Craig Brewer is poised to swing from modest budgets and Southern themes into the exotic kingdom of the Hollywood blockbuster as the writer-director of a new movie about one of the most famous and popular heroes in fiction, Tarzan of the Apes.
Offering his own variation of the famous Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell, Brewer confirmed Thursday that he is developing a new Tarzan movie for Warner Bros.
Brewer, 39, said his film would draw from the writings of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs to present a believable, serious jungle hero, "without necessarily the usual tropes of loincloths and swinging from a vine."
The studio hopes a new Tarzan movie could restore the Ape Man to a place of prominence in the pop-culture consciousness and movie marketplace, alongside Harry Potter, Batman and the other fantasy and comic-book heroes who currently dominate cinema schedules.
Brewer said his pitch to Warner Bros., which he made about a month ago, was inspired in part by themes in the early Burroughs novels (before the author introduced dinosaurs and "ant men" into the stories), from "Tarzan of the Apes," which made its debut in All-Story Magazine in 1912, through at least the seventh book, "Tarzan the Untamed," published in 1920 and set during World War I.
"That's a fascinating time in Africa's history," Brewer said. "The books and the early films are kind of a result of this idea of the 'romance of colonialism,' but there was a darker side that wasn't always shown."
In the Tarzan saga, "I just saw a story and a tapestry that would really be respectful to the original literature but could, in a sense, reboot the character," he said. "It could be a great epic tale of a man who is trying to reconnect to the love of his life, who is Jane, and his home, which is Africa."
The Memphis, Tenn.-based director's other films include "Hustle & Flow" (2005) and "Black Snake Moan" (2007). Brewer's remake of "Footloose" is set to open in theaters Oct. 14.
Tarzan is rivaled only by Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula as the most popular character in film history. Close to 100 Tarzan movies have been produced, from "Tarzan of the Apes" with Elmo Lincoln in 1918 to the Disney cartoon "Tarzan" in 1999.
The critically reviled 1981 release "Tarzan, the Ape Man" starred Miles O'Keeffe in the title role, but most of the publicity at the time focused on the nude scenes featuring Jane, played by Bo Derek.
The most famous Tarzan, of course, is Weissmuller, the Olympic-swimmer-turned-movie star who appeared in 12 beloved Tarzan features from 1932 to 1948.
The first few Weissmuller movies were glossy, big-budget MGM productions. However, the Weissmuller depiction of Tarzan as a monosyllabic man-child who palled around the jungle with an adopted son named Boy and a chimp named Cheeta bore little resemblance to the sophisticated, cultured and polysyllabic hero of the Burroughs books, who was revealed to be an English heir, Lord Greystoke, raised from infancy by the she-ape, Kala, after his parents died in the African jungle.
Although the Tarzan of the novels is a friend to all nonvillainous people, the books contain racist and imperialistic elements that make direct adaptations difficult. The suggestion in the novels that a transplanted white Westerner would become Africa's greatest hero has been something of a stumbling block to previous attempts to revive Tarzan for modern audiences. However, this is in essence the same idea behind James Cameron's "Avatar," the biggest box-office hit of all time.
Warner Bros. last attempted a major Tarzan movie in 1984. "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes," with Christopher Lambert, was directed by Hugh Hudson, after his 1981 "Chariots of Fire" won the Oscar for Best Picture. Jane was portrayed in the film by Andie MacDowell, who appears in Brewer's "Footloose."
Brewer hopes to write his new Tarzan script swiftly, in the next couple of months. If studio executives approve the script, shooting could begin as early as next year, the Tarzan centennial.
If Warner Bros. goes ahead with the movie, the project would represent a major leap for Brewer in terms of cost, publicity and production difficulty, not to mention remuneration. Presumably, much of the film would be shot on location outside the U.S. Previous Tarzan films have been shot in Africa, Brazil, Mexico and even India.
(John Beifuss writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. His movie blog is www.TheBloodshotEye.com. E-mail beifuss(at)commercialappeal.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)