We’ve all heard the story of Tarzan. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vine-swinging pulp hero has been around for more than a century at this point, and been adapted, parodied, and reconfigured so many times that everybody knows who he is (even if hardly anybody still reads the original Burroughs books anymore). But the original source material, and other pulps of that era, could provide Hollywood with inspiration for striking, strange movies that might be just what the multiplexes need right now.
Vince Mancini already laid out the fundamental strangeness, and racism, behind the books in his review of this weekend’s The Legend of Tarzan. As we all probably know, Tarzan is an English lord whose family is killed and is raised in the jungle by apes. He’s freakishly strong, can talk to animals, is so intelligent he teaches himself to read a language he doesn’t speak, and is essentially a superhero. But as strange as that sounds, Tarzan’s story just gets weirder from there. Tribes of psychics, valleys full of dinosaurs and men a quarter Tarzan’s size, a Hollow Earth expedition, and a litany of lost cities and evil twins populate Burroughs’ 24 Tarzan books, and they’re every bit as cheesy, and endearing, as they sound.
So why not take a break from telling variations on the Tarzan stories that have become familiar from movies, television, and other incarnations? The big challenge would seem to be adapting any of this with a straight face, and yet The Legend of Tarzan pulls it off. One of the more interesting aspects of The Legend of Tarzan, at least from a pulp fan’s perspective, is that director David Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer swap out the more dated and unpleasant aspects of the books for real-life events like the Berlin Conference that divvied up Africa without any input from Africans, while still feeding bad guys to swarms of reptiles and having Tarzan act like a demigod to the point where you wonder if Tarzan’s dad was secretly Zeus. The Legend of Tarzan is every bit as pulpy as the books it’s working from, but with a much fresher feel. And that’s hard to pull off.
Hollywood has struggled with the pulps, especially as we get more distant from the 1920s and 1930s. The pulps were unique in that they often found optimism at what new technology and the dawn of globalization might achieve, while also revealing dread at what might be uncovered or created by those same unstoppable forces, all of this reinforced by the mystery of continents barely explored and cultures poorly understood. It’s difficult to read the pulps and not laugh, which explains fun, but campy exercises like Flash Gordon and The Shadow. It also helps explain why Hollywood hasn’t bothered with the pulps much lately, even though the stories stay in print and comic book companies such as Dynamite are writing new ones and reviving old heroes.
But that balance of joy and fear made the pulps, for a time, unique, and could provide modern blockbusters with a breath of fresh air. Movies are in desperate need of something different, especially as sequels and reboots keep filling multiplexes, largely to disinterest. It’s clear that Hollywood could use some of the weirdness that was a trademark of the pulps, whether it’s the Shadow hunting down gangsters or Flash Gordon’s unique brand of space opera. The pulps offer all the over-the-top antics of superheroes without the origin story tropes that audiences are tiring of and pulp heroes can still thrill us, if they’re handled right, and we should see what they can do. (We’ll likely see one example soon enough, as Shane Black is reviving pulp hero Doc Savage with Dwayne Johnson in the lead.) And if Star Wars, a franchise born in part of George Lucas’ failed attempt to adapt Flash Gordon, can become an institution, surely there’s a little room for Gordon himself.