I suspect the people rushing out to see The Legend of Tarzan are more interested in watching a sweaty shirtless Alexander Skarsgard swing from trees than they are the history of Tarzan. But to fully appreciate what David Yates, who directed the later Harry Potter films, and his screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and Adam Cozad have accomplished here, you have to understand the kind of minefield they were traversing. Tarzan was created in the pre-WWI era by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the original hyper-prolific pulp writer, who, not unusual for “rational-minded” men of his day, believed in hierarchies of race and the then-scientific principles of eugenics. It’s not especially fair to judge a guy writing in 1912 for believing the “experts” of his day just like we believe ours, but you still run into some pretty thorny issues trying to adapt his most famous character to 2016, when the very premise of the story is imbued with outdated racial assumptions.
See, Tarzan isn’t just an ape man, he’s also an English Lord, the very embodiment of the colonial white savior complex. As Bill Bryson wrote (in Summer: America, 1927):
Tarzan himself could’ve been the poster boy for the eugenics movement. Tarzan, as many readers will surely know already, is the story of an aristocratic English infant who is left orphaned in the African jungle and is brought up by apes. Fortunately, because he is white, and Anglo-Saxon, he is innately brave, strong, decisive, and kind. Instinctively ethical, and clever enough to solve any problem. He even teaches himself to read, quite a feat, considering he speaks no human language, and doesn’t know what a book is when he first sees one. Thank goodness for racial superiority.
Burroughs, who never set foot in Africa, and who once wrote a column for the Los Angeles Examiner calling for the extermination of all “moral imbeciles,” himself said Tarzan grew out of his fascination with nature vs. nurture:
“For this purpose I selected an infant child of a race strongly marked by hereditary characteristics of the finer and nobler sort, and at an age at which he could not have been influenced by association with creatures of his own kind I threw him into an environment as diametrically opposite that to which he had been born as I might well conceive.” [The New York Times]
The most interesting part of The Legend of Tarzan for me was watching it try to solve this conundrum. It does so by becoming a singularly strange, anti-colonial superhero story, a bizarre buddy-cop blend of King Leopold’s Ghost, Quigley Down Under, and Dr. Doolittle, where the hero gets the girl at the end. I’m still not entirely sure why someone would want to adapt Tarzan in 2016, but it’s easy not to ask why when you’re watching a clown try to juggle rabid salamanders.