We don’t need another Tarzan film (but Hollywood can’t help itself)
The upcoming 2016 film Legend of Tarzan has me asking myself if we really need another big screen version of this 104-year-old story of white European supremacy.
I think not but Hollywood clearly hopes that we do.
In case you’re wondering, Between 1918 and 2016, Tarzan has been the subject for motion pictures at least 75 times, with at some 55 live-action films, 5 animated treatments, 7 documentaries and 8 TV shows.
This first big screen adaptation of the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story was a blockbuster for its day—grossing at least one million dollars. The film only told the first half of the story, while it’s sequel, The Romance of Tarzan (also released in 1918), told the rest. Together these two films are still considered to be the most faithful adaptation of the original story.
The Tarzan story quickly grew to become a cultural and commercial institution in Western countries, spawning countless sequels and spinoffs, in the form of books, radio dramatizations, comic strips, comic books, merchandise, and, of course, live-action versions for both the big and small screen.
On average, there has been one new screen version of the Tarzan story every 2.3 years but this is misleading as a decade-by-decade look shows. Charting only 54 explicitly dated film and TV versions, principally from the IMDB, shows how the ape-man’s popularity with Hollywood (and audiences) has seriously waxed and waned over the years.
Tarzan the Ape Man (the character and the 1932 film starring Johnny Weissmuller) entertained the generation of kids who grew up to fight the Second World War and entertained their children through the 1950s and 1960s.
But Rice Burroughs’ ode to colonialism lost all favour in the 1970s, as the mass of post-Second World War baby boomers were reaching young adulthood and opposition to the Vietnam War (and other artifacts of European colonial rule) was reaching a crescendo.
The Tarzan story has never recovered its pre-1970s popularity and there’s no reason why it should. The story is a hopeless stew of outmoded Victorian values.
Or so I think. It’s possible that the filmmakers behind the 2016 Legend of Tarzan film may be thinking that the new spirit of brutality and division afoot in the world (as signified by the wild popularity of everything from MMA fighting to Donald Trump) means that the audiences are again ready for an escapist story of a brutal white man who is dominant for no other apparent reason than the colour of his skin.
But if it turns out that audiences don’t want Tarzan, they way they didn’t want Disney’s 2012 John Carter (based on Rice Burroughs’ 1912 character John Carter of Mars) then Hollywood has any number of other similarly old perennials to dish up.
Perhaps a 36th version of Jane Eyre, or a 69th version of something written by Sir Walter Scott, or (and now we’re getting to the big guns) something involving the great detective of 221B Baker Street or even the great Bard himself!
And now for something completely old and familiar
For over 80 years now, filmmakers have been routinely remaking and re-interpreting the most popular films and enduring stories of the previous generations. The argument goes that there are a host of well-known and well-loved stories that are timeless and that audiences (who are put off by old movies) deserve to see remade in a modern, accessible form.
Curiously, this is the same reason why a person on Twitter might retweet something from last week—so that it appears fresh and new in their timeline today.
The main reason for remaking previously successful “classics” is, of course, commercial safety. The motion picture industry is built on giving audiences what they want to see but it’s quite hard to figure out what that might be. Choosing to remake properties with a proven track record at the box office is one way to try reducing the risk.
It’s been a hit-and miss strategy to say the least.
The 1959 Ben-Hur (a remake of the successful 1925 film of the same name) became the second highest-grossing film up to 1959) while the star-studded 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty (a remake of the incredibly successful 1932 film of the same name) failed to even recoup its costs and the 1984 Bounty, with a similarly big-name cast, was such a flop that it probably scuttled any future Bounty remakes.
Even Hollywood’s current desperate willingness to turn anything “bankable” (such as, say, a popular video game) into a movie, isn’t new and neither has it been all that successful.
Remember that 27 years before Universal Pictures’ ridiculous board game-inspired 2012 film Battleship sank at the box office without a trace, Paramount failed to make its budget with the considerably better board game-inspired 1985 film Clue. (fun fact: Before Battleship flopped, Universal actually planned to remake Clue in 2013.)
Hollywood has always dished out an amount of familiar, formulaic, predigested fare. The difference between then and now is only a matter of degree—today there is simply much more of this pablum and it’s arguably of a consistently lower quality. Apparently even the hack writers were better in the 1930s.
But getting back to my main point—what about these cold literary leftovers, like Tarzan, that filmmakers keep serving to audiences, over and over again?
Ripping yarns told with crowd-pleasing British accents
The clear preference shown by filmmakers over the years appears to be for dramatic and violent stories, mostly written by British authors, and generally old enough to be free of licensing fees.
According to my admittedly incomplete list, stories from the Christian Bible (the British King James Bible) are the third-most frequently adapted for the screen. It’s probably helped that the religion of the Old Testament comes with large helpings of sex, violence and intrigue.
As a recurring character in film, the non-violent, tolerance-preaching, asexual Jesus Christ is way down in sixth place—ahead of Frankenstein and Tarzan but trailing behind Dracula, the martial artist Wong Fei-hung and leagues behind the crime-fighting exploits of Sherlock Holmes and the sex, violence and intrigue of Shakespeare.
Keep in mind the partiality of this list and how it’s missing many characters and authors known and unknown to myself (not to mention the English-speaking world).
Some of the hardest working characters in showbiz
Santa Claus, to start small and work our way up, has only had about 13 film appearances.
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (père), has been adapted some 22 times: 20 times on film and 2 times on TV.
Sherlock Holmes tops all other fictional characters. Arthur Conan Doyle’s British detective is far and away the most frequently adapted character in film and TV, with 254 screen appearances as of 2012, according to Guinness World Records. There are at least 30 film and TV versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles alone.
Film and TV spin-offs based on the Bible include some 90 for Jesus Christ, 10 for Salome (my favourite being Salome’s Last Dance from 1988) and six for Ben-Hur (including the awesome 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and the 1959 William Wyler remake, which inspired the pod race in the 1999 film Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace).
Popular, very well read and dead for 400 years
Admittedly, he’s had a several hundred years head start on most of the other authors on this list but the fact is that English playwright William Shakespeare is easily the most frequently adapted author in all of literature. On the strength of 410 film and TV versions of his plays, Guinness World Records declares the Bard of Avon to be the most filmed author ever in any language.
Slate’s “Most Adapted Authors” has an interactive infographic showing some of the 24 top authors tagging along behind Will’s coattails, such as Chekhov and Dickens (each at 300), Dostoevsky (177), Mark Twain (151), Agatha Christie (139) and Stephen King (86).
Some notable larger-than-life real-life characters
Wong Fei-hung, the real-life Chinese martial arts folk hero of a century ago, has been featured in at least 120 films (some say over 200) and six TV shows. He’s best-know to Western audiences as the title character of the 1978 and 1994 Drunken Master films starring Jackie Chan as Wong.
Miyamoto Musashi, a real-life Japanese swordsman of the 1600s has been a film character about 51 times: 22 on film, 22 in anime and seven on TV. Musashi was an important background character in one of my favourite “sword fighters without swords” anime titles, 2004’s Mutsu Enmei Ryuu Gaiden: Shura no Toki.