When thinking about a Lost World project, Tarzan came to mind along with the obligatory dinos, explorers, and King Kong. Tarzan is one of those rare cases where I have no connection at all to a pop-culturally significant character. Time to catch up on that a bit!
Tarzan everyone knows, right? Wild man in the jungle, swinging on vines and shouting loudly. Some of us still have the Disney version in mind, but for most it stops there. Yet the original is already 90 years old and was extremely popular in many media.
It all started in 1912, when Edgar Rice Burroughs published the first Tarzan story, “Tarzan of the Apes,” in a pulp magazine. This first story still forms the basis of very many reinterpretations over the decades.
Tarzan is actually the son of a British lord, who also dies in the jungle after his wife. The orphan is adopted and raised by a mother ape. It has no awareness of its humanity, but is physically inferior to the other apes. Nevertheless, growing up among apes trains him extraordinarily by human standards, so that he becomes a strong, athletic young man. As a child, he discovers his parents’ old house and becomes aware of his otherness. In search of his identity, he deals with the objects and gradually gets to know himself. Encounters with wild animals, cannibalistic natives and the conflicts within the monkey pack harden him. Encounters with friendly people, some of whom he rescues from dangerous situations, introduce him to the human side, teach him language and writing. Finally, he discovers a beautiful woman, Jane Porter. The rest of the plot can be guessed.
If you did not know Tarzan yet, then you know at least the Jungle Book and already find numerous parallels. The “wolf child” who is raised among wild but good-natured animals, knows a life in nature and finds a lot of bad things in civilization. At first, civilization is strange and exciting, but the further you get into it, the more it constricts your freedom. There are conventions and expectations, prejudices and racism. The interpersonal is difficult to interpret and learn.
There seems to be an appeal to the natural in these stories, and the critique of civilization may also appeal to some readers. But where Kipling peppered his Jungle Book with biting criticism of colonialism, Burroughs writes entirely for pulp magazines with their classic themes – it’s meant to entertain first and foremost.
Tarzan found an additional home on the Sunday pages of newspapers beginning in 1929. This decidedly popular mode of publication allowed him many more adventures and wider distribution. It probably contributed to the success of the comics that the first stories were drawn by none other than Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster. His longtime successor, Burne Hogarth, subsequently further defined the character in a spectacular dynamic that fully made the comic book stories a popular medium in their own right. Reprints of these stories are still available today.
In recent years, there has been a renaissance of classic fantasy stories in comic form, which has also included Tarzan. Thus, a great reinterpretation in large album format has been published by the German publisher Splitter Verlag, which is absolutely recommendable for all those who want to get to know the story but don’t feel like reading the novels (and understand German or French).
Written by Christophe Bec and spectacularly drawn by Stevan Subic, this comic sticks close to the original, offering raw and gritty jungle atmospherics coupled with an empathetic and deeply human accompaniment to Tarzan’s journey to self-knowledge.
As always, a reading sample can be found on Splitter’s publishing site: To the reading sample.
Just like novels and comics, there have of course been film adaptations galore. IMDB lists 200 “Tarzan” titles, although not all of them are actually related to the material. There are, however, at least a couple of dozen more or less well-known film adaptations, probably primarily known for their actors. Worth mentioning are Elmo Lincoln as the very first Tarzan mime (1918!), Johnny Weissmüller as certainly the best known actor and Lex Barker as beyond that. Also more recent film adaptations were quite popular cast with Christopher Lambert, Travis “Ragnar Lodbrok” Fimmel or Alexander Skarsgard.
Johnny Weissmuller was originally a swimmer and was the first person to break the record of swimming 100m in under a minute. After his sports career ended, he became the first person to be cast in a Hollywood film based on his athletic achievements: Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932).
In the 1930s and 40s, Weissmüller made no less than 12 Tarzan films before he was finally replaced for reasons of age. He was followed by Lex Barker, who was not yet known as “Old Shatterhand” and made 5 appearances in the jungle.
Definitely worth mentioning is the 1984 film Greystoke – The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. We see Christopher Lambert with his breakthrough on the big screen before he really took off two years later with Highlander. Andy McDowell made her big screen debut with the film. Seasoned character actors like Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Ian Holm gave the film seriousness. Director Hugh Hudson had previously cleaned up at the Oscars with “The Winner’s Hour” and also created a multi-nominated film with Greystoke. The gritty, realistic approach no longer has much in common with the early films and wanted to do justice to the novel.
Very popular and a great commercial success was of course the Tarzan movie from Disney in 1999. I have not seen it yet, but the soundtrack by Phil Collings has of course been heard.
The most recent release to date was Legend of Tarzan by David Yates starring Alexander Skarsgard in 2016. I found it visually worth seeing, but beyond that uninteresting. What I find remarkable, however, is that this contemporary version, of all things, has been problematized for racism.
There are of course many miniatures available that depict Tarzan in more or less heroic poses. I even have a few of them, but I don’t use them as Tarzan. My miniature of Taylor from Planet of the Apes, for example, is converted from a Tarzan. For my own Tarzan I decided to use the “Lord of the Jungle” set from North Star Figures.
Included are Tarzan, Jane, monkey Cheetah and a boy (no idea what Tarzan’s son is called…). With the miniatures of monkey and boy I have other plans, but still found Cheetah useful and therefore took another monkey miniature.