Dreaded Purple Master

Tarzan (1999) vs Tarzan (1914)


I am not one to criticize a film for having changed its source material. I don’t watch movies looking for points of departure to heckle. In its way, this Tarzan is the closest ever to the original in spirit, despite the differences. It’s seldom that any thought is given to Tarzan’s youth among the apes, simply because it’s so difficult to portray in a live-action movie.

Disney wanted to portray Tarzan as having lived a placid, sheltered life among the gorillas, so much of Burroughs’ violence simply had to go. (Burroughs had in fact specifically said that Tarzan’s “great apes” are not gorillas, but never mind.)

And, after all, it is not inconsistent with Burroughs that the jungle was getting along just fine until all these people showed up.

There are no native African humans. Had it been me, I might have made the same decision: Better to get in trouble for not showing any, than to portray them as Burroughs did.

As colorful as the circumstances are that brought Lord and Lady Greystoke to their jungle exile, they are a distraction from the story of their son. The backstory (now a simple shipwreck) was beautifully compressed into an introductory song/sequence.

In the original, the Porter/Clayton party is marooned under circumstances similar to that of Tarzan’s parents (an unlikely coincidence at best): Here, Professor Porter and Jane are anthropologists searching for gorillas to study – and Clayton is their guide, with other plans for the gorillas.

No mention is made of Tarzan’s true identity, or his parents’ names. It’s simply not an issue.

Tarzan’s boyhood friends Tantor and Terk provide comic relief. I can almost see the spinoff series. (In the book, Terkoz is a male ape with dishonorable intentions toward Jane, and is killed by Tarzan.)

None of these changes are necessarily bad, individually: Taken together, they don’t leave much for Tarzan to do.

Visually, the film is astounding. The reviewers have made much of the depth of action made possible by computer-assisted animation. They don’t do it justice: You have to see this.

Minnie Driver’s Jane is a lot of fun. Visually she resembles Megaera from “Hercules” in Victorian: Her character is that of the plucky girl heroine. In any other movie she might be the star. (This makes her utterly unlike the book’s Jane, who, although she responds admirably under extreme circumstances, is still a product of her time who basically waits for the men around her to solve everything. Her finest moment is in book eight, Tarzan the Terrible, in which, abandoned alone, nearly naked and weaponless in prehistoric Pal-ul-don, she actually constructs a shelter, makes a spear and kills her own food. I guess she’s learned a little woodcraft from whats-his-name. She even admits to herself that she begins to understand why Tarzan enjoys his jungle life. I can’t imagine how she could possibly be a fit companion for him otherwise.)

(I do wonder what was gained by making the Porters British, rather than American as in the original.)

Nigel Hawthorne’s delightful Professor Porter is exactly as Burroughs describes him. (Well, aside from being British.) He’s an absent-minded scholar who hasn’t quite grasped the reality of the situation.

I’m not going to mention Rosie O’Donnell at all. Every piece of publicity does, and I’m hanged if I know why: It’s a supporting role, and far more attention than she deserves. (Well, I do know why: Kids love her.)

With the release of the movie, I found myself also rereading the original Tarzan of the Apes, which naturally led to the next few books in the series.

(Well, I have had a lot of time on my hands, but I haven’t been sitting around just reading. The Tarzan books only take an evening to fly through.)

They’re just as much fun as I remember them being. They have no pretensions: they are non-stop pulp adventure, fraught with danger, coincidence stretched to the breaking point, hidden lands (in the first five books we visit Opar twice) and bondage. And a couple of paragraphs where I’m not sure exactly what happened.

For instance, this passage from the middle of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (book 5). Tarzan has stolen some of Opar’s treasure; La, the beautiful High Priestess, and her ape-like priests have followed and captured him. He lies bound at her feet. She is struggling between her duties, which require her to kill him, and her desires, which, er, don’t.

She ran her hands in mute caress over his naked flesh;

(Well, he is wearing a loincloth...)

she covered his forehead, his eyes, his lips with hot kisses; she covered him with her body as though to protect him from the hideous fate she had ordained for him, and in trembling, piteous tones she begged him for his love. For hours


the frenzy of her passion possessed the burning handmaiden of the Flaming God, until at last sleep overpowered her and she lapsed into unconsciousness beside the man she had sworn to torture and to slay. And Tarzan, untroubled by thoughts of the future, slept peacefully in La’s embrace.

Sounds like a Weird Tales cover to me.

Wait a minute. He slept? Untroubled? After that?

Perhaps it’s just as well Disney didn’t attempt this scene.

Daniel Taylor: Saturday, May 15, 1999