I have finally managed to see The legend of Tarzan, by Peter Yates. I am not going to discuss the merits of the film, which, with the notable exception of The New York Times, mostly got negative reviews. It isn’t bad: beautiful colours, beautiful shooting, some rather preposterous moments which I am not going to describe, as that would amount to spoiling the critical moments in the plot. The acting is fine, or as fine as you need in an adventure film, and I appreciated the casting of Alexander Skasgard, who adds that little melancholy glint in the eye to the usual Tarzan kit of muscles and bellows.
Most of the negative reviews I have read concentrated on why someone should make the umpteenth Tarzan film, and that is what made me want to write about it.
For one thing, I believe all authors, including film directors and screen-writers, must be free to write what they want and to make the films they fancy making, if they can get the funds. Moreover, returning over and over again to old stories is not in itself wrong or new: actually, that is what it used to be like before the 19th century, when the Romantics adopted originality as a value. Until then, most stories came from some existing work. Shakespeare took plots or at least ideas from Italian literature , Danish chronicles, and a long list of other sources. When in need of a beautiful simile to describe the death of a young warrior, both Puskin and Ariosto copied from the Aeneid.
It seems that modern audiences still feel the appeal of stories set inthe jungle. Even though there are many elements that should make it unpleasant, such as the “bad optics”, as M. Dargis phrased it, of having a white hero in Africa, and the need to build a happy ending in the historical context of colonialism and environmental devastation. Even though film critics mostly resented the presence of wild beasts in the plot – but that is like resenting archery and bearded villains in Robin Hood stories. The point is, again, that they don’t believe there is any good reason to plunge again into the jungle, unless it is for a gloomy story with not the slightest trace of light, let alone a silver lining. Adventure in the jungle must be escapism, if it is not a history lesson or a metaphor of of evil.
Is it so wrong to seek for evasion? Let me quote JRR Tolkien again, for I couldn’t put it any better:
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
(On Fairy Stories, from Tree and leaf).
What is more, I believe that the allure of a story set in a jungle, or actually any forest, whatever the climate and the animals one may meet there – elephants, bears and wolves, or dragons – is not just that we can escape a grey, boring reality, also because not everybody sees the world they live in that way. The reason we are happy to plunge into a forest when we watch or read stories is that the world most of us live in is completely and inescapably modern, and we are not.
I know not everyone will agree, for not everyone realised this: that we are still, at least in a corner of our mind, the inhabitants of a world of villages by the margins of a deep forest. Even though mentality evolves much faster than the body, we retain at least a trace of who we were before modernity: before machinery and easy communication, before the time when at least in the western world survival stopped being under threat all the time. When a film or a novel takes us back there, where the sounds are of water and leaves, where danger can come from any shady spot but extraordinary encounters may also occur, we allow a part of our mind to come alive again. Some people know this all their lives, some learn later (I for one), some never do.
Forests are a very good unifying element in stories with a symbolic level. It is so in Heart of darkness, which looms in the background of many reviews which implicitly accuse The legend of Tarzan of daring to evoke Conrad’s novel without being as good and most of all, as pessimistic. In Heart of Darkness the forest which the river Congo snakes through is real, but it is also a metaphor for the evil that permeates both the country and Mister Kurtz’s mind. The writer had visited the Congo, but it is fair to say that he had no interest in the jungle in itself, or th animals that lived in it, which rarely get a mention.
As I watched a scene in the film in which the protagonist and his ally meet a small herd of elephants I thought of how Conrad does not even ever mention elephants in a story revolving around the ivory trade. There is not one line, not one word on the extermination of thousands of elephants . It is as if ivory grew on plants, or it were mined. That does not make Heart of Darkness less good or Conrad less great, but it is an important point the writer misses, while The legend of Tarzan does not.