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A Response to The Hollywood Reporter: “Why the Tarzan Myth No Longer Works”

ERBDOM

Jeff Esty, Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania,  writing in the Hollywood Reporter, makes the case that while Jungle Book can and did shed the racist and sexist baggage of its original literary material, Legend of Tarzan can’t do that in spite of a mighty effort to update the story. Esty starts out by acknowledging that Tarzan is “perhaps the most well known character from an American novel in the 20th Century.” He goes on to say that Legend of Tarzan “may have revealed the limits of this once-renewable resource. Its creators try, but fail, to reconcile the narrative demands and racial politics of their material with 21st-century sensibilities.”

Esty’s piece is intelligent, thoughtful, and raises valid questions that, you can be sure, will be on Warner Bros. executives minds if and when they find themselves contemplating a sequel to Legend of Tarzan. It’s a thoughtful piece that deserves a more thoughtful response than some cranky old white guy going “these damned pc bastards are at it again.” No. The world has evolved. It’s not what it was in 1912, and it’s not what it was in 1964 even — when the Beatles came to America and the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs were, amazingly, the topselling paperbacks on the shelves, fifty years after they were written. Times have changed; sensibilities have changed. I get that.

So is Esty right?

Let’s start with this:

It’s not just the clunky results of an earnest liberal reboot in which the residually racist content sticks out sorely. It’s that this Tarzan has no central conflict. In the original novel, and in many of the best stories it inspired, the core action turns on Tarzan’s double education, first as ape, then as human. The thrill of animal power combined with the civilized mind is irresistible. So is the split loyalty of a man who is both instinctive ape and English lord. Can Tarzan/John Clayton ever truly belong? But in The Legend of Tarzan, our hero finds himself happily ensconced in both of his identities and alienated from neither.

First of all, kudos for “getting” Tarzan.  He nails what is intriguing about him. He’s the first I’ve seen to make the claim that in LOT, Tarzan doesn’t have these conflicts but is instead “happily ensconced in both of his identities and alienated from neither.”

Have to admit, I did a doubletake on that one.  What movie did he see?

At the outset, Tarzan or “John Clayton” is living in London and balks at going back to Africa. Why?  He won’t say other than to quip: “Because it’s hot there,” but ten seconds later George Washington Williams is chasing him down the street and when Williams re-pitches him — he accuses Williams and his economic mission of simply seeking a “place at the trough” … of what Of colonialism, of course. And in this indirect way, reveals to us why he really didn’t want to be part of a trade mission. When Williams reveals his real reason — to hold Leopold accountable — Greystoke is in.

The movie is pulp poetry, not expository prose — it’s up to the viewer to piece together what’s going on with Greystoke.  My reading of it is that, given a worthy reason to go back, he’s ready to go.  Why? Because he’s still connected to Africa.  And that means he’s not 100% comfy in London.  Esty isn’t quite getting the dynamic.  The duality is there.  This is reinforced through the period in which he makes his decision — flashbacks, digging through old paraphrenalia to find a keepsake from Kala, hs ape mother.

When he Tarzan returns to Africa, he is not instantly his old self — not by any means. He treks in overland with a backback and boots, and when the first attack comes [[SPOILER ALERT, THERE I SAID IT, YOU WERE WARNED]] he kicks a little Force Publique butt, but in the end is rather easily trussed up — not quite in full competitive shape yet.

I will say this. I don’t think Esty is completely out in left field on this — there is some murkiness in the way the duality is handled.  But as polemicists frequently do, he’s exaggerated the point to make it.

Then:

The makers of this movie wanted to solve two problems: find a new storytelling angle and make it politically current. But in solving the first, they spoil their shot at the second. In that sense, the script’s most clever choice is also its core problem. It flips the story of Tarzan on its head: we are watching the legend of Tarzan, not the making of Tarzan. When the story begins, he is already a globally famous wonderfreak, a celebrity Lord of the Jungle, who can capitalize on his fame to help Africans in distress. He is a celebrity philanthropist with killer abs, instead of a brooding, bare-footed lord with blood on his bicuspids. And so the familiar but gripping story of his double life as ape-man becomes a set of quick flashbacks. We lose the best part of the novel: the way that a completely innocent Tarzan has to learn how to be a white man from scratch. By scrambling the narrative sequence, the new film makes it impossible to dramatize the most important questions we have about race, culture, and species identity today.

When I read this, my reaction is what those NFL commentators on ESPN say: “Come on, man.”  What are you thinking?  You just want a different movie, the same one everybody’s seen a dozen times — the origins story.  If Yates and WB had thrown another Tarzan origins story at the the critics, what do you think the reaction would be?  Why are they making this again? Can’t they think of anything new?

Ultimately it’s not fair to judge a movie on something it’s not trying to be — and it’s not trying to be that origins story, which in any event has been done to death, whereas the story they came up with is familiar to readers of the books, for once, but fresh to the audiences that have only seen movies and TV shows. What’s wrong with seeing Tarzan as a “celebrity Lord of the Jungle” who’s no longer in the jungle, and is drawn back there for compelling reasons.   Why do we need to see a “brooding, bare-footed lord” all over again.  The critical response for that would be, instead of 35% Rotten, in the zone of Last Airbender (6% Rotten).

Onward.

This crafty reboot of the Tarzan story thus produces its evident failures of political tone. It raises a deeper question that goes beyond storytelling devices or awkward multiculturalism, one that gets us much closer to the heart of another darkness: the unstable relation of our country to both racial justice and national decline. It is no accident that the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Make America Great Again” confront each other with such perverse urgency in 2016. It is also no accident that the Greystoke legend, like all its sister texts mentioned in this review (Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Heart of Darkness, Jungle Book) are stories culled from one particular repertoire. That repertoire comes from a time when British and European civilization still held a fading grip on the global south. In that moment, circa 1900, western societies faced a crisis of confidence, one that exposed all the forms of racial, national, and sexual superiority that had shaped the fantasy life of white European men for generations.

Hollywood has been retelling these Victorian tales of adventure ever since. The conflicts driving the Tarzan story have always been with us, and perhaps always will. But our ways of resolving those conflicts are becoming ever more tense and fragile, here, now, in the autumnal years of the American Century.

I think this ascribes to the film much greater societal import than the filmmakers intended.  But as he notes — the “conflicts driving the Tarzan story have always been with us and perhaps always will.”  I’m not sure if he means the same thing by that statement that I take from it.  But he’s right if what he means is — the conflicts that drive the Tarzan story, and the Legend of Tarzan story, are primal and mythic and part of the human experience. It is precisely because of that (and not because they preached some kind of white superiority shtick) that they rose to the level of folklore — translated into 57 languages, outselling Hemingway, Faulker and Joyce combined, all that stuff.  They are primal. The critics didn’t like them in 1912 and the critics don’t like the movie in 2016 — yet audiences in 1912 embraced the poetic pulpiness of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and by delivering a faithfully updated version in 2016, Yates has tapped into the same kind of “everyman” acceptance, and critical non-acceptance, that was experienced by Burroughs.

I suspect Etsy isnt responsible for the statement in the headline “the Tarzan myth no longer works”  — because I don’t quite get that from his article.  What I do get is that it’s a challenging prospect to try and navigate the minefield that faces a project such as Tarzan, and he seems to offer a decent amount of respect to the filmmakers for the way they did it.

It would be interesting to hear what he has to say about the audiences who embraced the film in spite of the relentless and somewhat frenzied efforts by critics to bash it so badly that it would die stillborn.  Somehow it survived, like baby John Clayton survived, agains the odds. And I’m willing to bet we haven’t seen the last of screen Tarzan.