The Original Eco-Warrior: Andy Briggs Talks Tarzan, Logging and the Great Apes

I caught up with Andy Briggs while he was on a recent trip to Dublin. It’s not hard to get him talking. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s a screenwriter as well as a novelist, a trade that calls for a lot of pitching of ideas, but when it comes to talking about his new reboot of the Tarzan legend, you just have to crank him up and let him go.

Briggs is a man with a plan. After working on his / series for Oxford University Press, he decided to have a go at updating Tarzan, only to be warned by the publishers he approached that it would be no easy task. It would have to be sanctioned by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate – they could apparently be ‘difficult’. Undeterred, he wrote a proposal and sent it to the estate. He got himself an invitation to a meeting in Tarzana, Los Angeles, to pitch his ideas. What he had not actually realised was that Tarzan’s centenary was coming up in 2012. His pitch had come at the perfect time.

Once he had got the green light, it turned out the process was not nearly as awkward as he had been led to expect: ‘The estate have been an absolute pleasure to work with. I’ve not found them difficult at all; they’ve been great. They just let me loose with Tarzan. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote 26 books in his life, and every book after that has always been a continuation. My novel, Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy, is the only official reboot there has ever been of the property.’

I ask him which version of Tarzan first got his attention as a kid. As it turned out, it was the same one that first grabbed me: ‘The Johnny Weissmuller movies. If they were on TV, it meant it was the summer holidays, or a bank holiday – it meant I wasn’t in school. It was pure escapism.’

But could he take an icon from an earlier generation and make it work today? ‘I wanted to bring it up to date, to make it resonate with people now, simply because I love the original stories. I love period stories, but it’s an uphill struggle to get the younger generation into that. And it made more sense just to set it now – plus Tarzan was the first eco-warrior. The biggest challenge was not to bring it up to date, but what to bring to it that was fresh and new, that’s not been done in 86 Tarzan movies, in 26 books.’

Among the influences on this fresh approach were Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. It shows in an opening scene with a group of poachers being hunted through the jungle by some seemingly supernatural predator.‘I wanted Tarzan to be feral,’ Briggs says.‘Untameable.’

Speaking of taming people, it was not just the young audience that would have to be convinced: ‘The other challenge was the fan base that was already there. As word of the book got out, the diehard fans were up in arms saying: “You can’t do this!” I got pretty slated on the internet. Then the book was released and we gave them preview copies. Now they all back it. I always knew that would be a challenge, to appease the old fans and bring new ones into it.’

Tarzan is the original alpha male. He eats raw meat, sleeps in the trees and fights wild animals with his bare hands. Was it a liberating experience to write an apeman? ‘Oh yeah! It was great. He’s a base human, he’s the bottom line, he’s got no morals we recognise. It’s all black and white, there’s no grey area; he’s not limited by all the baggage we’re carrying.’

When I was young, my friends and I were on a constant quest to find trees to climb and to hang ropes from. Tarzan was an obvious role model back then. But would the character have less resonance now, with children living more protected lives? Briggs is unfailingly positive, believing in the power of the icon: ‘I have heard kids still doing the Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan yell”, maybe without realising what they were doing. I still think that the idea sticks there – they’re just not doing it as much.’

Even with this new modern manifestation, Tarzan is a low-tech hero, relying on his instincts, his physical prowess, his cunning and his allies among the beasts. The down-to-earth environment is in stark contrast to Briggs’s previous novels for children – there are far fewer gadgets and props to fall back on to get his characters out of trouble, and yet in my mind, it works all the better because of it. Was writing it a different experience to the Hero and Villain books? Was it more difficult? ‘I found it was more fun. Essentially, if I painted my Hero or Villain characters into a corner, they could whip out their iPhones and get out of it. And it was a little bit easy. With this, it’s really not. It’s back to basics.’

A major element of the story is the establishment of Tarzan as a ghost-like figure, feared by the more superstitious of the men involved in the illegal logging operations – the ‘Batman of the Jungle’ scenes. I cannot help wondering which was more fun to write; these dark, mysterious action scenes, or the unveiling of Tarzan’s real character later on. ‘That’s a great one,’ Briggs laughs. ‘The more fun to write? If I’m going to answer that question exactly, the most fun to write were the ghost-like scenes, because you’ve got that edge.’ And yet he relished the satisfaction of reconstructing Tarzan’s ‘bipolar’ character too. Getting the mix right, between the man and the animal.

The main threat in the story appears in the form of the logging operations that are destroying the forest. It is a laudable theme, but quite a hard one for young readers to get their head around. Does he think that this issue will make a compelling enough threat? ‘No, they’re not going to get it straightaway, and this isn’t meant to be a sermon to say “this is bad”. Logging is a bad thing, but people do it for very human reasons. I wanted Jane’s dad to seem like a real person. And what he’s doing, he’s doing for a very solid reason we can all relate to. But it is a billion-dollar industry – people often don’t realise how big it is. There’s even a thing called “timber-laundering”, where they take the timber through other countries, saying: “Oh, this didn’t come from the Congo, this is ethically sourced.” These sofas we’re sitting on here could have come from there.’

I ask him which of the characters was the most challenging to write, and which he enjoyed most. He has to think about that one for a bit: ‘Tarzan was challenging but fun. Jane was tricky, because I tried not to make her come across as a female character written by a boy! Also, I wanted her to be a little whiny at first, but then I had to twist it round so that by the end of the book, we feel sympathetic toward her.’

But it was Robbie, Jane’s troubled friend, who was most fun to write, perhaps because Briggs had more of a free hand. ‘I wanted to give him a sort of dark and sinister past. And that was great fun, because I had no restrictions there.’

The one real fantasy element in the story is Tarzan’s communication with the animals – and the way he uses language to organise them, something that lay at the centre of Burroughs’s world: ‘It started to develop through his books more and more, and there’s linguistic professors who’ve elaborated on it. Take Tantor, for instance – Tantor isn’t the name of that specific elephant … it is, but it’s also the name of every other elephant. Tarzan names the apes individually, but Tantor is any elephant, Gimla is any crocodile.’

Briggs intends to expand on this language in further books. And the next one is well in hand. He has got the finished manuscript in his bag as we speak: ‘What I’ve done with the second book is that we’re moving slightly out into the savannahs. I’m going for the feel of the suspense film Taken’.

And finally, I bring up the plight of the great apes, a key theme in his story. What aspect of this affects him most? Briggs gives the example he had used at an event with a crowd of Dublin school kids that day: ‘There’s 400 of you here. There are just 650 of these apes left in the entire world. I think that is just shocking. It is just incomprehensible that we’ve really torn apart the planet. Unless we do something, by the time you leave school, these guys just won’t be around any more. That’s an entire species gone from the planet.’

It’s a sobering note in an otherwise thrilling story. The second Tarzan book will be released this summer. OMcG