Tarzan the Ape Man: A Comparison of the Two Film Versions

Tarzan the Ape Man A Comparison of the Two Film Versions
Tarzan the Ape Man: A Comparison of the Two Film Versions

Tarzan the Ape Man is a classic story that has been adapted many times in different media. In this post, I will compare the two film versions of Tarzan the Ape Man, released in 1932 and 1981, and analyze how they differ in their depiction of Tarzan, Jane, and the African jungle.

Tarzan the Ape Man: The Original Novel and Its Legacy

The story of Tarzan the Ape Man was first published in 1912 as a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, titled Tarzan of the Apes. It tells the tale of John Clayton, an English nobleman who was orphaned in Africa as a baby and raised by a tribe of apes. He later meets Jane Porter, an American girl who is part of an expedition looking for his father's lost cabin. Tarzan falls in love with Jane and rescues her from various dangers, including hostile natives, wild animals, and a rival suitor. He also learns his true identity and heritage, and faces a dilemma between his civilized and savage worlds.

The novel was a huge success and spawned a series of sequels, comics, radio shows, television series, and films. Tarzan became one of the most popular and influential fictional characters of the 20th century, and a symbol of adventure, romance, and exoticism. The character also inspired many imitations and parodies, such as George of the Jungle, Mighty Joe Young, and The Jungle Book.

The first film adaptation of Tarzan the Ape Man was made in 1918, starring Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan and Enid Markey as Jane. It was a silent film that followed the plot of the novel fairly closely, except for some changes in the ending. The film was well-received by the audiences and critics, and led to several sequels and remakes. However, the most famous and influential film version of Tarzan the Ape Man was the 1932 version, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, which established many of the iconic elements of the Tarzan mythos, such as the Tarzan yell, the vine swinging, and the loincloth costume.

The 1932 version of Tarzan the Ape Man was not the only film adaptation of the story, though. In 1981, a controversial remake was released, starring Bo Derek and Miles O'Keeffe, which deviated significantly from the original novel and the previous films. It was a box office flop and a critical disaster, and is widely considered one of the worst films ever made. However, it also has a cult following and is notorious for its erotic and explicit scenes.

In this post, I will compare these two film versions of Tarzan the Ape Man, and examine how they reflect the social and cultural context of their time, as well as the artistic and creative choices of their makers. I will also discuss the similarities and differences between the films, and how they affect the interpretation and appreciation of the story and the characters.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932): The Classic Adventure Film

The 1932 version of Tarzan the Ape Man is widely regarded as the definitive film adaptation of the story, and the one that set the standard for all the subsequent Tarzan films. It was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and starred Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. It was the first sound film to feature Tarzan, and the first to introduce the famous Tarzan yell, a distinctive cry that Weissmuller improvised by yodeling. The film was a huge hit at the box office, and received positive reviews from the critics. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Picture and Best Sound Recording.

The film follows the basic plot of the novel, but makes some significant changes and simplifications. For instance, the film omits the backstory of Tarzan's parents, and the character of Clayton, Jane's fiancé. It also reduces the role of the apes, and focuses more on the romance between Tarzan and Jane. The film portrays Tarzan as a noble savage, who is innocent, brave, and loyal, but also curious and playful. He speaks very little, and communicates mostly through gestures and grunts. He is fascinated by Jane, and tries to learn from her. He also protects her from various threats, such as a lion, a crocodile, and a hostile tribe of natives.

Jane, on the other hand, is portrayed as a modern and independent woman, who is adventurous, witty, and spirited. She is not afraid of Tarzan, and even challenges him at times. She is also attracted to him, and enjoys his company. She teaches him some English words, and tries to civilize him. She also faces a dilemma between staying with Tarzan in the jungle, or returning to civilization with her father and his expedition.

The film also depicts the African jungle as a wild and exotic place, full of danger and beauty. The film uses a combination of stock footage, studio sets, and location shooting in California and Florida to create the jungle scenery. The film also features many real animals, such as elephants, monkeys, lions, and crocodiles, which add to the realism and excitement of the film. The film also uses some special effects, such as rear projection and matte painting, to enhance the visual impact of the film.

The film is notable for its adventurous and humorous tone, which balances the drama and the romance of the story. The film has many memorable scenes, such as the first meeting between Tarzan and Jane, the vine swinging sequence, the elephant stampede, and the final rescue of Jane from the natives. The film also has some comic relief, such as the character of Harry Holt, Jane's father's partner, who provides some witty remarks and funny reactions. The film also has some suggestive and risqué moments, such as the scene where Tarzan examines Jane's clothes, and the scene where Jane swims naked with Tarzan.

The 1932 version of Tarzan the Ape Man is a classic adventure film that has influenced many other films and genres, such as Indiana Jones, King Kong, and Avatar. It is also a film that reflects the social and cultural values of its time, such as the colonial and racial attitudes, the gender roles, and the sexual norms. The film is a product of its era, but also a timeless story of love and adventure.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1981): The Controversial Remake

The 1981 film Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Bo Derek was a controversial remake of the classic Tarzan story. Directed by John Derek, the film updated the Tarzan tale by focusing heavily on the beauty and sensuality of Bo Derek’s Jane, rather than the usual action-adventure elements. This provoked a great deal of debate and criticism due to its overt sexuality.

The film follows Jane Parker, an eccentric woman who ventures into the African jungle in search of the fabled Tarzan. Upon meeting Tarzan, played by Miles O’Keeffe, Jane embarks on a sexual awakening as she and Tarzan have graphic and repeated intercourse in the jungle. Director John Derek incorporated substantial nudity and erotic imagery throughout the film, deviating greatly from the chaste Jane-Tarzan relationships of previous adaptations.

Bo Derek’s exaggerated sensuality was the main focal point in the film’s promotion and reception. She spends much of the film nude or partially clothed, often appearing oiled, wet, or sweaty. This hyper-sexualized portrayal of Jane proved extremely divisive among critics and audiences. Many criticized John Derek for his directorial emphasis on his wife’s physique over plot or substance. Feminist groups in particular denounced the film as sexist exploitation that removed Jane’s strength and independence in favor of base titillation.

The controversy around the film’s focus on female sensuality sparked immense debate over gender roles in cinema. Tarzan the Ape Man met with widespread condemnation and protests from women’s advocacy groups upon its release. Critics like Roger Ebert lambasted the film for what they saw as objectification bordering on “soft-core porn.” On the other side, some saw Bo Derek’s overt sexuality as empowering. But most agreed John Derek prioritized lusty imagery over storytelling or coherent themes.

Audience reactions covered the full spectrum from excitement over Bo Derek’s physical assets to disgust at the film’s perceived sexism. But the extraordinary controversy resulted in booming box office returns. Curious moviegoers turned out to experience the provocative remake’s lurid sensibilities for themselves. Yet many emerged unhappy with the lack of narrative substance beneath the sexual imagery.

The critical response to Tarzan, the Ape Man marked a turning point in discussions over onscreen sex and nudity. Derek’s unapologetic focus on his wife’s body challenged conventions for portraying female sexuality in mainstream films. But the overall absence of merit beyond physical indulgence ultimately reinforced notions that sexually provocative films lacked artistic depth.

Although decried as misogynistic, Tarzan the Ape Man also demonstrated perceived societal double standards. Critics condemned Bo Derek’s nude scenes while overlooking the topless African natives also depicted onscreen. This reflected racial biases in judgments over appropriate sexuality in films.

Over 40 years later, the 1981 version of Tarzan, the Ape Man retains its scandalous reputation for putting titillation above entertainment or values. Viewed today, the soft-core sensibilities appear quaint. But the intense debates sparked presaged culture wars over cinematic sexuality still raging in modern times. Director John Derek unabashedly used his wife’s beautiful body as a selling point, for better or worse. The backlash highlighted ingrained social discomfort with women openly owning their sexuality without judgment or shame.

Tarzan and Jane: The Evolution of the Iconic Couple

Tarzan and Jane are among the most iconic romantic couples in pop culture history. Since Tarzan’s literary debut over 100 years ago, numerous adaptations across various media have brought fresh takes on the lord of the apes and his refined English love interest. Examining how Tarzan and Jane have been reinterpreted over the decades spotlights evolving social attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality.

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original Tarzan novels, Jane Porter is a damsel in distress, perpetually needing rescue by the powerful and morally upright Tarzan. Their bond reflects early 20th century colonialist views upholding white superiority and male protection over women. Jane greatly depends on Tarzan’s strength and moral guidance to survive the jungle perils.

As films emerged, Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane showed more fiery independence, while remaining devoted to the noble, monosyllabic Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan. The films emphasized exotic jungle adventures over emotional connections. Jane’s capability emerged primarily through physical feats like swimming alongside Tarzan rather than force of personality.

Later renditions increasingly developed Jane beyond a passive love interest. In the 1960s TV series, Jane played by Nancy Kovack actively assisted Tarzan’s community efforts. The 1984 film Greystoke portrayed Jane as Tarzan’s link to civilization, with Andie MacDowell’s headstrong portrayal admiring Tarzan’s values despite his savage upbringing.

Through the 90s and 2000s, Jane assumed more empowered attributes as writers highlighted gender, racial, and social dynamics. Disney’s 1999 animated Tarzan centered on Jane as a brilliant scientist who wins Tarzan’s heart with her intelligence and sincerity. The 2021 novel Loves of Tarzan finally gave Jane top billing over her famous partner by emphasizing her scientist credentials.

In more modern incarnations, Tarzan and Jane display true equality free from outdated gender tropes. The current CW series Tarzan and Jane depicts Jane as an accomplished attorney fully capable of navigating the jungleBY herself. She meets Tarzan as an equal while confronting long-held assumptions.

As artists reassess racial perceptions, modern Black creators have envisioned Jane as a woman of color. Comic book writer NK Jemison recast Jane Porter as Jane Porter-King, the African-American daughter of a U.S. presidential candidate lost in the African Congo. Bringing fresh resonance to Tarzan and Jane’s cross-cultural attraction.

The shifting portrayals of Tarzan and Jane illuminate evolving ideals of not only gender equality, but also racial attitudes and social norms. In early works, Jane merely provided the civilized female presence for Tarzan to protect. Recent works now depict Jane matching wits, moral wisdom, independence, and physical prowess with her iconic paramour.

Just as artists constantly reinvent Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood, Tarzan and Jane endure by adapting to reflect changing cultural priorities. Jane’s ascent over a century from helpless damsel to dynamic equal traces society’s increased embrace of powerful women, multicultural perspectives, and relationships built on mutual growth rather than outdated tropes.

As artists craft new Tarzan tales for modern audiences, Jane continues moving from sidekick to soulmate. No longer just the love interest highlighting Tarzan’s jungle heroism, today Jane evolves as Tarzan’s ethical guide through her compassion and integrity. Some works even spotlight Jane as the hero, with Tarzan assisting her scientific quests or moral causes.

The saga of Tarzan and Jane represents art evolving with values. As one generation’s meek female stereotypes transform into the next generation’s empowered teams of equals, Tarzan and Jane’s legendary romance leads to new understanding. Rather thanLocking the iconic couple into outdated paradigms, artists now reshape their jungle affair as a timeless stage for discussing social progress. Their story remains captivatingly familiar, yet fresh with each thoughtful reinvention.

The African Jungle: The Representation of the Natural and the Cultural

The African jungle is a key setting and theme in the story of Tarzan the Ape Man, and it is represented differently in the two film versions. The jungle is not only a natural environment, but also a cultural space, where the values, beliefs, and practices of the characters are shaped and challenged. The jungle is also a source of conflict and contrast, between the civilized and the savage, the human and the animal, and the colonizer and the colonized. In this section, I will explore how the two films depict the African jungle, and what implications they have for the interpretation and appreciation of the story and the characters.

In the 1932 version of Tarzan the Ape Man, the jungle is portrayed as a wild and exotic place, full of danger and beauty. The film uses a combination of stock footage, studio sets, and location shooting to create the jungle scenery. The film also features many real animals, such as elephants, monkeys, lions, and crocodiles, which add to the realism and excitement of the film. The film also uses some special effects, such as rear projection and matte painting, to enhance the visual impact of the film.

The jungle is also a place where Tarzan and Jane discover and develop their love, and where they face various threats and obstacles. The jungle is both a paradise and a prison for them, as they enjoy the freedom and the adventure, but also struggle with the dangers and the limitations. The jungle is also a place where they encounter different cultures, such as the apes, the natives, and the explorers. The film shows some respect and sympathy for the native culture, as they are portrayed as friendly and helpful, and as victims of the ivory hunters. However, the film also shows some stereotypes and prejudices, as they are portrayed as primitive and savage, and as obstacles to the romance between Tarzan and Jane.

In the 1981 version of Tarzan the Ape Man, the jungle is portrayed as a sensual and erotic place, full of nudity and sex. The film was filmed on location in Sri Lanka, and features real animals and plants. However, the film also uses some artificial and unrealistic elements, such as the slow motion, the soft focus, and the music, to create a fantasy-like atmosphere. The film also uses some graphic and explicit scenes, such as the rape of Jane by the natives, and the sexual intercourse between Tarzan and Jane.

The jungle is also a place where Tarzan and Jane express and explore their sexuality, and where they face no moral or social constraints. The jungle is a utopia for them, as they enjoy the pleasure and the passion, and as they ignore the consequences and the responsibilities. The jungle is also a place where they encounter no other cultures, except for the natives, who are portrayed as violent and rapacious, and as enemies to the lovers. The film shows no respect or sympathy for the native culture, as they are portrayed as barbaric and monstrous, and as objects of exploitation and domination.

The 1981 version of Tarzan the Ape Man is a controversial and provocative film that has challenged and offended many viewers and critics. It is also a film that reflects the social and cultural changes of its time, such as the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and the post-colonial discourse. The film is a product of its era, but also a radical reinterpretation of the story and the characters.

Conclusion: Which Film Version Is Better and Why?

In this post, I have compared the two film versions of Tarzan the Ape Man, released in 1932 and 1981, and analyzed how they differ in their portrayal of Tarzan, Jane, and the African jungle. I have also discussed how the films reflect the social and cultural context of their time, as well as the artistic and creative choices of their makers. I have also explored the similarities and differences between the films, and how they affect the interpretation and appreciation of the story and the characters.

So, which film version is better and why? The answer to this question may depend on the personal preference and taste of the viewer, as well as the criteria and standards that they use to evaluate the films. However, based on my analysis, I would argue that the 1932 version of Tarzan the Ape Man is a better film than the 1981 version, for the following reasons:

  • The 1932 version is more faithful and respectful to the original novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and preserves the essence and the spirit of the story and the characters.
  • The 1932 version is more balanced and nuanced in its tone and style, and blends the adventure, the romance, and the humor of the story in a harmonious and effective way.
  • The 1932 version is more realistic and authentic in its depiction of the African jungle and its inhabitants, and uses real animals and locations to create a convincing and immersive atmosphere.
  • The 1932 version is more influential and iconic in its contribution to the Tarzan mythos, and introduces many of the elements that have become synonymous with the character, such as the Tarzan yell, the vine swinging, and the loincloth costume.

On the other hand, the 1981 version of Tarzan the Ape Man is a worse film than the 1932 version, for the following reasons:

  • The 1981 version is more unfaithful and disrespectful to the original novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and changes and distorts the story and the characters to suit the personal agenda and vision of the makers.
  • The 1981 version is more unbalanced and extreme in its tone and style, and focuses on the eroticism and the violence of the story in a gratuitous and exploitative way.
  • The 1981 version is more artificial and unrealistic in its depiction of the African jungle and its inhabitants, and uses artificial and unrealistic elements to create a fantasy-like and sensationalized atmosphere.
  • The 1981 version is more controversial and provocative in its approach to the Tarzan mythos, and challenges and offends many of the viewers and critics with its radical and unconventional interpretation of the character.

Therefore, I conclude that the 1932 version of Tarzan the Ape Man is a better film than the 1981 version, because it is more faithful, balanced, realistic, and influential, while the 1981 version is more unfaithful, unbalanced, unrealistic, and controversial. However, this is not to say that the 1981 version has no merit or value, as it is also a film that reflects the social and cultural changes of its time, and offers a different and daring perspective on the story and the characters. The 1981 version may appeal to some viewers who are looking for a more sensual and erotic experience, or who are interested in the post-colonial and feminist discourse. The 1981 version may also be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, or as a cult classic, or as a bad movie.

In conclusion, the two film versions of Tarzan the Ape Man are very different and contrasting films, that have their own strengths and weaknesses, and that appeal to different audiences and tastes. The 1932 version is a classic adventure film that has stood the test of time, and that has defined the Tarzan legend for generations. The 1981 version is a controversial remake that has challenged and offended many viewers and critics, and that has reinterpreted the Tarzan legend for a new era. Both films are worth watching and comparing, as they offer a rich and diverse insight into the story and the characters of Tarzan the Ape Man.

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Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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