Interview: Scott Tracy Griffin - Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration
To celebrate 100 years of Tarzan we ask why the character has remained so popular for so long?
Tarzan is one of the most enduring action adventure characters of all time: created by Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 years ago he still lives on in popular culture after all these years. We chat to Scott Tracy Griffin, author of Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration (Titan Books), about the longevity of the Lord of the Jungle.
For anyone who hasn't heard of Tarzan could you explain the concept?
For generations, Tarzan has been the prototypical feral man: a British peer orphaned in the jungle and raised by the great apes to become a physical, mental, and moral superman in the absence of civilization’s influence. He didn’t wear tights or possess superhuman powers but was, in many respects, the first superhero with a global audience.
What were Edgar Rice Burroughs' inspirations for the character?
Burroughs had a strong academic background in the classics and attributed the story’s genesis to the legend of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who were adopted by a wolf after being abandoned in the wilderness. Burroughs cited Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’, too, though he downplayed Kipling’s influence on inspiring Tarzan.
What is it about the character that appeals to yourself?
I’ve always been an animal lover; as a child I was captivated by the notion of interacting with apes, elephants, and other exotic species. When I discovered the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, I found his prose and concept of the character to be engrossing. Burroughs’ ability to portray exotic worlds and breath-taking action is unparalleled in the adventure genre.
Why do you think he has been so popular for so long?
Burroughs taps into our innermost, primal urges, the desire to renounce civilization, return to nature and master it. Tarzan’s appeal is universal, and cuts across cultural, political, and ideological lines.
What is your favourite version of Tarzan and why?
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original concept, as reflected in the early Tarzan novels, is unsurpassed. Burroughs offered a far more nuanced character than most of the succeeding films, comics, radio and television programs.
Who do you think best personified the Tarzan character on film or TV?
I don’t have a favourite screen Tarzan, because every actor brought something unique to the role. Johnny Weissmuller’s performance was perhaps the most charismatic and memorable, but I’ve always liked interpretations starring actors who played Tarzan as the intelligent, articulate man Burroughs created, such as Herman Brix and Ron Ely.
Over the years Tarzan has cropped up in many strange and wonderful places in official and unofficial versions of the character - what's the strangest you've seen?
Tarzan has endorsed a wide range of products worldwide: bread and gasoline (with ‘The Power of Tarzan’) in the US, ‘Tarzan Grip’ glue in Australia and tinned nuts from Malaysia are several examples. Onscreen, the unauthorized Bollywood Tarzans offer a distinct cultural departure from Burroughs’ concept of a British peer stranded in the jungle as an infant. And I’m amused by parodies of the character, including George of the Jungle, Mad magazine’s satirical comics, and Dudley Moore’s classic ‘One-legged Tarzan’ skit.