Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes tells the story of Tarzan, a feral man in the jungles of Africa who is raised by a tribe of primates. Published in 1912, the novel was immediately popular and quickly spawned countless sequels, spin-offs, and film adaptations. Tarzan became a cultural icon, as readers were fascinated by his improbable romance with Jane as well as his unique relationship to the wilderness where he is raised. The Tarzan series became an unstoppable success for Burroughs, who was lifted from a life of poverty to a life of luxury in Los Angeles by his beloved novel. Tarzan was further immortalized in the 1999 Disney film Tarzan, which reinvented Burroughs's classic for a new generation.

1. Before writing Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs was a penniless pencil sharpener salesman.

Prior to his literary success, Burroughs's life was marked by failure after failure. He performed poorly in schools, attending six different institutions before managing to graduate. He later held jobs in the military, the police force, a mining company, and an accounting firm—none of which he enjoyed. At age 35 he had no money to support his family and began writing advertisements for pencil sharpeners to make ends meet. This also proved to be an unprofitable venture, but the lack of sales allowed him to devote his spare time to writing. Burroughs recalled:

Somehow I got hold of a few dollars and took an agency for the sale of a lead-pencil sharpener. I would not try to sell the sharpeners myself, but I advertised for agents and sent them out. They did not sell any pencil sharpeners, but in the leisure moments, while I was waiting for them to come back to tell me that they had not sold any, I started writing "Under the Moons of Mars," my first story.

2. Burroughs named his ranch after Tarzan—and later, the whole surrounding town.

Burroughs and his family moved to the Los Angeles area in 1919 and purchased a large ranch outside the city. Burroughs later named his estate Tarzana and aimed to make it a self-sustaining paradise. Later, the entire nearby community adopted the name Tarzana. Burroughs chose the name to honor his character and stories, the success of which had made his lavish lifestyle in the area possible.

3. American author Ray Bradbury believed Burroughs was one of history's most important writers.

Burroughs received the highest praise from science fiction author Ray Bradbury, famous for his 1953 dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451. In fact, Bradbury proclaimed Burroughs the single most important literary figure in the world. In an interview with the Paris Review, Bradbury was asked about the "social obligation" of modern literature. Bradbury responded:

Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terrible—Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.

4. Movie studios have gone to great lengths to record the perfect Tarzan yell.

Anyone familiar with Tarzan knows his iconic yell—the feral man's primal shout echoing through the jungle. The first version of the yell, recorded for the 1918 film adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes, set a precedent for those that would follow. The most famous version, however, is the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer yell, which is generally credited to Thomas Leech, a famous 1940s opera singer. A lot of work went into the perfection of this sound, however, as Leech's voice was allegedly "blended in with that voice [are] the growl of a dog, a trill sung by a soprano, a note played on a violin's G string and the howl of a hyena recorded backward." They even reportedly experimented with the noise of "a mother camel robbed of her young." The studio went through a vast array of potential animal noises to blend with the vocals before making the final product.

5. After the success of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs obsessively exploited the Tarzan franchise.

After a lifetime of poverty, Burroughs was thrilled to have published a successful story. Burroughs was quick to exploit the success of Tarzan of the Apes and immediately worked to turn the character into a franchise. In addition to writing more stories featuring the character, Burroughs worked to create comic strips, which he distributed to dozens of newspapers around the country. The Tarzan series quickly exploded into its own industry, with film adaptations, radio broadcasts, toys, and merchandise. Critics pointed out that some of Burroughs's subsequent Tarzan stories were rather poorly written, to which he responded, "But they sell ... that's what's important."

6. After the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Burroughs became the oldest American war correspondent.

Long after his success with Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs felt it was his duty to return to military life at the onset of World War II (1939–45). Burroughs witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and he immediately offered his literary services to the U.S. government as a war correspondent. Burroughs was 66 when he served as a correspondent, writing for The Los Angeles Times, making him the oldest man to serve in the position at the time. Burroughs also accompanied his friend, General Truman Landon, on several aerial missions in the Pacific in 1944.

7. Most film adaptations of Tarzan of the Apes haven't featured the correct species of primate.

Many fans of Tarzan don't realize that the apes Burroughs describes the character living with are neither chimpanzees nor gorillas. They're actually meant to be a fictional species known as Mangani—a fact most film adaptations have overlooked. In most early Tarzan films, Tarzan's adoptive family is composed of chimpanzees. The 1999 Disney adaptation shows gorillas as Tarzan's comrades, whereas Burroughs actually only describes one gorilla in the book—Bolgani the Great, a vicious enemy of Tarzan's tribe.

8. Tarzan's movements in the 1999 film adaptation are based on those of professional skateboarder Tony Hawk.

The 1999 Disney film adaptation of Tarzan used a unique model to animate Tarzan's escapades as he maneuvers through the jungle and slides along tree trunks: professional skateboarder Tony Hawk. The film's animators studied Hawk's movements on a skateboard and used him as a basis for Tarzan's agile movements through the forest. Hawk's movements were particularly useful for animating a scene in which Tarzan slides down a log—albeit without a skateboard.

9. Burroughs hated an actress who played Jane with such passion that he decided to kill off the character.

The first film adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes debuted in 1918, starring actress Enid Markey as Jane. Burroughs saw the film and was not at all pleased with Markey's performance. He also lamented the fact that the studio had portrayed Jane as a brunette, while the author intended her to be blonde. Burroughs admitted that this performance inspired him to kill off the character Jane in his subsequent Tarzan story, the 1918 Tarzan the Untamed. In Burroughs's original version, Jane is killed by German soldiers during World War I (1914–18), and Tarzan goes on a rampage to avenge her. He later altered the story, however, so that Jane is simply captured, not killed. Burroughs commented on his earlier draft, stating, "After seeing Enid Markey ... I was very glad to kill her."

10. Tarzan's name comes from Burroughs's ape language.

When Burroughs named his protagonist Tarzan, he wrote in an explanation for the name as well. When Tarzan is adopted by the Mangani apes, they bestow on him the name Tarzan in their own unique ape language. The name means "white-skin" in the fictional dialect, as the apes have never seen a pale-skinned human before.

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