An LA film industry insider who is also an ERB fan managed to attend an official Legend of Tarzan test screening and has shared some private thoughts about the movie. S/he knows I will post about my conversation, minus spoilers. The source is a very reliable person who got interested in ERB after John Carter. I’m sure the following is completely accurate as to the cut that as being shown fairly recently. Small things may still change, but this is what the viewer saw.
Overall — the screening was very well-received by the audience. “People seemed to really like it.” The source did not see the scores given by the viewers when they filled out their questionnaires, but the vibe was very favorable and he heard no one speaking anything other than positive comments about it. As an industry person, the viewer was encouraged — and as an ERB fan, it was a very satisfying experience watching the movie. No doubt closer to the original than any modern attempt to adapt the book.
Against that overall background, here are specific notes, geared primarily for ERB fans:
- Minor Surprise 1 — Backstory Changes: Although it’s generally very faithful to Burroughs and very “Burroughsian” in feel, there are a few aspects of the backstory that are changed, some of which are evident in the trailer and others which are not. Something that is not part of the trailer is that Jane and her father are portrayed as having lived/worked in Africa, with the father either a missionary or perhaps an anthropologist. They helped one of the tribes in the past — no religious angle is presented, just that they helped. So Jane, though American, is “of Africa” in this rendition and that feeds the “not a damsel” idea. The other main backstory changes are visible in the trailer — i.e. treehouse instead of cabin Kala’s baby is not dead when she finds Tarzan; death of Tarzan’s father takes place out in the jungle, not in the cabin.
- Minor Surprise 2 — George Washington Willams: There has been a bit of buildup about the George Washington Williams character and the historical context, but the historical component was mostly evident in the setup and not too much thereafter. For both GWW an Rom it’s more of a jumping off point than an attempt to really explore the history or these two real-character’s roles in the Congo.
- “Like a damsel?”: Speaking of “damsel” — in the line from the trailer where she says “like a damsel?” and then winds up to either spit on Rom or headbutt him, the source said it’s a headbutt and she crunches Rom’s nose. Nice.
- Flashbacks: In the trailer it spends a long time on the origin backstory but in the movie, this is all done via flashbacks which come out in snippets. There is no long sustained backstory.
- Tone is Brighter Than the Trailer: The movie is less moody and dark than the trailers make it feel — there is a nice variation of lightness and dark.
- Traumatic Upbringing: When Tarzan initially balks at going back — the impression given is that the whole upbringing by apes was very traumatic, and he’s gotten very comfortable and adapted quite well to life in England.
- Two Tribes: There are two tribes — Mbonga’s tribe, which is featured in the trailer, and Muviro’s tribe, which is not identified as Waziri but seems to be Waziri (and Muviro is of course the name of the Waziri chief in Return of Tarzan etc). (Note — I looked for Muviro on the cast list and couldn’t find him — then checked back with the source who is sure the character name is Muviro, but can’t recall for sure whether “Waziri” are ever referenced for the friendly tribe.)
- Dodging the Racism/Imperalism Bullet: It seemed to this viewer that the “racism/imperialism” pitfalls are largely avoided, although there is no guarantee this won’t come up:
- Samuel Jackson is a sidekick who is less than Tarzan physically, but on the level of intelligence, sophistication, and forcefulness as a character he is Tarzan’s equal. He can’t keep up with Tarzan physically but no one can. He’s no pushover and he pushes Tarzan.
- One tribe (Mbonga) is presented as a worthy antagonist and obstacle that must be overcome, while the other (Muviro) is an allied tribe who has a history with both Tarzan and Jane and her father. There may be some tropes and stereotypes in there that some will object to, but nothng was overheard during or after the movie that would suggest anyone was reacting negatively.
- Although Tarzan clearly saves the day in a conflict with the Europeans, it doesn’t quite come off as “white savior”
- Mangani Not Gorillas: There is line — “They’re not gorillas, they’re mangani.” And then some explanation that Mangani are more aggressive. Re the apes, the movie appeared to be about 95% finished. The parts that still appeared to be unfinished were some of the ape shots. There were probably other things that were unfinished or will be refined, but they were not apparent to the audience. (See this post for more on this.
- Mixed Demo: For this screening, people knew in advance that it was LOT, unlike a lot of test screenings where the audience doesn’t know what film it is beforehand. It drew a mixed demographic — lots of people of color and lots of ethnicities and lots of variation in ages. This is encouraging in that it has to be a “four quadrant” film that appeals to males, females, over 25, under 25, if it is to succeed commercially. They had a particular interest in couples. Seemed like maybe they were trying to get a read on how it plays as a date movie.
Oh yeah —
- Cutoff age to be admitted into the screening was 54. They didn’t want to hear from anyone older than that. Sorry, fellow Tarzan-lovin’ Curmudgeons. We’re irrelevant. 😉