A Lord of the Jungle No More: The Problem with Modern Versions of Old Characters

                Have you guys seen the trailer for this upcoming CGI German Tarzan movie? Here’s a link to a Bleeding Cool article, if you want to:


                It looks okay, at first glance. The gorillas aren’t singing or even talking — only making appropriately animal hoots. The animation’s fluid and stylized so there’s no uncanny valley weirdness. The helicopters look cool. I have no idea what the German words say, but it’s probably something epic and well-suited to the Lord of the Jungle. Overall, it seems like it could be a good Tarzan movie.

                However, it’s ultimately a Tarzan movie released (and set) in the modern age and that doesn’t work. Tarzan — a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, over a century ago, is receiving a modern movie. That’s a little weird when you think about it — but still doesn’t raise any alarm bells. John Carter — a good movie but an infamous bomb — came out just last year and also features a centenarian Burroughs character. A Lone Ranger movie (similarly appearing to be an infamous bomb) came out just a few weeks ago. There was a Green Hornet and a Conan the Barbarian movie in recent memory. I think that film studios are eager to capitalize on any property that’s at all recognized. They’ll make a movie out of anything, as long as it’s a brand name that might get people in seats. And so Tarzan gets another lease on life — or several leases. An internet search revealed that there was apparently a Tarzan movie in the works, but its currently on hiatus. We might end up seeing it in a year or two. A Tarzan movie in 2015. Let that sink in.

                The reason it feels weird — to me at least — is because Tarzan (and all these characters) are rooted in the era that they were made and all that era’s nasty dogma comes with them. I’ve written before about the inherent racism of Burroughs’ stories and Tarzan is a prime example. Lord Greystroke shows up in Africa and dominates it. He’s tougher, smarter and more badass than the gorillas and the natives — who are either primitive cannibals or Noble Savages who see him as their hero and make him their leader. Africa itself is a fantasy wonderland, a place where lost civilizations (crusader knights and a lost Roman colony) exist alongside dinosaurs  and miniature men. It bears about as much resemblance to the reality of Africa (at any time) as Middle Earth does to Western Europe. Should Burroughs be blamed for this? Perhaps he should — but ‘the white man being more badass than the natives’ theme is a hallmark of his extremely racist time. Robert E. Howard had Conan bumping into Africans and they are either savage brutes to be killed or noble warriors who realize that he’s better than them and become his followers. This is par for the course in 1912 and the 1930s — but it obviously shouldn’t be accepted today.

                So what do you do with a concept like that in a modern movie? Well, you can leave out Africans entirely like the 1999 animated Disney Tarzan movie. You can bring the story into the modern age, which is what the German flick seems like it’s doing (with the helicopters and so on). But those bring up their own problems. Africa without Africans seems inherently wrong. It’s removing a diverse set of people from the stage and turning their home into a backdrop for a story about white people and apes. And the modern age makes it even worse. Are you going to have all the awful things that we associate with Africa — child soldiers, conflict diamonds, and genocide — in your rip-roaring Tarzan adventure movie? Of course not. It’s a conundrum that the makers of this movie are going to have to answer.

                I suppose there is a possibility — but it will be difficult to pull off (especially in a movie about a long-haired white dude swinging around in a loincloth). They can make a movie that celebrates Africa. That shows the struggles of its peoples, in a nuanced, sophisticated way. A movie that includes some of the largely unknown (by Americans and Europeans) and awesome things about Tarzan’s adopted home — like the Sapeurs of Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo. The members of this suave subculture strut around dressed to the nines, taking European dress and putting their own spin while looking like the coolest men on earth.


(check them out here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2013/05/07/181704510/the-surprising-sartorial-culture-of-congolese-sapeurs) A Tarzan movie could address the legacy of imperialism (which the Greystokes were on their way to perpetuate when their ship hit a storm and deposited them in Darkest Africa) and its heavy toll that is felt even today around the world. A Tarzan movie could do all this — but you know what else could? A movie without Tarzan in it. And that movie sounds like something a lot more fitting for this day and age.

                 I think that’s actually the way to go. Tarzan and all his ilk, with their ethnic sidekicks and dated world views, belong in the past. They’re like Yellow Peril and Blackface characters — unfortunate products of a deeply racist time. And of course, addressing these issues head on only results in unfortunate buzz, so the movies tiptoe around them and hem and haw and the resulting film still leave a somewhat dirty taste in their audiences’ mouths. My friend and I both walked out of John Carter finding the parallels between the Noble Savage Apaches and the Noble Savage Four-Armed Martians more than a little unsettling, for instance.

                These characters may still have cool elements and maybe we can still appreciate them — but let’s leave them behind and remember to address them in the appropriate context.  In the mean time, let’s create some new heroes, ones who reflect the concerns and population of the world and the truth about history. It’s a new century, after all, and even putting Tarzan in fancy, ultramodern CGI isn’t going to make him any less dated.

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