Pop-Drama 1 : The Jungle VIP

tarzanI’m starting my look at how to ‘rejuvenate’ various pop-culture/genre characters with Tarzan, because his is the most obvious, and I’d be very astonished if someone hadn’t done this already.

The thing about Tarzan is, if you just look at the character, it’s almost impossible for anyone today to write him as a hero. Here you’ve got a member of the white aristocracy, living in Africa, having chosen to ‘return to nature’ and ‘strip off the thin veneer of civilisation’. There’s a very patronising imperialist… not even subtext, as much as surtext here.

So I propose we go with it all the way.

John Clayton III, Viscount Greystoke, returned to Britain in the 1970s after being discovered by the Porter family – his own father, a minor colonial administrator in a small African colony, had died during the armed insurgency that had brought about the colony’s independence, and everybody had assumed the boy had died along with them. His claims that his father had been killed by a giant ape were dismissed as a combination of the racism common to his class and his imperfect understanding of English – he was clearly confusing the words ‘gorilla’ and ‘guerilla’.

Along with his wife, the young Clayton became something of a mascot for the Clermont Set – the group of billionaire right-wing aristocrats that included James Goldsmith (whose son is now environmental advisor to the Conservative party) and his brother Teddy (co-founder of the Green Party), murderer Lord Lucan, asset-stripper Jim Slater, and John Aspinall (the owner of a zoo where the keepers are encouraged to socialise with the animals, resulting in a ludicrous number of keeper deaths a year, who called for the death of the majority of the human race in order to save the planet, and who tried to engineer a fascist coup in Britain around this time).

While most of the Clermont Set were absurd, repulsive figures who pontificated about the environment from a position of grotesque privilege, Clayton was different. He had known real hardship, having had to fend for himself from an incredibly early age. He was lean and muscular, unlike his corpulent mentors, and also very charming, and he was simultaneously principled and trusting of his new friends.

And he shared one important characteristic with them – because of his upbringing, when he’d not known a single other human being from the ages of one to sixteen, he had absolutely no regard for human life. So he became a fervent supporter of their ‘law of the jungle’ philosophy – a very dangerous mix of right-wing libertarianism, environmental fundamentalism and fascism. So he moved back to the jungle to become an eco-warrior. In a very literal sense.

Tarzan has committed to protecting the animals from the ‘savages’ who are running the country he grew up in, and he has absolutely no compunction about killing people to do this. He will protect those who still live tribally, in a rather patronising manner, but even those are fair game if they hunt protected species. He is charming, handsome, and *utterly* self-controlled, knowing exactly what every muscle in his body is doing at any moment, and exactly what’s going on around him – skills he had to pick up to survive in a wild environment – so looking permanently relaxed except when he leaps into action.

But most of the time, Tarzan is doing ‘the right thing’, but for what most people would consider utterly wrong reasons. He’s perfectly willing to lay down his life to protect animals, and will go to huge lengths to save the rainforest he grew up in, but there’s not an ounce of compassion or empathy in him. He does it just because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, without even really understanding what ‘right thing to do’ means.

This means that for most purposes, we can still tell normal ‘Tarzan jungle adventures’ as before – bad thing happens, Tarzan swings down on creeper, saves the day, job done. And you start the series with this kind of story – the background is only drip-fed in slowly over the course of the series, as you begin to realise what kind of person Tarzan really is.

The problem with this, of course, is that it damages the character for others. And this is why Jane is an important character.

Jane, when she married Tarzan, was a rather dizzy socialite, well-meaning but utterly uninformed about the world outside a small circle of the super-rich. When they moved to England, she never particularly liked her husband’s new friends, more just because they seemed personally unpleasant than for any other reason, but as they spent most of their time together in an exclusively masculine environment, she didn’t particularly mind it. She agreed to move back to Africa with her husband, partly because you do what your husband does, partly because she’d always liked animals, and partly because it sounded like quite a fun lark to spend a couple of years living like ‘a primitive’.

But after being dropped into a situation she could never have imagined, Jane discovers she actually *cares* about this stuff. She actually cares about animals, nursing them back to health. She actually worries about the morality of interfering with tribal cultures, but also of denying those people the benefits that come with western civilisation. In short, she grows up. And she starts to become horrified at what her husband actually is.

So the second ‘arc’ of stories is simply Jane trying to connect Tarzan’s (usually) correct actions to correct thoughts, trying to turn his real love for her into compassion for other people. Partly, this is done by gathering a group of assistants for him, who he cares about first because they’re essential to ‘the mission’, but as time goes on this becomes a more general real affection. These characters can also function to help generate adventures, and should come from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible (a minor government official who feeds Tarzan information, a doctor who helps treat his injuries, a criminal who’s on the run and hiding out in the area of the jungle where Tarzan lives, and so on).

She succeeds, and over the course of a year or two we essentially see him grow up, and turn into a fully mature human being, who remains in the jungle because he cares, rather than because it’s the right thing to do.

Touchstone characters – at the start, B’Wana Beast, Rorshach, James Bond, Frank Miller Batman. By the end, Tom Strong, Robin Hood, Grant Morrison Batman.

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23 Responses to Pop-Drama 1 : The Jungle VIP

  1. Neeeeeat. I was eager to see Tarzan for the same reasons you brought up – how to do Tarzan when Tarzan comes from a mindset we don’t condone anymore.

    I love the ideas (and I love what you’ve done with Jane) almost too much, though, because the amoral ecoterrorist avenger you describe him as at the beginning of the series is so interesting in a horrible sort of way that I might miss him too much once he became a mature, balanced human being. Ah, I suppose that’s what the writing itself is for, to sell it, right?

    Are you familiar with Warren Ellis’ Tarzan analogue in Planetary, Lord Blackstock? Ellis similarly makes him into a bastard (although he’s more of a hobbyist adventurer than a political one). “I’ve never slept with an African […] Oh, I had sexual experiences here [in Africa], yes. But not with… well.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’ve actually not read Planetary – I was in my ‘not reading comics’ period when it was coming out at all regularly, and decided to wait until the series finished to read it all…

      And I like the amoral version of the character a lot too – the thing is, though, I wouldn’t want to break the character for anyone else. The way I’ve got it set up, anyone who came along after and *wanted* to do Tarzan that way would still be able to – just have him ‘revert to type’ or whatever – but you’d still be able to do normal Tarzan stories with him as a normal adventure hero…

      • Holly says:

        You had a “not reading comics” period? I hope there’s another; I’ll be sure to enjoy it this time. :)

  2. pillock says:

    Would you believe that what seemed so obvious to you and Justin never once occurred to me?

    I like this a lot as a mission statement, and only have a couple of questions about it: one is, since Tarzan’s been popular in a whole bunch of different media, do you have one in mind that would be “best” for your rejuvenation? I can see this as comics, but I can also see it as television…moments of horror for Jane in the jungle, realizing who her husband really is…these could play differently, with different echoes, in different forms. In a comic, I can imagine being overwhelmed by stray resonances with Moore’s Swamp Thing; in a TV show I can easily imagine some consonance with some of your classic gangster bits stretching back all the way to The Godfather. Of course there’s a LOT more to unpack out of those boxes, in terms of having new riffs on old cliches, and pointed commentary on similar efforts that suffer from a failure of will…not to say this is what you’re going for, but: I’m intrigued by the different textures it could acquire.

    And, second thing: I’m curious about whatever “inciting incident” might bring Tarzan back to the jungle as an eco-warrior. “Eco-warrior” isn’t terribly specific, and I think human beings only jump when they grasp a specific…of course if you did have an inciting incident it could take a lot of different forms…

    Wonderful stuff in here!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It’s amazing how *little* I’ve deviated here from Burroughs’ original conception of the character – it’s just that Burroughs seemed to think a lot of this stuff was *admirable*…

      I was thinking primarily of comics – as you say, something very like Moore’s Swamp Thing (I saw Bissette drawing it) – mostly because you can get away with more in comics than TV. But it could also be done quite easily on TV – done as a glossy ‘film-look’ drama a la the Welsh series, but with the look of the show slowly changing – I’ve got an idea in my head of it starting out looking like a real rainforest in glossy hi-def film-look, but then slowly changing so it has the ‘videotaped in a small studio in Shepherd’s Bush, with a few pot plants in the foreground being the jungle’ look of something like Planet Of The Daleks (a not-very-good Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story set in a jungle). I’ve no idea if that would work at all, though….

      As for the inciting incident, I’d want to hint (but no more than hint) that it was something to do with Lord Lucan’s disappearance (I don’t know if Lucan is known in Canada at all – he was one of the Clermont Set (who were real people – I don’t know if I made that clear) who tried to murder his wife but ended up murdering his servant instead. Depending on who you believe, he either fled the country, aided by his very rich friends, and spent the next few decades in exile in North Africa, or he killed himself.)

      • Kieran says:

        “get away with more in comics” is the party line but what do you actually need to get away with in this case? There’s no mention of high-budget genre stuff in the script and it’d take away from the grotty realism of the take to make tarzan a larger than life figure. And as to executive meddling is that a problem for a saturday morning kinda show like tarzan? They made the Sword of Truth into a series, and that book’s a dodgy mustache away from being The Iron Dream.

        And the timing’d be better, you could really stretch out a lazy hour of the same poacher fighting story every week, leaving you plenty of space to go to work on the character. Comics have to be on all the time and I worry a slow-burning character study like this’d get buried under the issue-to-issue business.

        Still maybe I’m misunderstanding, how much of the characters time do you envision would be spent dealing with the jungle, and how much with the Claremont set and Anglo-African politics?

        • pillock says:

          In comics you can have evocative tableaux that are capable of being lingered over, that’s basically where I see the extra texture coming in…whereas TV’s advantage is in the expressive faces, motions, and voices of actors.

          But I actually think there’s a point where these two advantages merge, at least a little. For example I always thought the Tom Baker Who excelled at “doing comics” on the screen — sort of in the same way that one episode of Star Trek (“Court Martial”, actually…why am I pretending I don’t know what it’s called, when I can practically recite the damn thing line-by-line?) looks just like it was drawn by Ditko…there was a little corner of my little teenage brain that could always see T. Baker’s Doctor as adventuring in locales pencilled and inked by John Byrne and Terry Austin…

          Uh…you all saw the Ditko in that Star Trek episode, right?

      • Lue Lyron says:

        I like the historical basis with the “Clermont Set.” History might continue to serve the storytelling engine.
        Great idea, using a fully-fleshed out Jane to tie together realistic character growth.
        I studied the volcano rings in East Africa for the purposes of my novel. I would dearly love to see them tied to your murderous lord’s disappearance. Did you have a geographical area staked out for this incarnation? I studied Burkina Faso for another thread in the novel, which revealed a good bit about how a specific area will have a different anthropological makeup and history. Obviously I mention it because the choice of nations would yield particular plot ideas concerning the wildlife preserves, endangered species, the topography, and of course the natives.
        The Cowboys and the Redskins, meanwhile, are playing football here in the states this Sunday.

  3. pillock says:

    Not sure it’s an act I can follow…

  4. Marc Burkhardt says:

    Excellent stuff. I too am especially taken by your portrayal of Jane.

  5. Zom says:

    It reminds me of Moore’s take on Jimmy Bond in the Black Dossier: Just run with the subtext, the guy’s a complete fuckface. Of course Moore was perhaps being somewhat more unkind in that he didn’t allow Jimmy a chance for redemption. Worth bearing in mind that over a longer story arc, and if one were prepared to break the character, you could take that chance for redemption and snatch it away, or radically complicate it, much as the writers of the Sopranos did with Tony Soprano.

    What’s particularly fascinating about that series is how the character was revealed as more and more unlikeable over time, with the final episode dangling, although not committing to, the possibility that Tony is in fact simply a sociopath, and that all those little details (loving animals, for example) that we thought made him just excusable as a human being were actually features of his sociopathic behaviour patterns. The Sopranos being the Sopranos, mental illness is presented as a very complicated beast indeed, so even if we were to commit wholeheartedly to the view put forward by Melfi (which we shouldn’t because everyone is to some extent unreliable in that show) we would be investing in something which in itself is problematic and incomplete (hey, diagnoses are unreliable too! See Anthony Junior’s depression. See anyone’s depression, for that matter).

  6. Prankster says:

    I think even calling it “surtext” doesn’t go far enough; racist imperialism (maybe tempered slightly with a bit of patronizing “noble savage” stuff) is pretty much what Tarzan’s about. See, because a member of the white aristocracy, raised in the wild, would be a much better African than any actual Africans (who are interchangable with apes, mind you). Alan Moore riffed amusingly on this in “Judgment Day”, the miniseries he spun off of Supreme, by making his Tarzan analogue a flat-out racist.

    I also conceived of a “jungle adventurer” character a few years ago who was an attempt to move the classic Tarzan archetype to the present day and remove the unpleasant subext. Actually, my character was a sort of “reverse Tarzan” who was a member of a lost tribe living in a secret jungle valley (NOT an adopted white dude) who was forced to flee to America when an usurper came to power, and was biding his time among the western savages until he could find a way to return home…

  7. I would totally read this series if you write it.

    This compliment, admittedly, is somewhat diminished by the fact I have never read any Tarzan book or movie (outside of the Disney one when I was like 10, but that hardly counts). But I have seen every episode of the 60’s George of the Jungle animated series, which has to count for something.

  8. Harvey Jerkwater says:

    I gotta admit, I’m not feeling this story in my gut. Sorry to be the turd in the punchbowl.

    What’s the appeal of Tarzan? Why would a modern reader or TV viewer care about him? What’s compelling about him? Your version has story seeds a’plenty and a recognizable character arc, but it doesn’t grab me by the lip and yank. It has ideas, and it has soap opera goodness, as you called for in your manifesto, but it lacks…something.

    What itch does the Lord of the Apes scratch in so many people? What makes the Feral Man so compelling that I’m gonna plop down in front of a TV set every week or cough up $4 per comic to follow his adventures, or even read a free story about him?

    Tarzan’s original appeal came from widespread insecurity about the “effeminizing” effects of civilization, right? He’s the reassurance that we Manly (White) Men of Europe and America could, if need be, not only survive in the harshest environment without any human help, but thrive and even conquer it. We get the charge of being King of the Jungle, no longer haunted by the fear that civilized life has made us too soft. I don’t think that anxiety has left us. That’s not too difficult to recast without the racist mold, I think, though it’d raise some logical problems. (“If a human could take over the jungle, why the one white guy around and not one of the millions of locals?”) Your story hits this obliquely, but I think it needs to be hit harder.

    A bigger problem may be the loss of exoticism. Africa isn’t as unknown to us as it was to the folks of yesteryear, and our desire for spectacle is much, much greater than a herd of elephants can provide. We see nasty jungles and amazing jungle creatures on cable television every day. It’s still stunning and amazing, but it’s not as alien to Western eyes as it once was. What spectacle could Tarzan provide that would take a modern viewer or reader’s breath away?

    As written above, the story is the moral awakening of an alienated man. That’s tough to fit onto the genre trappings of pulpy action and make it work, because if Our Hero starts as an inhuman cipher, it’s hard to make us care long enough to stick around and see the awakening, and if you rush the awakening to drive audience interest, it feels lame.

    Tarzan is a tough sell to a modern audience. Do people really think much at all about how “cities have made us soft” anymore?

    • Prankster says:

      I absolutely think “return to the wild” is still something people enjoy–that’s a big reason for the more lighthearted strain of post-apocalypse fiction, in my estimation. (Of course, in those stories, you have food laying around to be looted, mansions to yourself, etc., but still, “getting away from it all” has a powerful appeal.)

      There’s another element in Tarzan’s success, I think: sex. The story of Tarzan and Jane is basically a sexual fantasy (for both genders!), again, tied in with the “escape from civilization/return to the Garden of Eden” aspect. Watch the first two Weissmuller Tarzan movies, in particular, and tell me they aren’t primarily about sublimated sexuality.

  9. Pingback: Andrew’s Tarzan « A Trout In The Milk

  10. pillock says:

    Oooh, RAB’s got one too, and it’s pretty damn neat!

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