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Evolution of Character – Tarzan

Tarzan Portrait

Around the turn of the 20th century, before cinema became the dominant form of entertainment in our culture, pulp novels and comic strips was where you would find story-tellers presenting grand adventures in far off exotic places.  During this period of time, you would’ve seen a flourish of imagination and invention in print from the minds of great writers like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle; men who not only dreamed of fantastical worlds here on earth, but also out in the cosmos as well.  But, it wasn’t just these European authors who were crafting these grand adventures for readers around the world.  An American author by the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs was also becoming a popular name in adventure story-telling.  Burroughs was something  of an adventurer himself, having been raised in the American West his whole life, and many of his travels across the wilds of frontier probably had an influence on his writing later on.  When he began his career as a writer, he created two characters that would come to define his body of work and leave a legacy for years to come.  Those characters would be John Carter of Mars and Tarzan, the Ape Man.  Of course, Burroughs publications could not have come at a more opportune time, because just as the John Carter and Tarzan novels were hitting the shelves, movie cinemas were coming into existence and Burrough’s novels provided the perfect material for adaptations.  Strangely enough, it was Tarzan who would make the quick transition to cinema and not John Carter.  Carter had to wait nearly a hundred years for his first trip to the big screen; the disastrous 2012 film from Disney that now stands as one of the biggest flops in film history.  But, while Carter has faded from memory, Tarzan has remained relevant, and continues on to today.

And it’s a wonder given Tarzan’s limitations as a character.  He speaks very little and he stays more or less the same person, although he does learn more as time passes.  Tarzan’s story revolves around the common nature vs. nurture concept, where a human being is raised by apes in the jungles of Africa and grows up to become more animal than man.  What’s more, when he finally encounters other human beings, he reacts to them in ways that go beyond normal human societal interactions, mainly because he’s never learned anything about manners or human boundaries.  All the things that makes a human being function in society is absent in Tarzan, because all he knows are the rules of the jungle.  But even despite this, Burroughs also examines through the character what makes all of us human at our most instinctual levels, which mainly comes through in Tarzan’s curiosity and through his compassionate ability to love, especially when he encounters his beloved companion, Jane Porter.  Without Jane’s interactions in the story, Tarzan would have come across as a feral animalistic character, and by growing the bond between the two, we see an interesting contrast between a Tarzan who was raised in the wild and a Tarzan who has been civilized by society.  Burroughs shows us that society has constructed all humans based upon it’s own standards, but when you take all of that away, you see what really make us all the same down to our core.  We are all curious creatures and compassionate people who do what we can to survive, and it’s only societies expectations that makes us different from one another.  Now, as Tarzan has made it to the big screen, some of those concepts have translated over, thanks in small part to the guiding hand of Burroughs on some films, while others have missed the mark completely.  In this article, I will be looking at some of the notable interpretations of the character on the big screen, and see how well they have translated Burrough’s vine-swinging hero over the years.

tarzan 1918


From it’s first publication in 1912, it didn’t take long for the Tarzan series to make it to the screen.  In 1918, audiences got their first glimpse of the famous character in action.  The role was filled by actor Elmo Lincoln, whose muscular physique probably helped him in getting the part.  Lincoln certainly has the build for the character, although his age proves a little problematic, given that he’s a bit too mature to be playing the more youthful and agile hero.  But, at the same time, the silent production is fairly limited in scope, so Lincoln’s portrayal here perhaps fits more into the design of what the filmmakers had to work with.  He does capture some of that wildness of the character, as well as some of his wide-eyed wonder of the outside world.   But at the same time, the movie’s limited narrative prevents us from ever delving deeper into the character, and I’m sure that much of the intent behind the film was just to bring Tarzan from one fight scene to another.  Still, it proved to be as popular as the novels and Elmo Lincoln would continue playing the character in four more movies, the last being The King of the Jungle (1927).  And Lincoln’s status as cinema’s first Tarzan still is significant considering how long a legacy the character has had in the movies.

tarzan weissmuller


Not long after the silent Tarzan’s did we get our first talky, as well as a new actor donning the loin cloth who would leave an indelible impact on the character for years to come.  Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer before he won the part of Tarzan, and no doubt his athletic build played a part in that casting.  The remarkable thing about his performance though is how well Weissmuller fits into the role.  Truly, Weissmuller plays the part of Tarzan so well, that it’s as if he was always meant to be the character.  He’s savage but also sweet and he exudes incredible charm in the role.  Playing perfectly off of his co-star Maureen O’Sullivan (in the role of Jane), Weissmuller brought the character fully to life and more than anything, also managed to be true to Edgar Rice Burrough’s original intent with the character; at least with the first couple films in the series.  When we usually think of the character of Tarzan today, more than likely this is the version of the character that pops into mind, and that’s a good sign of Weissmuller’s legacy as the character.  Weissmuller also added something to the character that was completely original and not from the original text at all; this being Tarzan’s famous yell.  In  addition to being a world-class swimmer, Weissmuller was also known for his ability to yodel, which he somehow managed to work into the film fo the better.  Now, because of Johnny’s contribution, we expect that trademark yell to come from the character in every outing.  Sometimes Weissmuller’s own recordings get recycled when an actor can’t pull off the yell.  Weissmuller would play the character in 12 films over 16 years, which is a feat that is still unmatched to this day.

tarzan lex

LEX BARKER from TARZAN Series (1949-1953)

Not to let their prized franchise go after Johnny Weissmuller called it quits in 1948, parent studio RKO looked to recast the character, and they did with rising actor and war veteran Lex Barker.  Though Lex shares a physique similar to that of Weissmuller, his performance as the character lacks the same charisma.  This is more due to the fact that the filmmakers were running out of ideas for the character on the big screen, and less so to do with Lex’s talents as an actor.  Truthfully, Lex got better as the character as the series went along, but he only ended up making 5 films in the end.  Still, it came at a time when the series was getting campier and more outlandish, putting Tarzan in situations that strayed far from the original novels.  To Lex’s credit, he did keep true to the character by making the physical action scenes intense and believable as well as displaying much of the humanity of Tarzan in the quieter moments.  The Tarzan films continued to be popular during his time, but it was short lived considering that the television era was right around the corner.  Tarzan would make the transition to the small screen as well, but Lex’s time as the character was limited to his big screen appearences.  His time as the character would also mark the last of the classic era Tarzan story-lines, which more or less stayed consistent over the years in that classical Hollywood sense.  The adaptations that followed would stray off in very different directions and would also be reflective of the eras that they were made.

tarzan mike henry

MIKE HENRY from the TARZAN Series (1966-1968)

Made after several lesser adaptations for TV and film, the next big attempt at adapting the character came in the late 60’s, with muscular action star Mike Henry in the role.  This is a considerably different kind of Tarzan, played more as a lustful strongman rather than the playful jungle crusader that Weissmuller and Barker portrayed him as.  Henry’s performance also strangely gives him a full vocabulary, which is a departure from the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” days of the character.  This is probably because of the campy style that the filmmakers were trying to go for.  Here, Tarzan’s more Superman than Ape Man, defending the jungle as it’s savior.  Unfortunately, Mike Henry’s talents as an actor are limited and he’s more or less there to fill the image of the character rather than give it any depth.  The trio of film’s that Mike Henry starred in definitely have a campy 60’s feel to them, and you can imagine many of these same kinds of story-lines playing out on a weekly TV series as well.  The production values of the movie also reflect a time where filmmakers were starting to move away from the studio system and were doing things their own way.  The best thing you can say about these 60’s Tarzan movies is that they brought the series out into the wild.  Most scenes were actually filmed out in a real jungle and not on a soundstage, which does help to make it feel more genuine.   If only that same care was given to making the character feel more authentic.

tarzan bo


Considering the 1970’s were a period of free expression and sexual awakening, it seems natural that a film centered around Tarzan would be reflective of that.  Probably the only film in this retrospective to focus solely on the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, Tarzan, The Ape Man is also by far the most sexually explicit.  What’s interesting is that this is a film told from Jane’s point of view, which gives us an interesting look into how someone from the modern world observes and reacts to a being like Tarzan.  Of course, due to the nature of this movie, Tarzan is mostly observed by Jane (Bo Derek) as an object of desire.  The film is not pornographic, but it definitely doesn’t shy away from the subject matter either.  There are plenty of scenes in this movie that are meant to titillate the audience, but strangely enough they actually work within this film.  Miles O’Keeffe does bring the character back to his more primitive roots and as a result makes the character of Tarzan more likable.  Observed through Jane’s perspective, we come to understand why she sees this strange being as someone who should be loved rather than feared.  The production of the film also backs up the erotic nature of the film, by capturing the lavishness of the jungle setting.  The film does deliver on it’s R-rated promise of a mature retelling of Burrough’s original story.  Not only that, but it also gives us a Tarzan who looks and acts the part closer than what had been done before.  If only the film captured more of what the character was about that what he represents, which in this film is more or less a sexual object.

tarzan greystoke


As blockbuster and prestige film-making began to become more prevalent in the 1980’s, many filmmakers started to look for older properties that would be worthy of an update for modern audiences.  And while Tarzan never really disappeared over the years, director Hugh Hudson saw something untapped in the character’s back-story that he thought would be worthy of adaptation.  In Greystoke, we look more into Tarzan’s origins, and how he became who he is.   Taking the cue from Burrough’s own novels, we learn that Tarzan is actually a descendant of one of England’s most affluent and influential families, and his disappearance was the result of him being the only survivor of a shipwreck off the African coast.  Long thought dead, Tarzan grew up raised by a pack of gorillas and has learned to live as one of them for all the years since.  An expedition that includes Jane Porter (Andie McDowell) finds him in the wild and they attempt to bring him back to England and civilize him so that he can claim the inheritance that he’s due; a task that proves to be more difficult than they realize.  The great thing about this film is that it’s the first really earnest attempt to capture the spirit of the original novels, rather than exploiting it for entertainment purposes.  Lambert looks the part and tries his best to capture the spirit of the character.  Unfortunately, despite it’s lavish production values, the movie does drag quite a bit, especially when the focus is off of the main character.  Still, Lambert does make Tarzan an interesting character here and the film is a gorgeous production that while not very exciting, is still the most interesting movie in the series thus far.

tarzan disney


It may seem unusual for Disney animation to take a chance on adding the King of the Jungle to their roster of characters, but when you see the way Tarzan swings effortlessly through the trees in this film, you can understand why they did it.  Indeed, Tarzan may have always been destined to be an animated character, because only in that format can you capture his true agility in his natural environment.  Disney Animation developed a whole new computer generated technique called Deep Canvas, which enabled the hand-drawn Tarzan to fly freely through CG-animated and painted backgrounds in a truly spectacular way.  But apart from the artistic achievements of the film, the movie also manages to make a memorable Tarzan as well.  Actor Tony Goldwyn does an effective job of voicing the character, being both funny and heartfelt, without ever feeling false.  He especially captures the playfulness of the character in his vocal performance, and makes Tarzan feel consistent throughout, whether he is speaking to the the human characters or to the apes.  The fact that the apes can talk back in this film is another benefit to having an animated Tarzan.  Disney’s Tarzan also pays tribute to past versions, with the famous Weissmuller yell featured prominently in this film.  Time will tell how this one stands up against other classic versions of the character, but there’s no doubt that Disney’s take on the character is certainly one of the finest.

Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic character has certainly left a strong impression over the years, and I’m sure that he will continue to be around for a long time to come.  The interesting thing is that Tarzan can be perfectly molded into any time period that you want to put him in.  While the classic versions, as well as the Disney and Greystoke adaptations, set their story-lines in the same Victorian era that the books were written in, there are others like the 1981 Tarzan that brings the character up to the modern day.  Likewise, a new animated film from Germany is currently playing in limited release right now and it too has also brought the character into a contemporary setting.  The reason why Tarzan seems so adaptable to different time periods is probably because of the timeless nature of his story.  Indeed, the concept of someone growing up in the wild is not too outlandish.  We’ve heard about many cases of feral children being found in the wilderness over the years, so the idea of a man raised by apes can seem logical, albeit still purely in the realm of fiction.  What I see from all of his cinematic interpretations is a heroic character that feels believable while at the same time extraordinary.  And Tarzan is certainly at his best when the movies stay true to what Edgar Rice Burrough’s intended for the character.  My hope is that many filmmakers take that idea to heart and keep the Ape Man swinging for many years to come.

Evolution of Character – King Arthur


A good old fashioned medieval tale is something that has always been a favorite sub-genre in Hollywood.  Whether it is based in history or in the realm of fantasy, epics surrounding the adventures of kings and knights go back to the very beginning of cinema.  You can track an interesting progression through the years as the Middle Ages would inspire swashbuckling adventures throughout early cinema; starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.  These movies soon led to the grandiose period epics of the 50’s and 60’s, where history and pageantry reigned on the big and wide screens.  In the 80’s, we got the boom of Fantasy epics, with movies like Dragonslayer (1981), Ladyhawke (1985), and Legend (1986) borrowing heavily from the Middle Age aesthetic.  This then led to a period of gritty historical films set in the same time period, like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1992) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  The fantasy genre made yet another return with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 2000’s and today we are seeing the same genre hit it big on television with Game of Thrones.  Suffice to say, whether it’s fantasy or history, we just love watching medieval stories.  And no character better defines that bridge between the historical and the fanciful on film than the King of Camelot himself: Arthur Pendragon.
King Arthur’s legendary status is interesting because no one quite knows where it exactly started.  Some believe that Arthur is based off of a real 6th century ruler in early British history, while others believe that he’s merely a fictional character transplanted by the invading Normans in their literature.  Whatever his origin, Arthur has nevertheless become one of the most iconic characters to ever come out of medieval culture.  To this day, the character still symbolizes the ideal of true kingship, and he has usually served as the model for most monarchs in literature.  While there is no set original text from which to adapt Arthur’s story from, there have been some plot elements that have been turned into canon over time; such as his pulling Excalibur from a stone to prove his true claim to the throne, his rivalry with the witch Morgana, his friendship with the wizard Merlin, and his fall after the betrayal of his queen Guinevere.  These elements have become expected in most Arthurian stories, though not every adaptation is necessarily bound to it.  In fact, film adaptations of the King Arthur legend are about as varied as any other genre of film.  It’s actually very fascinating to see how many unique ways you can make a movie about the same character.  Below, you will find my examination of some of the most notable film adaptations over the years, and how they’ve managed to define our own modern view of King Arthur.
Although King Arthur and his knights had made appearances in many silent adventures and serial swashbucklers of Hollywood’s early years, it wouldn’t be until this particular feature that the kingdom of Camelot would be fully realized.  The film is notable because it was the first widescreen production made by MGM, and it’s clear why this production holds that distinction.  It’s a grand, epic scale retelling of the Arthurian legend shot on location in England with a cast of then A-list movie stars.  However, like most of these early productions, the film is less about Arthur himself and more about the knights who serve him.  In particular, the love story between Lancelot (Robert Taylor) and Guinevere (Ava Gardner) takes center stage.  The film does give Arthur a prominent place in the story, however, and it does show his strength as a leader.  Mel Ferrar looks the part well enough, with his chiseled face and commanding stature, but unfortunately he never is quite able to shake off his New Jersey accent.  This makes his performance a little distracting at times, and unfortunately causes the film to suffer.  Though the movie is beautiful to look at, it is firmly a product of it’s time.  King Arthur would have to wait a bit longer to receive his due on the big screen.
Finally, a film devoted entirely to the character of King Arthur.  Based off the novels The Sword and the Stone and The Once and Future King by English author T.H. White, the story follows the adventures of Arthur during boyhood, before he knew of his noble lineage and was working as a squire to lesser knights.  In the books, he is tutored by the wizard Merlin and soon is led to the mythical Sword in the Stone, from which he pulls Excalibur and proves he is the true heir to the throne.  Given that Walt Disney Pictures is known for their fairy tale adaptations, this one seemed a natural choice for them.  Interestingly though, the film is unlike most other medieval tales and it’s even unique among Disney movies as well.  This is a film about the relationship between a teacher and his student, which is something that you rarely find central to any movie’s plot.  Of course, there is magic involved, but most of the film is devoted to Wart (as Arthur is called in this movie) learning that there is more to life than just being a knight; lessons of wisdom that will someday influence him when he becomes king.  It may not be one of Disney’s most heralded films, but there is still plenty to like about it.  It’s colorful and the characters’ relationships are wonderfully constructed, especially between Wart and Merlin.  Also, the film is unique for it’s sense of humor.  It was the first animated film to use anachronistic humor and pop culture references, something that has become common in animated films since, like Aladdin (1992) and Shrek (2001).
With a legendary, grandiose story like the tale of King Arthur, it seems natural that it would inspire a musical retelling.  Adapted from the same T.H. White novels and the Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical, this grand scale production was made at the tail-end of the epic musical craze of the 50’s and 60’s.  Stylistically, it is very different from what you would expect of the era, given it’s grittier production design and darker cinematography.  The film feels a little disjointed because of this, given Lerner & Loewe’s bouncy musical score.  The odd juxtaposition was probably made because of the changing styles of the times, as late-sixties film-making became less light-hearted.  Unfortunately, none of the Broadway cast made it into this film, including it’s original stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.  This film did however do right by the casting of Arthur himself.  Richard Harris gives a commanding performance as the character, balancing both the charming aspects of Arthur as well as the menacing aspects.  And he can sing very well too.  The film focuses again on the betrayal of Guinevere and his trusted knight Lancelot, both played by real-life couple Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; but here the focus is on the turmoil Arthur feels over losing trust in those he loves, which Harris captures beautifully.  Though not as good of a musical movie as it could have been, there’s no doubt that King Arthur was served well by Mr. Harris’ performance.
As odd as it may seem, the men of Monty Python may have come closer to authentically portraying the Arthurian legend than anything before it.  At least they certainly got the dinginess of medieval times down exactly.  It would make sense in this time period that Arthur would be identified as King because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”  The film is a comic masterpiece and one of the most oft-quoted movies of all time.  I also love the way that it both celebrates Arthurian legends, and mocks them relentlessly, often at the same time.  Graham Chapman perfectly encapsulates this kind of idea in his portrayal of Arthur, making the king both noble and incompetent simultaneously.  And in this kind of medieval world, every iconic element of Arthur’s story gets sent-up.  Whether it’s hacking a stubborn Black Knight to pieces, or searching for an elusive shrubbery, or tossing Holy Hand Grenades, nothing is seen as too ridiculous in this story, and it’s all hilarious.  At the same time, the movie points out that the very nature of these legends are ludicrous, especially as role models for modern government and traditions in British society.  They make as much sense today as a man playing dress up and pretending to gallop around while clapping coconuts together. Truly, how can one be called a king just because some “watery tart threw a sword at you” in some “farcical aquatic ceremony?”
Director John Boorman proudly took the biggest step forward in making a genuine epic film centered entirely around King Arthur.  His Excalibur is seen as one of the movies that started the fantasy film Renaissance of the 1980’s, and the film holds up very well today.  It embraces every single aspect of the Arthur legend, from both the mystical elements, personified in the characters of Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and the evil Morgana (Helen Mirren), to the historical authenticity of it’s time period.  Nigel Terry also portrays an Arthur that we’ve never seen before; that being the reluctant warrior who grows into his role of king and ultimately earns the trust of all his knights through strength of wisdom.  Terry’s performance may be the best version of the character we’ve seen overall because of the many nuances that he brings to it.  This film is one of the best examples of the genre because of the way that it embraces everything that we come to expect from a fantasy and pushes it into directions that we never expected it to go.  Boorman is known for his very gritty and sometimes odd-ball style, best shown in his early thrillers like Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974).  Excalibur feels right at home with those movies, and has an almost dream-like quality to it’s narrative and production design.  If you want to see the most earnest attempt to make an authentic film about King Arthur, than this will be the movie that’ll satisfy all your needs.
First Knight is a noble attempt to craft a very ambitious Arthurian tale, but it falls short in many ways.  Again King Arthur is relegated to the background as Guinevere (Julia Ormond) and Lancelot (an oddly miscast Richard Gere) takes center stage with their secret romance driving most of the plot.  The film also dismisses most of the mystical elements of the legend as well.  Merlin is no where to be seen, and traditional villains Morgana and Mordred are replaced by disgraced Prince Malagant (Ben Cross), who proves to be a very ineffective antagonist.  Not only that, the film’s tone is all over the place, probably because it was made by former comedy director Jerry Zucker (of Airplane and Naked Gun fame) who probably didn’t have the confidence to make a period drama.  So why is this film still a noteworthy adaptation of the Arthurian legend?  Because it has Sean freaking Connery as King Arthur.  The man carries the weight of this film on his shoulders, and is easily the best thing about this movie.  Connery just looks absolutely right playing the aging Arthur.  If you made a shortlist of all the actors who were tailor-made to portray the King, Connery would certainly be near the top.  If only this film had been made while Sean was still in his 007 prime, but still, he makes the most of his time in this movie and the film is better off for it.  First Knight is a flawed retelling of the legend, but it does deserve credit for giving us the ideal version of King Arthur that we’ve always wanted.
The most recent adaptation of the legend gives us what is probably the most historical version of the character to date.  This movie takes us to the very beginning of Arthur’s origins, showing him as a Roman legion general who defends the people of Britain from invading Vikings once the Roman Empire’s influence has left them.  Accompanied by his centurion knights including, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), and allied with the Saxon queen, Guinevere (Keira Knightly), they repel the Viking king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) as his vast army.  Once again, we get the right kind of actor in the role of Arthur.  Clive Owen is definitely likable here and he has a commanding presence on screen.  Unfortunately, the film seems more preoccupied with the action sequences in the narrative rather than the character development.  The film was made in the post-Gladiator (2000) era, and it certainly feels like a movie crafted a little too quickly to cash in on the success of that previous film.  While I do credit the movie for at least trying to do something different with the legend of King Arthur, I just wish they had made something that was a little more interesting.  Instead, we get a flimsy plot holding together a collection of action scenes.  Clive Owen does what he can as Arthur, but the movie never gives him any room to delve deeper into the character’s motivations.  In the end, we end up with an ambitious take on the legend that never really lives up to it’s potential.
Looking at the whole of King Arthur’s trips to the big screen, it’s very interesting to see how varied the different versions are.  I, in particular, found the ones that centered on the King himself to be the ones that stood out the best.  Boorman’s Excalibur best personifies how to adapt the legend to the big screen, though other individual films do give us worthy versions of the king as well, like in Sean Connery and Richard Harris’ versions.  I think the best way to portray the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is to fully embrace all the aspects of the story; even the most fanciful versions.  After all, Arthur is a larger than life character and his story should reflect that.  I particularly love all the inclusions of Merlin in the story-lines, especially when the movies focus on their long standing friendship.  You take that away and you make Arthur just another ordinary king.  I’m sure we’ll see many more adaptations of the legend in the years to come, and hopefully more of them will follow along with that same principle.  Long live King Arthur.

Evolution of Character – Sherlock Holmes


One thing that we really gravitate towards in our culture are larger to life heroes.  There’s just something about extraordinary people righting problems in the world through extraordinary means that we find so appealing.  Or maybe its the idea that all of us may have some untapped power within us that can someday be useful.  Having super powers are an interesting concept that has come out of literature and cinema over the years, but not every great hero is defined by this.  Sometimes just pure talent can make a hero appealing.  And likewise, how we use theses talents that are given to us is also what separate us from being either the good guy or the bad guy.  While heroes have been around throughout the whole of our literary history, the idea of dissecting what makes a hero who they are is a far more modern concept.  Today, it is no longer the larger than life aspects that we find interesting in our heroes, but rather the things that ultimately make them human.  Comic books have done a great job of defining the ideals of a super hero, but to see where these concepts of modern day heroics have came from, you only need to look back at what is probably the first modern super hero: Sherlock Holmes.
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, Sherlock Holmes was a character unlike any seen before in literature.  He was an eccentric yet extremely intelligent private detective who could solve crimes in ways that most other people couldn’t. The brilliance of Doyle’s creation was that Sherlock’s unconventionality enabled him to observe the world in ways that conventional Victorian society wouldn’t have understood and find the answer in places no one would’ve expected.  Not surprisingly, Sherlock Holmes was an enormously popular character in his time and has continued to stay strong in our culture over a hundred years later.  Not only that, he has inspired other super detectives throughout the years like James Bond and Batman, who in various degrees are the Sherlock Holmes of their times.  Hollywood has likewise seen the value in this character and have adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories again and again for the big screen.  Thankfully, Sir Arthur wrote numerous novels as well as countless short stories with the character, which has given filmmakers plenty of material to draw from.  I’ve looked at a few of these different adaptations and it’s interesting to see how the character has evolved with the times and yet has still retained his popularity.  So, let’s take a look at the evolution of Sherlock Holmes on film.
Though there were many films based off of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books during the silent era of film-making (some even written for the screen by Doyle himself), it wouldn’t be until Hollywood jumped in when Sherlock Holmes became a box office success.  Produced by 20th Century Fox, the Sherlock Holmes series turned into a profitable franchise that also turned it’s lead, Basil Rathbone, into an A-list movie star.  Though he had been around as a contract player at Fox for many years before, Rathbone’s career would be redefined by Holmes.  Rathbone could not have been more perfect for the character; perfectly capturing the English-ness of Sherlock Holmes, while still making him appealing for American audiences.  Likewise, for Sherlock to work as a character, he needed to have the support of a strong supporting cast, particularly when it comes to Sherlock’s trusty companion, Dr. Watson.  Here, Watson is played by British actor Nigel Bruce, and while Bruce’s performance is perfectly fine, there is something lacking in the translation of the character.  In these film, Watson is just there to stand by, amazed at Holmes genius, which isn’t entirely true to the original character, who was more helpful in the books.  But when it came to Sherlock himself, Hollywood couldn’t have done any better.  Rathbone would go on to make 15 movie in the series, and would be the standard on which all other adaptations would be judged by in the years to come.
Despite the enormous popularity of the Fox/ Rathbone Sherlock films, there weren’t many other film adaptations of the famed detective, until this British production.  The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is fascinating more for it’s production than as an actual film, considering all the problems that happened behind the scenes.  The film was made by the legendary Billy Wilder, who was a big fan of the Holmes novels and he wanted to give his best shot at the material in a lavishly detailed production.  The film unfortunately went over-budget and over-schedule quickly, and the reported original director’s cut of 3 1/2 hours was sliced down to a little over 2 hours by the studio, making the final film feel disjointed and incomplete.  The cast is serviceable enough, but not particularly memorable.  British actor Robert Stephens definitely looks the part, but he lacks the charm that Basil Rathbone brought to the role.  Watson comes off a bit better, though.  Played by actor Colin Blakely Watson is more like the diligent partner from the books here than the befuddled companion that Nigel Bruce had played.  Also noteworthy in this adaptation is the presence of Sherlock’s meddlesome brother, here played by legendary actor Christopher Lee.  Though not a terrible film by any means, it unfortunately doesn’t work as an adaptation of the classic novels, and seems to be an odd fit for director Wilder, the man who gave us the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like it Hot (1959).
Speaking of people named Wilder, actor and writer Gene Wilder took his own stab at making a Sherlock Holmes film.  Though, unlike previous efforts, this was not meant to be a serious adaptation.  As you can see from the title, this movie is not about Sherlock Holmes, nor is it about the character’s actual brother from the books, Mycroft.  No, in this movie Gene Wilder is playing an entirely made up character named Sigerson Holmes, who basically is looked at as the “black sheep” of the Holmes household.  In this movie, Sigerson means to show how much smarter he is than his brother by solving a case on his own, with some very disastrous results.  Sherlock does appear in the movie, played by actor Douglas Wilmer, but he’s primarily a secondary character at best.  This film is not meant to be a true adaptation of Doyle’s novels as it is obviously a parody, but still one that draws inspiration from the subject that it’s mocking.  Wilder is typically zany here, and is well supported by other comedic actors like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, but the movie doesn’t have the same comedic balance that say Young Frankenstein (1975), another parody film that Wilder headlined, had.  Apparently this film was passion project for Wilder (he wrote and directed it as well), which kind of explains why the final product lacks focus.  It’s interesting more as a parody of the archetypes of a Sherlock Holmes mystery than as story on it’s own.
This film was the first serious production by a major studio for the classic character in many years, and even included the involvement of Steven Spielberg as a producer. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by future Harry Potter-helmer Chris Columbus, Young Sherlock Holmes takes us back to the detective’s youth, showing how he would become the man he was destined to be.  With a young John Watson by his side (played by Alan Cox), teenage Sherlock uncovers a mystery surrounding a mysterious cult, which soon leads to some supernatural encounters.  While the film is lavish and impressive, I couldn’t help but feel like there were some missed opportunities in the plotting of the story.  One, the film doesn’t develop the characters of Sherlock and Watson much, and instead just paints them in broad strokes, showing that they’ve always been the way they are from the very beginning.  Two, the film gets bogged down in it’s production values, choosing to indulge in spectacle, particularly towards the end.  The thing that does work best in the film however is Nicholas Rowe’s performance as Sherlock.  For the first time since Rathbone’s portrayal, we see the awkward social misfit whose genius comes out in unexpected ways in this version.  Tonally, the film gets the character right and in that regard it succeeds as an interesting version of the character.
It seems like an odd choice for Disney to translate the world of Sherlock Holmes into animation, given the original’s sometimes violent nature.  Thankfully, they had the childrens’ books by author Eve Titus to draw from, which themselves were loving homages to Doyle’s original work.  But, make no mistake.  Even though they are portrayed as mice and the story is based around an entirely different character, this is still a Sherlock Holmes film at heart.  Following the adventures of Basil of Baker Street, The Great Mouse Detective is a sadly under-appreciated animated film, overshadowed by some of Disney’s more famous productions.  It follows all the basics of a Holmes mystery perfectly and Basil is just as appealing as the famed detective itself.  Despite the G-rating this film received, it is also surprisingly dark and frightening at times.  Basil is voiced by Barrie Ingham, who does a great job of capturing that Rathone-inspired cadence in the character, bringing all the charm as well as all the narcissism and eccentricity that Holmes was famous for.  The film also features the great Vincent Price in the role of the villainous Ratigan, in what is probably one of the best vocal performances in any Disney film.  For many people in my generation, this movie was probably our introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s not an unworthy way to start out either.  Also of note, Sherlock Holmes himself does appear in silhouette in some scenes, and his voice is supplied by non other than Basil Rathbone, through archive vocal tracks taken from the original movies.
Sherlock Holmes has stayed in the public consciousness continuously over the years, but the films that brought him back to popularity in a big way recently were these two productions, both directed by Guy Ritchie.  Riding high off the success of the Iron Man franchise, Robert Downey Jr. took on the famed character, this time bringing out more of the oddball aspects of the character.  The Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films are by no means faithful adaptations of the classic novels, nor are they trying to be.  These movies give us Sherlock Holmes, the action hero, and less of Sherlock Holmes, the super sleuth.  But, with an actor as skilled and as charming as Downey, it’s a version of the character that is still worth watching.  Despite the bombastic nature of Ritchie’s direction, the film does do a good job of portraying the character himself.  Holmes is once again the social misfit who can see the world differently from others, which Downey especially indulges in with hilarious flourish.  Better yet is the portrayal of Dr. Watson in the movie, this time played by Jude Law.  Watson, like Sherlock, has been beefed up into an action hero, which I think works better in Watson’s favor, showing him as more of an equal to Holmes than as his faithful helper.  They may not be true to Doyle’s original vision, but these films are still enormously fun, and they especially do right by the characters, helping to modernize them for contemporary audiences.
I may be cheating a bit by including this version of the character in this profile, considering that it comes from a TV series and not a movie.  But given that each episode of this current BBC series is feature length, I feel that it deserves a place among it’s big screen peers.  The Sherlock TV series took the risky direction of taking Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories and adapting them into a modern day setting.  Remarkably, show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have managed to make the setting work and it shows that Doyle was clearly ahead of his time as a writer.  Probably the biggest reason for the shows success is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  The actor just feels custom made for the role, and he has come to own the part just as strongly as Basil Rathbone did many years ago.  I particularly like the way that Sherlock tries hard to connect with people on a human level in the show, even though it annoys him when interferes with his methods; something that has never been explored effectively from the novels until now.  Another great part of the show is the casting of Martin Freeman as Watson.  Like Jude Law’s version of the character, Freeman’s Watson is less of an observer and more of Sherlock’s other half; someone there to ground the detective into the real world.  Cumberbatch and Freeman have unmatched onscreen chemistry, which I think has really been the reason for the show’s success.  Thankfully, the series has become a huge success both in it’s native England and abroad, and it did it by staying true to it’s roots, while at the same time making it work for modern tastes.
Few other characters have had the lasting legacy that Sherlock Holmes has had over the years, and the best thing about it is that it’s just getting stronger.  Amazingly, Arthur Conan Doyle was never as proud of his Holmes novels as he was over his work in historical fiction.  I’m sure what the author couldn’t see was the way that his hero would inspire many other characters over time.  Though Sherlock’s talents were plausibly built over a lifetime of work, it nevertheless made him stand out as extraordinary to readers.  I’m sure that comic book writers were inspired Sherlock’s extraordinary gifts when they created heroes of their own.  While some had supernatural talents that far exceed anything that Holmes was capable of, they nevertheless follow the same example of making those talents work for the greater good and the ultimate truth.  Likewise, the idea that any hero is susceptible to going the wrong way in life based on their decisions was also one that was explored in Doyle’s novels.  You can see examples of equal but opposite villains in many comic book narratives throughout history, which harkens all the way back to the dynamics between Sherlock and his arch-nemesis James Moriarty.  It’s a strong legacy that continues to get stronger and is reaching another high point today with the Guy Ritchie films and the BBC series (which ends it’s 3rd season here in America this weekend).  Like the best characters in our cultural history, Sherlock Holmes will always be timeless and will continue to stand out as one of cinemas defining heroes.

Evolution of Character – Ebenezer Scrooge


Hollywood has run into the habit of reusing ideas and stories over and over again, which has led many people to believe that the industry is devoid of original ideas.  While some films can feel flat and unoriginal, it is still understandable why Hollywood continues to recycle old properties.  And whenever something original does appear in the film market, it will likely spawn it’s own franchise and continue the cycle once again.  Many filmmakers often look to works of literature or historical documents for inspiration and they usually make an adaptation of something that has already been attempted by someone else.  The most interesting thing about multiple adaptations are the different variants that we do see portrayed in the characters of the story, and how they both define and redefine the stories through the multiple versions.  That is why I am starting this new series of articles where I look at characters that have made it to the silver screen multiple times through different interpretations, and examine how well they have stayed true to their roots and/or how they’ve been redefined over time.
Because we are now days away from Christmas, I thought that a worthy candidate to examine in this article would be Mr. Humbug himself, Ebenezer Scrooge.  Scrooge, the main protagonist from Charles Dickens’ perrenial classic, A Christmas Carol, has been one of the most widely reused characters in cinema history.  It seems like there are hundreds of cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol, all with Scrooge at the forefront, as well as many Christmas themed films that feature some Scrooge-esque character in some fashion.  No matter where he turns up, Ebenezer Scrooge has almost become as recognizable a Christmas icon as Santa himself.  And it’s not hard to see why.  The story of a cynical, uncaring old man who hates Christmas until he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and is shown the true purpose of the holiday is a heartwarming story for anyone to enjoy at this time of year.  The narrative is less about the Christmas season, and more about how we treat our fellow man; a lesson that Scrooge is in desperate need of learning.  Dickens wrote the story to highlight class inequality in his time, but unlike many of his other stories, Christmas Carol has a more optimistic outlook.  It’s Scrooge’s redemption that we find so inspirational and it’s no wonder why so many filmmakers have wanted to tackle this story over the years.  I have chosen a few of the more notable adaptations of the character to look at and see how they have come to define the person that is Ebenezer Scrooge.
While A Christmas Carol has been adapted many times in cinema before this 1951 British production, this was the one that really left a mark and has gone on to become a universally beloved classic.  The film itself is well done and treats the source material with the respect that it deserves, but what makes it particularly memorable is the performance of actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge.  Talk about someone making the role all his own.  Sim’s performance is exactly what you want to bring old Ebenezer to life.  He’s intimidating and cruel during his harsher earlier moments in his office, but vulnerable and sympathetic when he takes his overnight journey with the ghosts.  Sim balances out both of these aspects perfectly, and always takes the role seriously.  While the acting style may seem old-fashioned to today’s audiences, it still comes across as charming, and is very much a representation of the old, classic Hollywood style.  No one can be sure if this is the way Charles Dickens wanted the character to be portrayed (he may have taken issue with some of the softening of the story’s darker themes), but Sim’s performance just feels right.  His work in this film has been the measuring stick for every version of Scrooge that has come after, and it’s easy to see why.  His version of Scrooge may not be the most interesting, or the most intense, but it is a version that probably defines the essentials of the character most clearly.
In between the Alastair Sim version of the character and this one, there were very few cinematic adaptations of the story.  The only noteworthy adaptation in between was an animated version where Scrooge was played by Mr. Magoo.  But in 1970, British filmmaker Ronald Neame took upon a lavish, musical version of Dickens classic story and cast Albert Finney in the iconic role.  Now, while the film features some beautiful set pieces and portrays it’s time period very well, the movie still does have a lot of flaws that keeps it from becoming a true classic.  One of the problems that I think hurts the film the most is the portrayal of Scrooge himself.  Albert Finney is a fine actor, and I don’t fault him for trying here, but his performance just doesn’t feel right for the character.  He portrays Scrooge more like a caricature of an old man rather than as fully-fledged human being.  In Dickens novel, we come to understand that much of Scrooge’s miserliness has come from a lifetime of hardship and disappointment, which has made him cold and uncaring.  Finney just boils that down to a permanent scowl and an aching back in his portrayal.  While the film looks nice, it feels hollow and I think that’s the fault of the filmmakers missing the point of the story.  You can make the film work with a more light-hearted tone, but it helps more when your main character feels authentic and less cartoony.
Speaking of cartoons, Disney Animation tackled Dickens story as well with their stable of classic characters filling all the roles.  Eternally optimistic Mickey Mouse was naturally cast as eternally optimistic Bob Cratchit; Goofy portrayed Scrooge’s deceased partner Jacob Marley; Jiminy Cricket stepped in as one of the Ghosts, as did Willie the Giant.  But, of course the role of Scrooge had to belong to Donald Duck’s wealthy uncle, who naturally was inspired originally by the classic character.  Scrooge McDuck was created by artist Carl Barks for the Donald Duck series of comic books in 1947, and surprising it took him this long to make it to the big screen.  The long wait proved to be worth it, as Scrooge McDuck fills the role perfectly.  Voiced by actor Alan Young, Scrooge is definitely the star of this adaptation and is even able to steal the spotlight away from the likes of Mickey Mouse himself.  It’s very likely that for anyone who grew up in the last 30 years (myself included), this was the version of the classic that we first became familiar with.  And that’s not a bad thing either.  It is a remarkable feat by the Disney company to tell the entire story in only a 25 minute run-time, and still get the essence of the story right.  I think that mainly has to do with having a Scrooge at the center that we can care about, which Scrooge McDuck indeed is.  His presence here was so effective in fact that McDuck was given his own TV series, Duck Tales, which has made him one of Disney’s more popular characters in recent years.
George C. Scott is an actor known for his intensity, which he brings to every role of his whether it requires it or not.  So, when this made for TV movie cast him in the role, you would think that Scott would have portrayed a very rough around the edges Scrooge.  But what is surprising about his performance here is actually his restraint, which as a result is a great benefit for the adaptation as a whole.  Like I mentioned before, Scrooge is a man who has gone through a lot of heartbreak and disappointment in order to get where he is, and that’s what has turned him into a miserable person.  George C. Scott captures that aspect of the character much better than Albert Finney did, and for that matter, even Alastair Sim.  This Scrooge proves to be the deepest and most interesting to date, because the production and the actor portraying him pull back the layers to show the man behind the rough facade.  This version of the story focus a lot more on who Scrooge really is and how every moment of his life has shaped he is today, and how that knowledge can help him to change.  Again, Scott treats the character with respect and dignity, which makes him all the more fascinating.  It’s unusual to find a film made for television that actually has this kind of depth to it, but that’s the result of having a quality performer at it’s center.  Scott could have gone over the top, but by showing restraint, he helped to redefine the way we see the character.
The great thing about adaptations is that if the story is strong enough in it’s overall themes, you can re-imagine it in any time period or setting that you want, as long as it stays true to the heart of the original intent.  With the 1988 comedy Scrooged, we find the classic tale depicted in a contemporary setting, with Ebenezer Scrooge re-imagined as a callous and self-absorbed TV executive named Frank Cross, played by the always brilliant Bill Murray.  Murray may not be the crotchety old man that we always associate with Scrooge, but he does perfectly capture the sharp cynicism of the character, in some very hilarious ways.  The film, directed by Richard Donner, is surprisingly dark for a comedy, and is definitely not geared towards a family audience like the other films I highlighted.  But thanks to Bill Murray’s excellent performance, we still get the essentials of A Christmas Carol here, particularly in the portrayal of Frank Cross’ redemption.  The particular highlight of the film is Bill Murray’s long winded monologue at the end, where he interrupts his own adaptation of the classic story, which is being broadcast live on TV, to show the lesson he has learned about the holiday spirit.  It’s silly and over-the-top, but man does Murray deliver it well, and the holiday spirit it inspires is infectious.  This scene in particular is why the film has become a beloved holiday classic on its own, and it shows that even Scrooges in our present day can still capture the imaginations of their audience.
Charles Dickens meets the Muppets.  Not a match that you would ever think would work, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that it doesn’t entirely come together perfectly here.  But, The Muppets Christmas Carol does have a lot of charm and actually manages to do a little-hearted take on the source novel that still retains much of the story’s core darkness.  And where I think the movie succeeds the most is in the casting of actor Michael Caine in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Caine’s performance manages to be as light-hearted as Albert Finney’s, but retains the restraint of George C. Scott performance.  And it’s a balance that makes him a perfect fit for this sort of film.  I mean c’mon; his co-stars are all Muppets.  The fact that he’s able to look at these characters like they were real human beings and make it believable is just a testament to just how good of an actor he is.  At the same time, Michael Caine’s performance helps to ground the production as a whole, making the film work as a worthy adaptation of Dickens’ story, for the most part.  The film only suffers when it tries to inject some unnecessary modern jokes and gags into the narrative, but these are thankfully very minor.  Like with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, this is a version of the story that I’m sure many people were introduced to as kids, and thanks to Caine’s stirring performance, it a version that helps to helps to stay true to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The most recent incarnation of the story-line brought Dickens’ classic into the digital age through motion capture technology.  Directed by Robert Zemekis, this film looks nice and portrays the classic Dickensian setting on a grand scale, but the motion capture technology used on the characters proves to be problematic.  While it is neat to see an actors physical performance translated into a digital character like it does here, it has the unfortunate effect of making the characters look plastic and hollow.  There comes a point where the characters reach what is known as the “Uncanny Valley,” where audiences sees something that looks real but they know it’s not, and as a result are repulsed by it.  That’s the unfortunate problem with films like this one, but the character that works surprisingly well in this movie is Scrooge himself.  It’s probably because he is being played by Jim Carrey, an actor known for his physical comedic styles, and he helps to make the character feel much more alive as a result.  Jim Carrey’s performance is a welcome standout in this problematic film and hopefully it will not be forgotten even after people loose interest in the motion capture mode of film-making over time.
As you can see, there are many different ways in which you can bring a character to the big screen through multiple adaptations, and what helps them stand out from one another shows us all the many layers you can add to the same individual.  Ebenezer Scrooge is fascinating not just as a Christmas icon, but also as an individual person.  We all like stories about redemption, even when it’s aided by something as unlikely as visits from the supernatural, and this has been the appeal behind the story all these years.  Even when you do the flipside of the story, like in It’s a Wonderful Life where a good man has to learn about his own value in order to be redeemed on Christmas Eve, we can still see the impact that this classic story has had, even when it’s not readily apparent.  Thankfully there have been some great Scrooges brought to the big screen over the years.  While I have a special attachment to the Scrooge McDuck version from my childhood, I nevertheless value George C. Scott’s multi-layered portrayal and Alastair Sim’s classic version of the character.  And who doesn’t love it when Bill Murray lets loose in his version.  Most likely we’ll be seeing old Ebenezer again on the big screen; probably sooner than later.  But, for this Christmas season, I’m sure that some of these versions will definitely be on many of your holiday playlists.