Tarzan vs. Tarzan of the Apes

tarzan_titleattempt2Set in the early 20th Century, Disney’s Tarzan is the story of a man who is raised by apes in the wilds of Africa and  discovered by his own kind years later. Cue the “nature versus nurture” argument, identity crises on both sides, and lots of partial nudity.

One of the most popular and famous literary characters of all time was created out of sheer boredom, and possibly even for satirical purposes. Stuck in a thrilling job advertising pencil sharpeners in trashy magazines, the then unknown American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, decided he could do a better job of writing than they did. And so Tarzan  was born, and subsequently pimped out to as many types of media as possible – with Burroughs’ blessing. This was considered a terrible move at the time, as it was feared the different types of media would be competing with one another, but the explosion of Tarzan comics, books, films and television series proved otherwise.

The Disney version appears to be based on the very first story of Tarzan of the Apes, which was written in 1912. At least, this is what I can gather from the altogether unhelpful “From Burroughs to Disney” documentary on the Special Edition DVD. Aside from Burroughs’ grandson saying his grandfather wrote the book and isn’t that great, the rest is just self-congratulatory clips of the production team talking about how awesome the film is. To be fair, if they took the time to list all of the cringe-inducingly offensive and hilariously outdated references to blacks, native Africans and women they had to take out, it would be longer than the entire Tarzan back catalogue.

So aside from the necessary cultural updates then, is the Disney version true to the original, or does it leave it swinging in the wind?

Main Characters

Disney version

Little known fact: Tarzan was a pioneer of invisible skateboarding.

Our remarkably clean-shaven protagonist is fearless, curious, and good at mimicking sounds, albeit human speech, animal noises or gun shots. Tarzan spends most of his life trying to win the approval of his chief, Kerchak, and is acutely aware that he is different to the other gorillas in the troop. Despite this, he seems very at home in the jungle and initially doesn’t explore the reasons why he may be different.

English rose Jane Porter is a brave but mildly eccentric explorer and animal lover. Her interest in gorillas brings her to Tarzan’s neck of the woods, and she is relatively open-minded when it comes to the ape language and being slung unceremoniously through the trees, whichever is necessary. She is accompanied by her father, the doddery Professor Porter.

Kala is Tarzan’s adoptive mother, and you’ll spot her because she’s the least gormless-looking gorilla in the troop. She gives Tarzan as much love and attention as she would the real baby that she lost, and embodies the film’s moral message – deep down everyone is the same and should be treated as such. She therefore fights her son’s corner when needed, even defying the leader of the troop, but is mildly afraid of his choice of date.

Kerchak is the short-tempered but wise leader of the gorillas. Despite flying into a chest-beating rage at the drop of a hat, he recovers himself quickly and does have good intentions at heart. However, he remains distinctly unimpressed by Tarzan and his actions, judging him an outsider and a threat to the family on more than one occasion.

With the posh British accent and leech-like moustache, Clayton (voiced by Brian Blessed) has “obvious villain” written all over him. He is assigned as an escort to Jane and her father, but shockingly has an ulterior motive, possibly related to the propensity to fire his gun at every  given opportunity.

Any action scenes/deaths not instigated by the trigger-happy Clayton are caused by this friendly-looking leopard. Known as Sabor, his internal monologue mostly consists of “RARR RARR I AM HUNGRY RARR RARR FOOD RARR RARR WHY ARE YOU GETTING IN THE WAY OF MY HUNGRY RARR RARR I DON’T CARE IF YOU HAVE A SPEAR I HAVE A HUNGRY RARR RARR”. Tarzan isn’t the only one with an identity crisis either, as Sabor’s markings are suspiciously close to a jaguar’s.

Finally, we have Tarzan’s (mostly pointless) animal sidekicks, Tantor the elephant, and Tarzan’s “cousin” Terk, the unexpectedly female gorilla, who on a good day sounds like a parrot being murdered. They fill the parts of neurotic scaredy-cat and annoying smart aleck respectively.

Burroughs Version

Instead of mimicking noises, this Tarzan likes brawling with the local predators and hanging people from branches before taking a break to read Baby’s First Alphabet. Hardly the behaviour befitting the son of Lord Greystoke, otherwise known as John Clayton, but as he begins to learn of his human heritage, the young aristocrat changes his behaviour, deciding to wear a loin cloth rather than swinging through the trees “tackle out”, and shaving off his facial hair. He prefers one-up-man-ship over the apes rather than their approval, and once Jane Porter arrives on the scene, he does his utmost to become a real gentleman.

A rare image of Jane wearing more than Tarzan.

Jane is the beautiful and quietly brave daughter of a professor from Baltimore. She and her black servant, Esmeralda, share a passion for fainting whenever danger rears its ugly head, although she does manage to mitigate this after meeting Tarzan. Despite having feelings for another man in her entourage, Jane is enthralled by the ape man, and so her head and her heart are constantly waging war.

Jane’s other admirer is the current Lord Greystoke, and Tarzan’s cousin, William Cecil Clayton. He has followed Jane on her journey like a faithful hound and is the epitome of the 19th Century gentleman, but becomes a green-eyed monster when faced with a muscular stallion of ape man.

Professor Q. Porter, Jane’s doo-lally father, is quite possibly the most irritating character ever committed to text, prefacing every sentence with “Tut tut, [insert name here], tut tut.” He has a habit of wandering off and falling for money scams, with only his long-suffering companion, Mr. Philander, available to tug on the reins occasionally.

Lieutenant D’Arnot is a French officer who is investigating the shipwreck and mutiny of Jane’s ship. He and Tarzan become “bros” as they embark on a jungle road trip together, and he demonstrates admirable bravery and patience, keeping his trousers dry despite being captured and tortured by cannibals, and teaching Tarzan the language of men in perhaps the most complicated way possible.

Said cannibals constitute the main antagonists of the story. A tribe of native blacks driven from the Congo by cruel white taskmasters, they have an impressive collection of cooking pots and war paint, and maintain impeccable political incorrectness throughout the tale.

Finally, we have the animals.

Surprisingly, the apes in the original are not gorillas – it is implied they are somewhere between gorillas and chimpanzees, and more intelligent. Kerchak is the head of the troop, but his tantrums are murderous rather than merely chest-beating, and Kala is part of his group but not his mate. She is just as caring toward Tarzan as she is in the Disney version, and she needs to be, because all of the other apes, without exception, want Tarzan beaten up or killed. Terkoz, Tarzan’s step brother, is one of them, and at one point tries to carry Jane off for a bit of inter-species bonding. So he and Terk share half a name as well as the disdain of people everywhere.

Sabor is a lioness rather than a leopard, and Tantor the elephant is never seen, only inferred – he is said to be the one thing that Kerchak fears, so a far cry from the quivering coward in the Disney version.

Aside from making Tarzan of aristocratic lineage, Burroughs’ version is more heavily focused on the human characters, and except for Kala, all of the animals are depicted as savage beasts. There is also a competition for the hand of the fair Jane. By contrast, Disney focuses more on the animals and makes them more sympathetic, with the exception of Sabor. The human cast, hailing from England instead, is drastically cut down, and for some reason the name Clayton is used for the antagonist. As with The Jungle Book, Disney have (unsurprisingly) thrown out any references to colonialism and slavery.

So, how did Tarzan come to sit on the fence between humans and animals?

The Set Up

Disney version 

“My moustache says we should go that way.”

As Phil Collins sings a brave and jolly tune, we are introduced to Tarzan’s parents, who are leaping to safety from an exploding ship with their baby in their arms. They end up marooned on the shores of a then undiscovered part of Africa, and make the best of a bad situation by building a cliff top tree house that would make most ten year-olds foam at the mouth, and playing with their baby son as they gather food and provisions.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the jungle, Kala and Kerchak are basking in the glow of their new baby, and both parents seem to be settling into their new situation. However, Sabor soon puts paid to any idea of familial bliss, snatching the young gorilla away one moment, and then popping in to Tarzan’s shack for a quick massacre later. Fortunately, Tarzan has somehow been overlooked, and his cries are heard by the passing gorilla troop. The grieving Kala reacts immediately and goes to the source, avoiding the discarded parents and finding the infant bawling under a blanket, so already Tarzan has survived a leopard attack, suffocation, and demonstrated incredible voice amplification.

Gorilla and baby form a close bond moments before Sabor launches another attack. Thanks to safety netting and an extremely durable nappy, Tarzan doesn’t plunge to his death, and Kala whisks him away, leaving the predator tangled in the tree.

“You’ve got to let her keep him, Kerchak. I mean I’m twice as annoying and you haven’t fed me to a leopard…yet.”

On returning to the troop, Kala is greeted with tolerant interest from the other gorilla mothers, and a roar in the face from Kerchak, who although relieved at her safe return, will not allow her to keep her prize as it is clearly dangerous and an outsider. When Kala points out that she practically wrestled a leopard to save him and that there are no others, Kerchak relents, but stresses that this does not make the boy his son and cannot replace the one they lost. Kala names her new child “Tarzan”, and by all accounts the other gorillas treat him as they would any other baby.

Burroughs version

John Clayton, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke, has dragged his pregnant wife Alice to the Congo to investigate the illegal recruitment of natives, only for their ship’s crew to mutiny and leave them marooned on the terrifying shores of darkest Africa. Left with only a revolver, some books and basic supplies, Greystoke protects his wife and budding family by aiming pot shots into the jungle and building them a raised cabin on the beach. Unfortunately, this is not enough to protect them from the hulking huge ape that soon comes a-knocking; Alice is able to kill it with the revolver, but due to her feeble woman’s brain she then faints and goes mad at the horror of it all. She remains a few sandwiches short of a picnic thereafter, but manages to give birth to their son a few months later.

Meanwhile, in the jungle, Kerchak is having one of his homicidal strops,  and unfortunately Kala and her new baby are in his firing line. As she leaps to escape his fangs, she loses her grip on the child and it plummets to its death.

In the interim, Alice has inconveniently died, leaving Greystoke alone to care for his baby son. Just as he is wondering what to do about his lack of breasts, his door is kicked in by Kerchak, who thunders in and kills him. As he goes for the baby boy, Kala deftly swaps him for her own infant. Despite the protests of everyone – Kala’s grumpy mate Tublat in particular – Kerchak allows her to keep her new son because otherwise she will leave the troop, and being a strong young female of breeding age she is handy to have around.

Kala names her new son “Tarzan”, meaning “pale skin”, and has just as much of a job protecting him from her spiteful cohorts as Greystoke did.

Burroughs’ version explains more about Tarzan’s parents and how they came to be in this situation. The shores of Africa are a terrifying and dangerous place for them, and the fact that Tarzan survives his parents’ deaths is no guarantee he will live any longer, even under the protection of Kala. Kerchak is also indirectly responsible for the death of Kala’s baby, and utterly responsible for the death of Tarzan’s father. By contrast, Disney’s version sees the shores of Africa as a dangerous but beautiful place that can be lived with, and the parents and baby gorilla are killed by the excessively savage Sabor rather than the gentle apes, giving both sides a common link. This also reiterates the message of the opening song, “two worlds, one family”.

Tarzan is therefore destined to grow up among the denizens of the jungle, so how does he get on in his new surroundings?

Animal Antics

Disney version

Scaring his mother with elephant impressions (not that kind) can only entertain the young Tarzan for so long. However, the other gorilla children aren’t as eager to play with him, and Terk tries to dissuade him by saying he can only tag along if he can get an elephant’s hair. This results in Tarzan diving into a lagoon and yanking a hair from an elephant’s tail, causing a stampede that almost crushes one of the new babies in his troop. Although he inevitably suffers Kerchak’s anger, Tarzan impresses Terk and baby elephant Tantor enough for them to tolerate his presence, and they become firm friends, growing up together.

A young Disney protagonist, creeping up behind a chameleon. Nothing bad ever happens after that.

Unfortunately, Kerchak was the one that Tarzan really wanted to impress, so he takes it upon himself to become “the best ape ever” and win his approval. He does this by acting like every other animal except an ape, of course. By watching a rhino sharpen its horn, monkeys jumping across vines and a hippo swimming, he learns to use a spear, swing through the trees and swim underwater in another trademark Disney montage.

It’s not all fun and games, however, because yet again Sabor has arrived to spoil the party. Now a fully grown adult, Tarzan is able to intervene when the leopard attacks his family, even coming to the rescue of the mighty Kerchak. With the help of the aforementioned spear, he kills the leopard and then holds him aloft before letting loose his trademark bellow. Even Kerchak looks impressed as the human lays his prey at his feet, but any recognition has to wait for later – a gunshot suddenly shatters the air, and the troop must head deep into the jungle to safety.

Tarzan Kill Count: 1 Leopard

Burroughs version

Burroughs’ Tarzan spends more time surviving than enjoying his encounters with the friendly neighbourhood animals. Fortunately, they are sometimes kind enough to impart lessons while handing him back his arse.

The first lesson is learnt when ten year-old Tarzan is at the local watering hole one day, and Sabor ambushes him and his “cousin”. Rather than wetting his pants on the spot like his companion, Tarzan not only manages to escape by diving into the water, but inadvertently learns how to swim as well. His “cousin” isn’t so lucky, which means that Terk gets eaten in the original too. Bonus!


Image by Zdenek Burian

Not every encounter goes as swimmingly (sorry); some time later, after Tarzan has recovered a knife from his father’s cabin, he finds himself in the shadow of a huge gorilla. Known as  Bolgani, this designer-label-sound-a-like is a hated enemy of Tarzan’s tribe and proceeds to beat him to a pulp. By an enormous fluke, Tarzan points the knife blade-first as he charges. His enemy dead, Tarzan collapses in a heap to be found later by Kala, who nurses him back to health over several laborious months.

Being close to death seems to invigorate Tarzan, especially now he has a new weapon to play with, and once he has fully recovered, he seeks out new ways to annoy the local predators as well as members of his tribe he doesn’t gel with. Kerchak is slightly out of his league at this point, so he turns his attention to his step father, Tublat, lassooing him and suspending him from the odd branch when the mood takes him, before finally killing him with the knife during an attack on his mother. Surprisingly, Kerchak doesn’t bat an eyelid, at least not until Tarzan challenges him to a cock contest a few years later.


Image by Frank Frazetta

This happens when Tarzan is 18, and he goes to hunt Sabor for a final time. A previous attempt using the noose and knife blade ended in failure, so to make sure it’s an even playing field, Tarzan has procured some poisonous arrows from a nearby village. I’ll leave you to guess how quickly this fight came to an end; afterwards Tarzan eats most of the lioness before taking her hide back the troop to lord it over Kerchak. At this direct challenge, the ape leader rushes him, but with the aid of his knife and a strong head lock, Tarzan finally defeats his foe and assumes the role of head of the tribe. This was more for his ego than anything else; once he is in charge, he gets bored and decides to check out the humans.

Tarzan Kill Count: 1 Gorilla, 2 Apes, 1 Lioness


Image by Joe Jusko

As you can see, Disney’s Tarzan interacts with and learns from the animals by playing with or copying them, whereas Burroughs’ Tarzan does this by escaping, teasing or killing them, even members of his own tribe, and is a bit of a shit-stirrer all round. In all fairness, the latter has his life on the line whenever he deals with anything other than his mother, whereas the Disney Tarzan is living a fairly harmonious life with the other jungle creatures. However, both Tarzans use their human ingenuity and tools to improve their lives or get the better of their enemies, so regardless of their wild upbringing they are still influenced by their own kind. How will they react when faced with the real thing?

Strangers Like Me

Disney version

Tarzan goes to investigate the gun shot that stole his thunder, and finds Clayton and the Porters battling their way through the undergrowth on their gorilla expedition. At the same time, Terk, Tantor and other gorilla chums are battling their way through the empty human camp with a pointless musical number, so human and animal relations don’t get off to the best start when the two groups come face to face. Kerchak sternly warns his people to stay away from the newcomers, but Tarzan is understandably intrigued, especially by Jane, and seeks them out to know more.

Rather than scare the gorillas away with Clayton’s gun, Jane suggests they try to teach Tarzan their language and get him to take them to their nest. Over several days, the ape man has his mind blown by images of towns, cities, clothing, and by looking through telescopes. A blown mind apparently accelerates the learning process, because by the end of the week, Tarzan can read and understand most sentences in English as well as form some of his own. This is perhaps the one occasion where Disney can get away with their English characters saying “by Jove” and “hullaballoo”, but Tarzan is still too cool for this and chooses to speak with an American accent instead.

Although now able to communicate with Jane and the others, Tarzan still refuses to take them to the gorillas, because he promised Kerchak not to. Clayton, who has spent most of the week shoving pictures of gorillas in Tarzan’s face and shouting at him, changes tactic and says that if he takes them to see them, then Jane can stay with him for longer. Hormones are the order of the day, so Tarzan gets Terk and Tantor to distract Kerchak for a while while he takes them there. The head ape is none too pleased on his return to find humans in his nest, and is remarkably restrained, simply accusing Tarzan of betraying the family and giving him a stern look. Tarzan takes off to ponder who he is, followed by a suspiciously silent Kala.

Burroughs version

Burroughs’ Tarzan also gets introduced to humans via the firing of a weapon. Specifically, a poisonous arrow that tears right through his mother.

http://picturebookreport.com/category/tarzan-of-the-apes/A tribe of natives, fresh on the march after a massacre (and subsequent banquet) of white people, have set up a new village near to the apes’ territory. The son of the chief has a hankering for ape meat, but Tarzan scares him away and later kills him in revenge and to swipe his arrows. The natives soon come to fear him as a vengeful spirit, as he makes a point of freaking them out whenever he steals from their village.

Tarzan’s first contact with the “civilised” human world is via the aforementioned cabin. He becomes fascinated by its books, completely disregarding the familiar human skeletons lying at his feet, and over the course of several years, he learns how to read. By the time he is 18 he can understand most of it and can even write simple sentences, but he can’t speak any of it. The books also tell him how to make a spear, fire arrows and lassoo things, so clearly the media is the cause of all things violent.


Nowadays it’s only Tarzan’s rope that dangles from trees.

The reason the Porters arrive this time is because of yet another ship mutiny; the professor was duped into an expensive treasure hunt, taking his daughter Jane, her helper, her admirer Clayton, and his friend Mr. Philander along, but as soon as the sailors neared their destination and got a sniff of the potential goods, they decided to turf them out and take off with the loot (or at least bury it further around the coast).

When Tarzan visits the cabin one day he finds it has been ransacked by this motley crew, and so leaves a note on the door telling them not to touch his stuff and about how much of a badass he is, signing it “Tarzan of the Apes”. He ingratiates himself with the “civilised” group by rescuing Clayton, Jane, and pretty much everyone at some point from either the jungle, an errant lion, or the cannibals. Despite seeing him in person on several occasions, the shore party doesn’t associate the “Tarzan of the Apes” in the letter with Tarzan himself until the very end of the book, because he’s obviously some other human that was abandoned on the shores of Africa and raised by apes.

Since the Disney Tarzan has never seen a human before, nor is he aware that he is one, his intrigue and instinct drive him to betray the one family he has ever known. He also seeks to understand rather than fight or hide from the intruders, learning about his kind’s history and one of its languages in record time. Conversely, Burroughs’ Tarzan was aware from a young age that he was different, and has already done some revision before the Porters arrive, teaching himself how to read and write over several years, as well as begin to wear some clothes. He takes it upon himself to look after and protect the newcomers, especially from the “lower” form of humans living near his troop. The change from ape to human seems gradual for both characters, so how does this manifest itself?

Tarzan the Man

Disney version

Thanks to Kerchak berating him and his mother, and his appearance, Tarzan has always suspected something was amiss. After the elephant stampede, he covers himself in mud to make himself look like a gorilla (P.C. sensors on stand by!), and asks Kala outright why he is different. She reminds him that he still has two hands, two feet and a heart, just like her, and that they are all the same. Well, Sabor did too (sniff).

It’s only after Tarzan’s betrayal that this issue raises its head again, so a sombre Kala takes Tarzan back to the tree house where she first found him. Just like a computer game, the dead bodies have since vanished, but Tarzan comes across a smashed photo frame of his parents and himself as a baby. Kala tells him she wants him to be happy, and then leaves him in the cabin with his thoughts.

You made Kala cry. You monster.

In a rather emotional scene, Tarzan signals his choice by emerging sometime later in his father’s clothes. Miraculously, rather than putting socks on his hands or  trousers over his head, he has managed to dress like a gentleman. He then gives Kala a hug and promises to remember her as his mother, but his mind is made up – he is going to leave with Jane and the other humans.

Burroughs version

This Tarzan’s epiphany comes not just from the cabin and its bounty of books, but when he is in the middle of a fight. For a change.


Image by Tom Floyd.

This takes place after Kerchak and Kala are dead, but before the Porters arrive. Terkoz, Tarzan’s step brother, has been enjoying a bout of lassie-bashing, and so Tarzan intervenes to defend the female. Rather than killing him, Tarzan realises the honourable thing to do is make him surrender, apologise, and then say no more about it. Although Terkoz agrees, Tarzan then says that he must find his own kind, because he no longer thinks like an ape. He goes off in search of the white men and on the way steals some clothing from the village to make himself look more civilised. Luckily he covers his bits before meeting Jane and the others.

His full transformation doesn’t take place until he rescues Lieutenant D’Arnot and they embark on their jungle trip together. D’Arnot teaches Tarzan how to speak French, but first has to teach him grammar in English, which isn’t his first language (welcome to my high school) and so takes longer than usual. However, this does mean they can both read Tarzan’s father’s diary and find out who he really is. On top of teaching him table manners and how to dress, D’Arnot arranges for Tarzan’s finger print to be matched with the baby’s print on Lord Greystoke’s diary, officially proving his lineage. By this point, the Porters have been and gone, but Tarzan is now in a state to go and find them in their natural habitat.

Disney’s Tarzan only finds out about his origin and the cabin when Kala’s hand is forced by the turn of events. He has always been aware that he is different, and once this has solidified, he decides to leave his gorilla family behind and join his own kind for good. Burroughs’ Tarzan knew that he was a human long before, but he doesn’t act to become a “proper” human until he decides to follow Jane; he wasn’t aware that she would be leaving, and seemed content to remain as her “forest god” protector. Both Tarzans have their work cut out for them in this department.

Rumble in the Jungle

Disney version

Unbeknownst to Tarzan, while he was introducing Jane and her father to his family, Clayton was scouting out the location of their nest. As Tarzan swings over the side of the boat to leave for England, he sees that Jane and Professor Porter have been captured, and that the ship’s crew are off to kidnap the gorillas and sell them off to various zoos. Realising humans suck as much as his decision, Tarzan manages to fight free with the help of Tantor, and they rush back to the gorilla nest to protect the troop.

Kerchak is shot down by Clayton, causing Tarzan to explode into a murderous rage and go for him, while dodging the odd bullet or three. After smashing his gun, Tarzan then tries to tangle him up with vines, but they are no match for the hunter’s knife, and after slicing in the wrong place he ends up hanging himself. The other crew members are chased away by the gorillas, but it’s too late for Kerchak, who finally recognises Tarzan as his son before expiring. Now the leader of his people, Tarzan knows he has to stay in the jungle with them, and that this is really where he belongs. Whoever said that power corrupts?

Burroughs version

While Tarzan’s time is mainly spent leading Professor Porter, Mr. Philander and Clayton back to the cabin like lost sheep, he occasionally dabbles in heroic rescues too. Jane is the most obvious victim (I’ll get to her next), but he also saves Lieutenant D’Arnot from the cannibals. He and his fleet of French officers had caught the mutineers, and while looking for Jane they were ambushed by natives. D’Arnot is carried off, but Tarzan flexes his “evil spirit” muscles and frightens them sufficiently in order to untie and carry him away to safety.

The remaining French officers regroup, and with a determined Clayton and resigned Professor Porter, they go back into the jungle to find Jane and any survivors from the attack. Once they find the village, they raise it to the ground and slaughter everyone except for the women and children who didn’t offer resistance. Let me repeat that; except the women and children who didn’t offer resistance. But they’re subhuman, so it’s all good.

By the time Tarzan and D’Arnot make it back to the cabin, Jane and the others have all been reunited and gone back to America. So, with the cannibal village wiped out, and most of his ape foes eradicated, Tarzan’s only enemies are now hundreds of miles of ocean and American social standing.

Disney have chosen a much simpler (and socially acceptable) villain; poachers and the illegal animal trade. This serves to remind Tarzan of where he belongs, and his role as protector of the family. Clayton is dispatched by a terrible but convenient accident, and the rest of the crew don’t seem to put up much of a fight after that. In the original story, the real threat comes from the cannibalistic savages, but Tarzan stops short of murdering them all, instead simply exploiting them. It’s the French officers who storm in and destroy the antagonists, whereas Tarzan spends more time looking after one of their victims. This reinforces how much more “civilised” he is, and how far the savages are beneath him.

Arguably Jane is the catalyst in both versions – Tarzan shows Clayton where the gorillas are so she can stay longer, and the French officers get ambushed while looking for her. Let’s now look at the differences between the lead couples.

Tarzan and Jane

Disney version

While sketching one baboon, Jane manages to anger an entire fleet of them and ends up running for her life. Fortunately, Tarzan has been peering at her through the trees and arrives in time to save her, getting a terrible rope burn on his hand that his feet have somehow avoided.

Once alone together, Jane is both anxious and intrigued by this wild man, who for some reason has a name that can be pronounced in English, despite only speaking in a series of “ook”s and “eek”s. This is Tarzan’s first proper contact with a human, and a female at that, so the intrigue is mutual, and he starts to visit her at the human camp.

Over the few days they are there, Jane and Tarzan become more attached to one another, and Tarzan shows her the ins and outs of his jungle home as Jane teaches him about her own. Unfortunately, time is short, as the boat has now arrived to signal the end of the gorilla expedition. Jane sincerely hopes Tarzan will come with her back to England, but the ape man is a bit of an indecisive hooligan and says no, then yes, and then no again, and asks her to stay with him instead.

“Our kids will look like this too, won’t they?”

Even when the business with Clayton is settled, and the ship’s crew develops amnesia (“We’re going to take the Porters safely home, right?”), Jane feels that she can’t stay with Tarzan because she needs to look after her father, and England is where she belongs. While on the boat leading back to the ship, however, the professor serves his only function in the film and tells Jane she must stay with Tarzan because she loves him. Jane flounders back to shore with a sudden change of heart, followed by the professor, who has now decided to play gooseberry and stay as well.

Tarzan and Jane are reunited with an awkward kiss followed by a better one, and then everyone changes into jungle-appropriate clothes before surfing along the branches together. The end.

Burroughs version

The first time Tarzan comes to Jane’s rescue she doesn’t see him, because she’s too busy fainting after failing to shoot Sabor. Tarzan is a bit reticent about meeting Jane outside the context of a rescue, so he contents himself with watching her through the cabin window at night and stealing a letter she has written to a friend. We discover from this that Jane’s father borrowed money for the treasure hunt from a chap named Robert Canler, and it’s implied that if he can’t pay him back, Jane will have to marry him against her will.

Another male giving Jane unwanted attention is Terkoz, but this message of interspecies tolerance doesn’t go down well with Tarzan, who lunges into action and fights him to the death. Miss Porter very nearly faints, and then allows Tarzan to carry her away into the jungle as her ovaries explode.

Despite appearances, the pair spend the night in a state of grace, partly due to Jane’s fear and because Tarzan realises that “real men” don’t take their mates by force like the apes do. In the morning, after bringing her food, he takes Jane back to the cabin, before which she kisses him and tells him she loves him. When it’s time to leave with the French officers, Jane writes Tarzan a note, inviting him to visit her in Baltimore, and asking him to also thank that nice wild man who saved her from the apes.

However, when Tarzan finally makes it to Baltimore, dressed as a gentleman and behaving as such, she only partly throws herself at him. Outside the jungle context, she doesn’t find him as intriguing, seeing Clayton as more suitable husband material. Although Tarzan saves her from marrying Canler by showing off his bling – the actual treasure they had been looking for, which he recovered – she accepts Clayton’s proposal on the side. Surprisingly, Tarzan keeps shtum, despite knowing that if he told them who he  was, Clayton would lose his fortune in one fell swoop, as he is really the next Lord Greystoke and would inherit everything.

The outcome of Tarzan and Jane’s romance therefore couldn’t be more different. Disney Jane realises she can find happiness with Tarzan and the apes, and finds him fascinating for more than the fact that he saved her life. Burroughs’ Jane, however, is a victim of primitive instinct while in the jungle, but in the cold light of day, cares more about her money and social standing and ends up marrying a man she kind of likes rather than the one she actually loves. It’s also Tarzan who ups sticks and changes his behaviour and wardrobe to find her, but even that’s not enough to impress her, the little tease.


The main themes to take away from the Disney version are “adoption yay!” and “nurture yay!”. Even though it’s important for Tarzan to acknowledge his roots, at the end of the day it’s the gorillas who raised him that are his real family. Both the humans and gorillas need to be tolerant of one another, and just like Tarzan and Jane, share their own experiences and worlds with each other (but maybe not bodily fluids). Life in the jungle is portrayed as a paradise, which has more of an appeal in modern times as people want to escape the rat race, and Sabor the leopard is made excessively vicious and almost demonic so that Disney can justify Tarzan killing another animal.

This is the utter opposite of the original, where the emphasis is on man conquering nature. Tarzan’s superiority, both over the apes and the natives, is constantly rammed down your throat, and at no point is the jungle or its surroundings portrayed as beautiful. Every non-human is treated as an enemy or a victim, and Tarzan must let go of his wild origins completely if he ever wishes to be accepted by human society. Even then, this gets in the way of his romance with Jane, who values social norms and her reputation over the man she once had an affinity with.

The Disney and Burroughs versions of Tarzan therefore present opposing sides of the “nature versus nurture” argument. Burroughs’ story makes Tarzan inherently aware of his superiority, which is why he cannot stay with the apes or remain in the wild where he grew up, and neither should he as it is most improper. Conversely, the Disney version shows that your family and loved ones make you who you are, and show you where you belong. They also suggest that harmony with nature, rather than conflict, is preferable, which could be why they gave their villain Tarzan’s real name – as a rejection of the decidedly less tolerant and violent nature of the original story and its protagonist. However, although both stories are a product of their time, what they both agree on is that if a man is raised by apes, he turns out to be even more awesome than usual.

Dress sense notwithstanding.


1)  Tarzan, 1999. Film.Directed by Chris Buck and Kevin Lima, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.

2) Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes. Ballantine Books, U.S.A., 1984. ISBN: 0-345-31977-X

3) http://www.edgarriceburroughs.ca/bio/ [online]

7 thoughts on “Tarzan vs. Tarzan of the Apes

  1. I really hate that Tarzan for killin’ those animals. And so ,I wish that they killed him.

    • Hi there,

      Yes the original Tarzan is a bit of a git. Unfortunately the whole “man conquering nature” and killing things just because he can was quite common in fiction during this period. It shows you how far we’ve come I suppose! Thanks for commenting!

  2. I have read a lot of your post and it never stops to amaze me.
    I think after the surprise of the original story wore off at your conclusion I started to understand and like the original story. Burroughs version conveys the reality of the time it was written and shows us in a rather intriguing text the actions of people conquer nature and everything on their way but it shows how a wild human can discover his humanity. If you ask me Tarzan is more civil and human than the people of the society.
    Disney always draws rainbows and happy ending but the message they convey are no less meaningful. Its just more suited for kids rather than showing Burroughs cold reality.

    I look forward to read more form you.

    • Hi again Daisy,

      It’s interesting isn’t it how Tarzan sometimes comes across as more human than the other characters in the original? It’s also an interesting snap-shot of the period it was written in, as you say, and in some ways is more realistic in its outcome with Jane. Thanks a lot for your feedback, I’ll be posting again soon!

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