The character of Jane Porter in the original Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” books was always meant as a partial look at female independence. In both the books and the movies, we see her go from someone who can barely survive in the jungle wilds to someone capable of swinging on as many vines and killing as many pythons as Tarzan could do in his lifetime. But despite all of that, there were still hints of Jane becoming too obedient to the demands of Tarzan, including starting the relationship with him in the first place.
That’s because the times still dictated that the man be more dominant over the wife and where the husband called all shots. Even if Tarzan acted primitively that way by nature, it still was a calling card for how a female companion was considered to act until the true golden age of feminism arrived via Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem in the 1960s and ’70s. Any Jane depictions after that had the excuse of her Tarzan attraction by some uncontrollable force of nature.
And you could look at the original interpretation of Jane in the same way when you consider the timeless universality of such love affairs. Regardless, it’s a challenge to imagine any Jane in a new Tarzan movie being anywhere near where she was when Maureen O’ Sullivan played her in the original 1930s films, or even Jane March’s in the 1998 film “Tarzan and the Lost City.”
With talk of Jessica Chastain taking the role in a new live-action adaptation, a complete reinvention would have to take place after playing Maya, the tough-as-nails CIA officer in “Zero Dark Thirty.” That reinvention has plenty of room, because most interpretations of Jane in recent years have only been through animation and various actresses voicing her. This time, Jane would have to be American as in the books, and perhaps already astutely aware of relationships with men.
Also, Jane should probably be made to have experience in self-reliance rather than looking so helpless from the beginning. The problems, though, will be in staying faithful to the book without making Tarzan look like he’s cowering to a Jane who’s borderline to the above Maya. Some moderation will have to be necessary, especially in how Jane falls for Tarzan.
The famous jungle denizen probably won’t be able to be so gruff in forcing Jane to be his companion. In fact, an interesting twist may be in Jane pursuing a less interested Tarzan as a whole new spin in who’s to blame in modernizing Tarzan’s mind. There shouldn’t be any fear, either, in making a new Tarzan movie take place in the modern era where undiscovered jungle tribes truly do still exist.
In that regard, Jane could be the one who lands in the jungle by herself rather than being the hapless companion to her explorer father who later exploits Tarzan. Any of that can happen by other circumstance once they’re back in civilization. It’s back in society where Jane can become the true modern woman: An eventual mother (yes, to Korak and not “Boy”) who protects the family at all costs.
Plus, when you have the modern era at hand, helping Tarzan cope in our world would be much more interesting without having to capitulate to product placements for primitive use of an iPad.