A Little Background
Most of us probably know Tarzan as he appears in the 1999 Disney film: a shirtless dreadlocked guy whose habits include tree-surfing and hanging out with his adoptive gorilla family. The movie, which is agreed to be the bookend of the "Disney Renaissance," tells the tale of a couple shipwrecked on the coast of Africa - or rather, the tale of their son, who is taken in by a grieving gorilla mother after his parents and her child are killed by the same leopard. He often clashes with the family patriarch, a conflict that comes to a head when humans arrive in the jungle and force him to choose between two worlds.
What many people don't know is that Tarzan is based on series of books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, an American writer who would have turned 140 on September 1. Burroughs started writing 'The Adventures of Tarzan' in 1912, and the character became a huge success, spawning films, comics, toys, and many, many books. Here are some interesting tidbits from the king of the jungle's first appearance, Tarzan of the Apes, that show just how much Disney deviated from the source material.
10. Noble Heritage
This fact is a little better known due to the popular "Frozen-Tarzan" theory that has been bumping around the internet recently. Tarzan's parents are John and Alice Clayton (think that name sounds familiar? keep reading...), the Lord and Lady of Greystoke. His parents are marooned on the west coast of Africa by a mutinous crew. Lady Alice gives birth to Tarzan after their unceremonious arrival, and gives him the birth name John.
9. Humble Abode
If you say you didn't want the tree house built by Tarzan's parents when you were a kid, you'd probably be lying. In the movie, they build a spectacular tree castle from ship wreckage, which unfortunately, does little to keep them from the claws of Sabor the leopard. In the book, though, they build a hut right on the beach, hoping that a ship will pass by and save them. Just a one-roomed boring old hut, which surprisingly keeps them safe for over a year, until...
8. Death in the Jungle
As mentioned several times above, in the Disney film, Tarzan's parents are killed by a leopard, and it's pretty gruesome. Believe it or not, the book is even worse. Lady Alice succumbs to a fever (probably malaria) shortly after Tarzan turns one. His grieving father leaves her body on the bed as he sits down to write what will be his final journey entry. Lord John is unable to defend himself when Kerchak the great ape bursts through his front door, and he is killed almost immediately.
7. Wanted: Gorillas
Tarzan the movie revolves all around the gorillas: not only are they Tarzan's family, but Jane comes to Africa to study them, and Clayton comes to Africa to hunt them. In the books, Tarzan is actually adopted by Kala, a great ape of the Mangani tribe. This species, according to Burroughs, is unknown to science.
6. Sunday School
During the song "Strangers like Me" in the film, a montage shows Tarzan learning to read rudimentary "Dick & Jane" type stories by Jane's side. In the book, Tarzan already knew how to read by the time Jane arrives. In fact, it's the only way he can communicate with other humans initially. One day in his childhood, he stumbles upon a hut on the beach that contains two skeletons and many strange objects filled with even stranger markings. By locating familiar images, he is able to teach himself written English and French, even though he has no idea how to pronounce the languages.
5. Young Love
Unfortunately, Terk, the beloved gorilla voiced by Rosie O'Donnell, is an original Disney character. The closest approximation to her in the original books is a female ape named Teeka, who appears in Jungle Tales of Tarzan. At first a childhood playmate, she becomes Tarzan's first crush (remember, he thinks he's an ape), and later a source of intense jealousy when he has to fight another ape named Taug for her affection.
4. No, no, no, no, I'm Jane.
Let's face it: Minnie Driver did an excellent job voicing Jane Porter, Tarzan's love interest. The brave and intrepid explorer is quirky, intelligent, compassionate, and very British. There's only one problem: in Burroughs' novels, Jane is American (a fact that leads Tarzan to, of all places, Wisconsin-as in, the state).
Other than Sabor, Tarzan's big baddie is Clayton, a poacher with few qualms as to who or what ends up on the business ends of his bullets. In Tarzan of the Apes, Jane does arrive in Africa with a Clayton-William Cecil Clayton, that is. He is actually the heir to the Greystoke estate due to the disappearance of Tarzan's father, and his biggest crime is that he loves Jane desperately. They even get engaged (103 year-old spoiler).
2. Two Worlds, One Family
The ending of Disney's Tarzan is fairly dramatic, because Tarzan must choose between his adopted family in Africa, and the world of humans. Jane's world. Luckily for him, Jane chooses to stay with him, and he gets the best of both worlds. As one might guess from the mention of Wisconsin two points ago, Tarzan does leave the jungle. Quite frequently, in fact. In addition to America, Tarzan spends time in Europe, but he is always drawn back to his home continent for various adventures.
1. Not Your Average Disney Hero
There's no easy way to say this. In Burroughs' books, Tarzan is a huge racist. His hatred is fuelled not only by Kala's death at the hands of a tribal hunter, but from white supremacy, a trait that Burroughs tries to convince the reader is natural. While he does tone it down after the first few books, Tarzan's racism when compared to his otherwise heroic qualities is downright shocking.