The 2016 film The Legend of Tarzan presents one of the most satisfactory portrayals of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s iconic figure we have yet seen. Burroughs himself was reported to have preferred the seminal interpretation by Elmo Lincoln in the first silent version of Tarzan of the Apes as his favorite to communicate the brutish quality of this child reared by the great apes (a mythical species Burroughs created) after the death of this human baby’s parents, but missing was the urbane overlay that came with Tarzan’s introduction to civilization. Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who became the definitive Tarzan to many of us, and stuntman Lex Barker to others, stylized and emphasized the character’s jungle origins with their variations of “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” while other actors like Mike Henry (the James Bond of the Tarzan set) and Jock Mahoney (Tarzan the social worker), highlighted his “Lord Greystoke”’s urbanity. The Legend of Greystoke movie tried to balance both, but gave us a Tarzan who definitely needed counseling to reconcile his two natures. But The Legend of Tarzan, the latest Tarzan saga at this writing, presents, to my mind, the most successful portrayal yet in balancing the two sides of the ape-man, along with providing adept cinematography and excellent special effects gracing the film with beautiful visuals, interesting camera angles, and convincing feats of the ape-man and his fellow warriors.
Story-wise, there are residual elements of the original tale in this complete rewrite of the actual story. But there are also many changes. Tarzan now befriends the alpha male ape of his tribe of rearing (instead of killing him as in the original book, Tarzan of the Apes [A.C. McClurg, 1914], p. 139), gets beaten up by an ape “brother,” a counterpart non-existent in the original story (rather than his usual m.o. of always killing or otherwise incapacitating any bull apes who dare to challenge him), and now the ape-man casually fits into African tribes as a friend as well as a legend (rather than simply taking over leadership of whomever he meets in Africa, apes or Waziri, his faithful tribe of followers, as well as anybody else he chooses to rule).
Likewise, the figure of Jane has a transformation. Reared in Africa, instead of arriving marooned as an adult (c. nineteen years old, see Tarzan of the Apes: 163), she is in many details different, but, again, captured is the ethos of the heroic Jane (a courage and familiarity with jungle life already in place and not developing as happens as the books progress). Maureen O’Sullivan traditionally has been considered the definitive movie Jane, strong, definitive, winsome, and lovely, but the new portrayal in The Legend of Tarzan takes its place beside her, matching her appeal. Burroughs, himself, of course, was a strong supporter of women in all his work. For two examples, the heroine of his Venus series, where he consciously wrote against type, is a consummate character, and his 1927 play You Lucky Girl! (Donald M. Grant: 1999), intended as a star vehicle for his daughter, Joan, is built around a number of strong female characters who drive the plot and bring about its successful conclusion.
While the details in the present The Legend of Tarzan movie change, the characters in the tension between their primeval and their modern instincts and their enduring loyalty to one another and to bringing about the good (an action that happens once Tarzan’s consciousness is raised in the original stories) is captured in a most successful and attractive fashion. I call all of Burroughs’ s work the fiction of evolution. He builds his various series on this framework (check out the Earth’s Core/Pellucidar and The Land that Time Forgot sagas for overt examples, but this premise is endemic throughout all his work) and, even in single books (like The Cave Girl). Readers continually see the struggle to progress from cave dweller to modern (a progress sometimes rejected, as in his short story, “The Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw” (originally “Elmer,” see Patrick H. Adkins, “Introduction” to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Forgotten Tales of Love and Murder [Guidry and Adkins, 2001], pp. 12-13).
But the main element I see missing in the present movie is the presence of God as an aid to self-reliance, which is theme pervasive through Burroughs’s writing. Instead, The Legend of Tarzan appears to contain a certain implicit hostility to the spiritual dimension, awkwardly pervasive throughout the movie. From his earliest writing, Burroughs was indeed a critic of false religion versus true religion. An early short story “Jonathan’s Patience” (c. 1904, available in Forgotten Tales of Love and Murder) portrayed a religious hypocrite shaking down his church in the name of false piety. The Gods of Mars shows hero John Carter exposing Mars’s false religion, and The Return of Tarzan Jane contrasting her own devotion to the benevolent Creator God to the cruel, sacrificing sun-worship of Opar. These exposures are due to a grounded and endemic belief in a benevolent God, whose intentions, even when providing food for predators (“The flowers and trees were good and beautiful. God had made them. He made the other creatures, too, that each might have food upon which to live”), are always seen as providing good to someone (Jungle Tales of Tarzan [A.C. McClurg, 1919], pp. 98-99). Taking out this element leaves only a bleak tale of a world struggling aimlessly against the survival of the fittest (i.e., why shouldn’t the villain enslave others, if he can pull it off?). It is as if the present writers had to submit their script to a panel of new atheists for reworking, who, when they’d finished mucking with it, had turned the Tarzan story into a pointless moral tale with a drive-by attack on the Church in general. From the opening scenes on, the main villain fingers a rosary like a set of worry beads and turns it into a lethal weapon whenever he chooses to do so. The implication is that our villain was a victim of a molesting priest who gave him the rosary and it now serves as a reminder of his victimization, blighting his life, and creating the means for him to wreak havoc on countless others as he institutes a slave state to please a distant king and, thereby, achieve fame and immortality for himself (the idea adapted from the original task of investigation that brought Tarzan’s own parents from England to Africa, see Tarzan of the Apes: pp. 2-3). Nothing is wrong with this plot device in and of itself. It is a fact of life that sexual abuse by clergy does happen, but victims don’t necessarily turn into homicidal maniacs. So many of these victims struggle as adults with putting positive lives together to extend the grace and mercy they did not receive to others that the film is a disservice to them, if there is no counterpart. In fiction, we need moral poles to keep from simply demonizing values along with villains. Without a counterpart of a positive piety in the good characters (reflecting that of the original books), the heroes now appear to be recast as seculars, clueless that a spiritual dimension exists and providing no reason for their great efforts to assist others. This aspect of this otherwise fine film degenerates it into another case of sweeping generalization (religion is bad), as well as blaming the victims: you get molested, you are now amoral yourself and probably should be terminated, possibly by an alligator. The problem with it is simple: all positive religious overtones in Burroughs story have been eliminated and need to be restored to make sense of the change in Tarzan from beast to human.
Burroughs is careful to explain that Tarzan discovered God early, when, as a young man, he taught himself to read from the books in his deceased parents’ little cabin. Burroughs’s 1919 collection of stories that fill in the gaps of the Tarzan legend, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, explains that he encountered the word “God…Supreme Deity, Creator or Upholder of the Universe” and realized “this must be a very important word indeed, he would have to look into it, and he did, though it still baffled him after many months of thought and study. However, Tarzan counted no time wasted which he devoted to these strange hunting expeditions into the game preserves of knowledge” (“The God of Tarzan,” p. 73). As it begins to dawn on the young man “that God was mightier than Tarzan – a point which Tarzan of the Apes, who acknowledged no equal in the jungle, was loath to concede…he found much to confirm his belief that God was a great, an all-powerful individual. He saw places where God was worshiped; but never any sign of God. Finally he began to wonder if God were not of a different form than he, and at last he determined to set out in search of Him” (p. 74).
Tarzan’s search takes him first to a wise female ape for counsel and then he is directed by another ape to consider the moon as “the power that made the lightning and the rain and the thunder” (p. 74). Tarzan questions the moon and decides, “You are not the king of the jungle folk” (p. 77). Next, he interrogates a witch doctor and fights with the chief of the village, who both come out all the worse for their encounter with this questing and lethal savage ape-man, until Tarzan discovers something new: pity which stays his hand from his usual murderous course (p. 91). Puzzled, “Tarzan sought for an explanation of the strange power which had stayed his hand and prevented him from slaying” (p. 91). Now his eyes are opened to the imprint of the work of the Creator all around him. He contemplates an opening orchid and asks, “What made the flower open? What made it grow from a tiny bud to a full-blown bloom? Why was it at all? Why was he?” and he raises question after question about the intentionality of the One who has the power “to cause to come into existence; to form out of nothing” (pp. 92-93). Then, galvanized into action by sudden wailing and snarling, he rescues a tiny ape baby and his mother from a boa constrictor and, reflecting on these actions, wonders about the heroism of the ape mother, risking her life as she “placed herself within the folds of the horrid monster. Why had she done it? Why, indeed, had he? Teeka did not belong to him, nor did Teeka’s balu [baby]. They were both Tang’s. Why then had he done this thing?” (p. 97). Realizing “no reason in the world why he should have done the thing he did” (p. 97), sparing the village chief and rescuing the mother and baby, “almost involuntarily,” he comes to a realization from what theologians call “common grace,” the witness of the creation to its Creator: “‘All powerful,’ thought Tarzan. ‘The little bugs [words on the page] say God is all-powerful. It must be that God made me do these things, for I never did them by myself…And the flowers – who made them grow? Ah, now it was all explained – the flowers, the trees, the moon, the sun, himself, every living creature in the jungle – they were all made by God of nothing. And what was God? What did God look like? Of that he had no conception; but he was sure that everything good came from God…Yes, Tarzan had found God” (pp. 98-99). Throughout the series, both Tarzan and Jane pray from time to time, particularly when in danger (which is constant), as, for example, Jane does when her sacrifice seems imminent on the bloody altar of the lost city of Opar, when she “sent up a silent prayer to the Maker she was so soon to face” (Return of Tarzan [A.C. McClurg, 1915], p.338), and Jane is rescued. Tarzan also receives answers when he needs them, for example, sudden guidance to an incapacitating hold, ensuring his triumph in battle over his ferocious enemy, the ape Terkoz: “divine reason showed him in an instant the value of the thing he had discovered. It was the difference to him between life and death.” And Tarzan responds with mercy, sparing the ape’s life, to the shock of all the ape tribe (Tarzan of the Apes: p. 150). Jane and Tarzan express their gratitude to God, when Jane, after her rescue from Opar, slowly regaining consciousness in Tarzan’s arms muses, “‘If this be death,’ she murmured, ‘thank God that I am dead,” but Tarzan, awakens her fully, crying out his gratitude, “Thank God!” (The Return of Tarzan: p. 349). And both he and Jane kneel before God at the deathbed of his predecessor William Clayton, Lord Greystoke, Jane’s “lips moving in silent prayer” (p. 356).
I, for one, am ready for the sequel, The Legend of Tarzan II, for more exquisite visuals, grand adventure. and further character development. On the last, I hope that this team that has brought us this visual feast would follow the books and reveal that Tarzan and Jane’s dedication to morality and the triumph of the good is not simply hung in an inexplicable vacuum. It is consciously driven by their reliance on a good and benevolent Supreme Being before whom Tarzan, even while puzzling over the existence of evil, is overwhelmed with gratitude, so that he “spent the whole day in attributing to Him all of the good and beautiful things of nature” (Jungle Tales of Tarzan: p. 99). Tarzan, the former bestial killer, and Jane, the daughter of a scientist, are both good by choice as a response to their worship of God their and our Creator. It is the missing explanatory piece of their constant heroism and makes sense of the great lengths they will go to bring justice to the lives of the oppressed.
Dr. William David Spencer, Distinguished Professor of Theology and the Arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston Campus, has been, since the age of 10, a reader and collector of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s works. He has also written his own novels: the award-winning Name in the Papers and the brand new Wrestling Two Worlds.