but they do have this glaring fault of not treating indigenous people fairly. If they are not represented as outright savages and monsters, then they are shown as not being able to manage their own affairs and in need of assistance.

    Africa always gets the short end of the stick. Joseph Conrad deplored Europe’s exploitation of Africa, yet he only rarely gave characters of color a name.

    My current Old Time Radio listening has me going through episodes of The Shadow, and I’m enjoying them, but I have to cringe when a story has “natives”. The word isn’t being used to say “people who live here”, but rather mindless ruffians being manipulated by a more intelligent Bad Guy.

    I’ve never read the Tarzan books, but I wouldn’t be upset if the character was permanently retired.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, jjhitt!

      I know what you mean with older stories…that’s why I wrote that piece on The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum:

      https://ilmk.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/the-chronological-cultural-context-conundrum/

      As I wrote in that, I have a harder time reconciling my reaction to sexist portrayals in works from the 1950s than racist portrayals in works from the 1880s, although I am staunchly against both philosophies.

      You might find, though, that the Tarzan books are less like you are describing than the OTR shows (which I also enjoy), or, for that matter, than Doc Savage books. There are racist portrayals in Tarzan, and Tarzan thinks that being a “killer of many black men” (I think that’s right) is a good introduction for Jane to hear. The indigenous people in the first book are largely as you describe, but by the second book, Tarzan is dealing with a positively portrayed tribe (the Waziri), and we will get to know Muviro throughout the series…unlike what you say for Conrad, we get to know people by name.🙂

      I wouldn’t want to see the character retired, myself…I think the pro-nature message can be a positive and even relevant one today.

      Oh, one last thing: stereotyped portrayals weren’t limited to people of color and women. I’m often taken aback by how Irish, Swedish, French, and many more characters are portrayed in literature, certainly into the 1950s. Not only are they cartoon thin, people may explicitly say that they have a negative characteristic because of their countries of origin or of descent.

  2. alanchurch Says:

    “Can you make a non-racist Tarzan movie?”
    Perhaps not.
    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-tarzan-colonial-stories-feature-20160621-snap-story.html

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, alanchurch!

      I hadn’t read that Rebecca Keegan article, but unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to be very familiar with the actual books. The article says that there are no “black heroes” in Burroughs’ Tarzan stories, which is simply not true. Muviro, who leads the Waziri (who are portrayed as a “noble” tribe…arguably, another stereotype, but not one of inherent racial inferiority), is a hero, appears in multiple books in the series (and the Waziri appear outside of the basic Tarzan series, as I recall), has a name, and a back story.

      It would be hard to make a Tarzan movie which ignored racist now, but you could make one which wasn’t pro-Colonialism (and that would be accurate to the books). In the books, Tarzan isn’t a white character who “rescues” Africa. Tarzan was “rescued” from being European by being raised in Africa…

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