Friday, June 24, 2016

How ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ Got Modernized
June 23, 2016

Some Tarzan fans remember the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first published in 1914. Others will picture a grunting Johnny Weissmuller fighting lions in a loincloth in the dozen Tarzan adventures, originally made in the 1930s and ’40s, which played as TV reruns for years after. Ron Ely played him in a television series; Christopher Lambert was “Greystoke”; Disney animated him in 1999.

“The Legend of Tarzan,” a high-stakes, big-studio movie coming July 1 and starring Alexander Skarsgard of “True Blood,” sets out to introduce the iconic, if dusty, character to a new generation.
“I wouldn’t say I was a massive fan,” said director David Yates, talking about the films he watched as a child starring Weissmuller, an Olympic gold-medal swimmer. “They always felt like they were B movies. Even as a kid I recognized they were cutting in the footage from some wildlife film they had from Africa.”
Mr. Yates, best known as the director of the four final “Harry Potter” films, and his collaborators have given the story a modern makeover.
This Jane doesn’t wilt in Tarzan’s arms. She is feisty and independent. When in jeopardy, she fights back. The animals are hyperrealistic—all are computer-generated except a few village goats. The African characters are mostly valued allies, not just servile or menacing figures in the background. Tarzan is more psychologically complex.
“It’s a very 21st-century approach to that singular story and that person,” Mr. Yates said. “Those notions of ‘Me, Tarzan,’ You, Jane’...aren’t interesting at all.”
“Here we have a character who has a kinship and an empathy and a deep understanding of the natural world. That to me is a very contemporary, interesting character to explore.”
Tarzan has deeper motives for his tree-swinging heroics in this case: uncovering slavery in the Congo in the late 19th century. He is aided by George Washington Williams, an American soldier played by Samuel L. Jackson. Williams is based on a real African-American soldier who traveled to the Congo and criticized the colonists’ treatment of the natives; some of Mr. Jackson’s lines come from an old letter, Mr. Yates said.
“The real hero is George Washington Williams in some ways,” he added.
“The Legend of Tarzan” introduces its protagonist years after he left the jungle, where he was raised by apes. He is living a life of nobility as John Clayton in London with his wife Jane, an American whom he met in Africa.
When he hears from Williams that Belgian colonists have instituted slavery, he agrees to return, reluctantly allowing Jane to come along.
There is a hostile tribe awaiting him, however the true bad guys aren’t the natives but those who come to exploit them.
The real villain is Christoph Waltz as Leon Rom, envoy to King Leopold of Belgium, who kidnaps Jane. Played by Margot Robbie, she engages in intellectual sparring with her captor and works with her Kuba friend Wasimbu to try to escape.
Making Africa seem authentic was especially important to the filmmakers because they shot the movie in England, except for six weeks in Gabon filming background without the cast.
A working waterfall and a 100-foot-long collapsible pier were assembled at Warner Bros.’ Leavesden studios, where the “Harry Potter” films were shot and where Mr. Yates is currently finishing up J.K. Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” To spend more time in Africa would have made the budget, a reported $180 million, even higher.
Write to Lucy Feldman at

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