Posted on July 19, 2012 - by MG
I’ll bet there aren’t many fans of the adventure genre who don’t owe a huge hunk of debt to one of the greatest fictional characters of all time – Tarzan. When it comes to strange exotic lands, jungle adventure, action, mystery and fighting the good fight, Tarzan has it all. So how great was it to hear that children’s author Andy Briggs was bringing us an authorised re-imagining of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic character?
CRACKING jungle adventure with the one and only, all-time best
eco-warrior, Tarzan. It took me right back to Saturday mornings
watching Jonny Weismuller. Gritty, realistic with its portrayal of the
forces of guerrilla politics and greed in the heart of the African
jungle. Modern, yet fully authentic Tarzan.
I’m delighted to invite Andy Briggs to be interviewed here about Tarzan, as part of his blog tour for the second book: TARZAN – JUNGLE WARRIOR. Exciting things are in store for young Lord Greystoke, who’ll be taken on some modern African adventures.
With thanks to my pulp fiction expert, Uncle Johny for suggesting some of the questions!
Q1. Tarzan is very much a man of his time. What made you decide to modernise the character?
Tarzan was a man of his time when he first leapt onto the pages of The All-Story magazine, 100 years ago. He was an instant icon – the perfect symbol of physical perfection and a decisive hero, meting out justice while fighting for the underdog. That was a century ago. Most characters age with time and become less appropriate, but Tarzan has bucked that trend and become the more relevant now than ever before.
Edgar Rice Burroughs created the world’s first eco-warrior. Now, I know that term comes with a lot of baggage these days, but let me explain. In 1912, you and I could travel to the Dark Continent, whip a few locals and bag an elephant or two for sport and nobody would think it unusual. Of course, attitudes have changed these days and the animals and the indigenous people that Tarzan fought to protect are now, slowly, enjoying our protection. The apes that raised Tarzan were an unknown species – no doubt Burroughs based these on the legends of the man-like apes in the jungle. Mountain Gorillas were only discovered in 1902 and when Tarzan was created nobody knew anything about them. With all these elements in play, I felt there was room to expand this into a contemporary setting.
The last Tarzan movie to hit the big-screen was in 1999 and only 2 of the 26 Tarzan books Burroughs wrote are wildly available – yet he still burns brightly in popular culture. I discovered that in a room of 100 children, 99 of them knew the name Tarzan, that he was raised by the apes and lived in the jungle. But only half of them had seen a movie, and a handful had read the Disney book tie-ins. When I asked the other half of the audience how they knew Tarzan I was met with shrugs. They just do. He’s part of our collective culture. And, since he has had a quiet decade, I thought it was time to bring him back. The audience was waiting.
Q2. What are your favourite original Tarzan books?
Tarzan of the Apes was the first book, and the one that got me hooked on Tarzan. However, most people’s perceptions of Tarzan are tainted by the movies. Few people realize that, by the end of the first book, Tarzan is a civilised man about town who drives a car to rescue Jane from a forest fire in Baltimore. A far cry from the jungle warrior we all know and love.
Burroughs only got Tarzan firmly back to his roots in the jungle with the third book, The Beasts of Tarzan, which is my favourite. After that book, Burroughs primarily kept Tarzan in the jungle because that’s where the public wanted to see him.
Q3. Who is your favourite screen Tarzan?
Now I am going to be a bore and have to say it is Johnny Weissmuller, only because those were the movies I used to watch at home during the summer holidays and they have stuck with me.
(I’d have to agree with Andy, for exactly the same reason!)
However, one of the more accurate portrayals of Tarzan comes from Christopher Lambert in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. A great performance, and the first half of the film is probably the closest adaptation of Burroughs’ book. The second half does wonder a little off the rails though.
Q4. There can be said to be three different ‘classic’ Tarzans. There is ERB’s original character; a highly intelligent man who spoke various languages, including the language of apes. Then the movie serial Tarzan – the strong, quite simple man of few words, and finally the comicbook Tarzan, who was more like the original character from the novels. Which of these Tarzans does your 21st century character most resemble and why?
My Tarzan slices through all the previous variations. When I started writing the books I ensured they were a re-imagining of the story and characters. This is something we don’t see much of in literature, but it happens all the time in the movies – most recently with Batman and Star Trek, which had excellent reboots. I felt the key was to capture the public image of Tarzan, while keeping him grounded with Burroughs’ original intentions.
Weissmuller’s Tarzan speaks in Pidgin English, which has become something of a Tarzan trademark. However, Burroughs had a complicated arrangement for the Ape Man. Tarzan taught himself to read English using a picture book, but then was taught to speak French by D’Arnot – very confusing! I didn’t want to use either incarnation, so my Tarzan starts off speaking Pidgin English, very Weissmuller like, but slowly improves his grammar the more he speaks. My reasoning behind this was that when he meets Jane, he hasn’t spoken to another human for several years. The words are thick on his tongue and he has trouble communicating – he’s still very smart, just hamstrung by language. Over the course of the book he improves, albeit marginally. By the second book, TARZAN: THE JUNGLE WARRIOR, Tarzan’s skills improve and he eventually slowly stops referring to himself in the third person.
The movie versions of Tarzan also made him more civilised. He lived in a tree house and respected human society. I tossed all that away. Tarzan is a primal creature, raised by wild apes. He eats raw flesh and can’t stomach cook food. The world is black and white to him, he can laugh one moment and snap into a rage the next. Social structures, human laws, and manners – they’re all trappings of a world he doesn’t understand. When Jane tries to explain the concept of money to him, it’s an uphill struggle – money is a meaningless construct of our artificial world.
Q5. On translating the world of original Tarzan – to modern day. ERB’s Africa was a to a great extent fantasy version of the real Africa of the early 20th century. After all, information didn’t travel as widely and easily as it does now. How far is your novels’ Africa a fantasy-version of real Africa? It seems to me from reading the first book that you’ve attempted to ‘keep it real’, which was part of the appeal for me. However, the fantastic has a firm place in Tarzan lore, so I’d personally love to see you use that too.
When Burroughs created Tarzan he had never travelled to Africa and accurate information about the world was difficult to come by. In fact, when Tarzan of the Apes was published in The All-Story magazine, Sabor was a tiger – until somebody pointed out that there are no tigers in Africa. Burroughs’ fantasy comes from his lack of available knowledge.
My Tarzan is set in the real world, amid real situations, but I don’t feel that lessens the fantasy aspects of the stories. I am still a firm believer that, even with all our modern technology, the world still has its secrets waiting to be discovered.
In the third Tarzan book I am bringing back the lost city of Opar, which lies deep in the jungles of Africa. Our modern understanding tells us that there are no lost civilisations in Africa – yet just a year ago a new tribe was discovered in the Amazon who had never made “civilised” contact. Mountain Gorillas were only just shaking their image as a cryptozoological species when Burroughs’ wrote about his apes. There is a lot we don’t know, and plenty of things are still waiting to pass from the realm of fantasy to reality.
Thank you Andy for such a totally fascinating, informed discussion of the magnificent Tarzan!