|Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgård in The Legend of Tarzan.|
David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan is the latest in a long line of Tarzan pictures that goes back a century. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes in 1912 and it was such a sensation that he penned twenty-three subsequent Tarzan adventures, some of which were published considerably after his death in 1950. (There were also a couple of collaborations, which I take to mean that other writers completed narratives that Burroughs left unfinished.)Tarzan of the Apes tells the story of the protagonist’s being raised, after the deaths of his English parents in the African jungle, by an ape who has just lost her own baby; of his leaving the community of apes and teaching himself to read English (from the books in the hut where his parents died); of his falling in love with an Englishwoman, Jane Porter and then learning of his heritage – that he is John Clayton, the present Lord Greystoke. The first book ends with Tarzan’s keeping mum about his identity as an act of self-sacrifice – so that his cousin, whom Jane is set to marry, can continue to believe himself the rightful heir to that title. (You have to read the sequel, The Return of Tarzan, to get the happy ending to the Tarzan-Jane romance.) Tarzan of the Apes is a full-hearted, engrossing entertainment. It’s also ingenious: a pop-cultural gloss on the age-old nature versus nurture debate and a way of bringing a Romantic fable into the modern age. In the early chapters Burroughs keeps juxtaposing the African jungle with the England Tarzan belongs to by birthright but has never even seen, as in this passage:
With swelling breast, [Tarzan] placed a foot upon the body of his powerful enemy [a lioness], and throwing back his fine young head, roared out the awful challenge of the victorious bull ape.
The forest echoed to the savage and triumphant paean. Birds fell still, and the larger animals and beasts of prey slunk stealthily away, for few there were of all the jungle who sought for trouble with the great anthropoids.
And in London another Lord Greystoke was speaking to his kind in the House of Lords, but none trembled at the sound of his soft voice.Throughout the novel Burroughs refers to his hero alternately by his jungle identity, Tarzan of the apes, and his civilized identity, Lord Greystoke, to remind us that in fact he is both these men in equal measure. He has the fighting strength and speed and survival instinct of a jungle animal (and the airborne flexibility of the particular genus of animal that brought him up) but the intellectual capacity of an exceptional human being and the character of an ideal Edwardian gentleman – which is the source of both his courtly treatment of Jane, though she’s thrilled by his jungle side, and his willingness to bow out in the competition for her love when he senses (incorrectly, as it turns out) that it’s his cousin she truly loves.