Tarzan of the Apes

I love Tarzan. I’m fascinated by the way that some characters can exist beyond their original forms—Tarzan is right up there with Dracula, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland. To say that I’m excited about the coming movie would be a gross understatement. I joke with my friends that going back to work after having the baby is going to be devastating, but I already have the babysitter lined up for when I can leave the kid and go watch this new movie.

I grew up on the Disney version of Tarzan, which in and of itself is pretty great. When I first read the actual book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, though, I realized there was so much more there. There are some minor differences, like Jane actually being American instead of English. Tarzan’s parents built a cabin on the beach instead of an elaborate (and pretty darn cool—way to go, Disney concept artists) treehouse. There’s no close friendship with any of the apes, though in the books Tarzan is said to be friends with Tantor the elephant (though we don’t get to see it in action, at least in the first book).

All these minor differences are great for someone who already loves Tarzan as much as I do. But what about the first-timers, or the people more interested in the style of the writing? Here’s what you get from reading the original Tarzan of the Apes by Burroughs.

The books are classic pulp fiction adventure romances. The narration style is formal, sometimes waxing philosophical, but never straying too far from suspenseful action that keeps you turning the pages. You understand Tarzan on a very basic, primal level, and you admire him, as you would have to admire anyone who can teach themselves to read when they can’t even speak the language they’re reading! The characters and situations are compelling, with enough human error folded in to have you shaking your head at them while still hoping that everything turns out all right.

My first time through, the ending really surprised me. It gave me so much more respect for Tarzan, though. Here is a character who bridges the gap between the most primal instincts and the most proper etiquette and gentlemanly manner. Tarzan is a good person because he hasn’t been corrupted by society, by other men. He operates on his own moral grounds, and is more or less above reproach when we understand why he does what he does.

I’ve talked to my husband about why I like Tarzan so much, and I still can’t fully understand or communicate what it is about him that is so appealing. I’ve always been drawn to more traditional masculine men, just as a matter of personal taste, and Tarzan is pretty much the epitome of that. Temper it with the manners of an English lord, and you’ve got an extremely attractive juxtaposition that I don’t think exists much in reality.

I suppose my attraction to the Tarzan character is rather a moot point, though. For anyone out there who has enjoyed this character on any level, it’s well worth it to read the book. You might be opening a can of worms to some extent, because the following novels are just as good and work to continue the story chronologically, tying up loose ends and offering more elaborate adventures—but they’re quick reads, and essential for the lover of adventure science fiction stories.

The Lost World

As far as sequels go, some readers might be disappointed to learn that The Lost World doesn’t follow Alan Grant as the protagonist. In my humble opinion, Alan would never be foolhardy enough to set foot on an island with dinosaurs again. Ian Malcolm, however, apparently is.

The setup is an interesting one, as Crichton forces us to focus on an enthusiastic scientist who believes he has discovered a “lost world,” an oasis untouched by time or humanity where dinosaurs actually still exist. As the reader, we are aware just as much as Ian Malcolm is that these are actually genetically engineered dinosaurs, apparently housed on the “back up” island Isla Sorna, instead of the resort island of Isla Nublar. We again travel with woefully unprepared and overly-confident characters as they discover how completely fucked humans actually are, when they try to control Nature in such an intimidating form. Where the raptors took the show in the first novel, the tyrannosaurs are the central dinos in this sequel.

Curiously, Crichton again includes two kids on the island. It’s strange, when Crichton obviously most loves the intellectual adults, so deserving of some bad karma after all their prideful posturing. As in the first novel, though, I think Crichton realized that he needed to amp up the suspense on the island. If it’s only adults who are either inherently bad people, or prideful people making bad decisions, then the reader might feel they deserve what comes to them if they’re eaten, maimed, or lost. The kids, however? Innocent kids don’t deserve to be eaten by dinosaurs. Their awe as they are clearly in the throes of their dinosaur phases helps bring the adult reader back to that sense of wonder, as well. If we are only looking at the dinosaurs as analytical scientists, we miss out on how amazing it would be to actually see a live dinosaur.

Reading The Lost World isn’t quite so essential as reading Jurassic Park, but it is still crafted with beautiful balance. Writers would benefit from learning about the pacing of a suspenseful story that still includes plenty of scientific fact. Considering the amount of background that needs to be present to support the believability of these circumstances, I never noticed Crichton falling prey to excessively boring info dumping. As far as page turners go, Crichton delivers as per usual.

Jurassic Park

I’ve had a pretty long love affair with Michael Crichton’s novels. There was a period as a teenager when I picked up everything I could find by him at the used bookstore. Many of my copies are still dog-eared, spine-cracked, disintegrating.

So reading Jurassic Park is like visiting an old friend. Sometimes you uncover some small tidbit about them that you hadn’t known before, but mostly you just bask in an appreciation of the richness of their character, the depth of their experiences. There are probably people out there who dislike Crichton’s writing, dismissing it as too “commercial.” As a speculative fiction writer myself, I obviously don’t suffer from that snobbery. There are novels that are better than others, though, in Crichton’s body of work. I particularly didn’t enjoy Next, and Airframe was thrilling but not very memorable. I remember Prey as being delightfully scary. Jurassic Park, however, carries this beautiful balance between thrill, suspense, and intellectual intrigue.

Crichton has a way of framing the science behind his concepts so that you think it’s entirely plausible. Speaking with a fellow alumni of my graduate program recently, we reached the conclusion that sometimes straight realistic fiction has an edge up by being based solely on what is possible. It requires a lot of research, but there’s a joy to be had from digging deep into an intellectual topic that is different from the joy of creating a fantastical world from the atoms up. Crichton makes you feel like you’re getting all the best parts of his research into a field of science that already exists. I suppose it comes from basing so much of it on methods or practices that do already exist, and that the wider public has heard of. But to stretch gene sequencing and cloning to the point where it is ready to be commercialized and capitalized on… In short, his imagination stretches that final yard and provides the high concept foundations that fascinate us all so much.

Anyone who’s seen the movie Jurassic Park can appreciate that high concept. Dinosaurs, walking the earth alongside humans. How cool! And with such a fantastic movie, it’s hard to imagine that the book could be just as good, or better (which happens so rarely). Part of the beauty of the movie is the richness of the characters. We have a very human connection to these people placed in such an extraordinary circumstance. Crichton’s novel is the birthplace of that. Some authors do concepts really well, some do plot, but Crichton manages to be good at concept AND suspenseful pacing AND rich and relatable characters in this one.

With such a fabulous cinematic translation available, many people might think it unnecessary to also read the novel if they haven’t already. I feel like that would be a mistake along the same lines as thinking you don’t have to read The Princess Bride because you’ve seen the movie. The novel adds a depth that a movie can’t possibly contain. As charismatic and wonderful as Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill are in their roles, Crichton’s characters rival that on the page. There’s nothing quite like reading one of Malcolm’s diatribes as he’s tripping on morphine. There’s something more in Ellie’s capable nature, an internalized scorn for misogyny that the screenwriters didn’t fully capture when they wrote her part for the movie.

When I hear that one of my writer friends hasn’t read Jurassic Park, I become one of those obnoxious people insisting that they are missing out, that their life can’t possibly be complete until they’ve done so. Missing out on Jurassic Park is different from missing out on something like Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games. Sure, if you enjoy stories, you might be satisfied with just the movie. If you have an appreciation for the intricate balance necessary to write a page-turning human interest thriller with a really cool foothold in scientific possibility, though, you need to read the novel.