Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Shreck and The Persuaders and adapting globalized pop culture to local tastes

The Jewish interest webzine The algemeiner (The spelling is theirs) has an interesting article about the Israeli obsession with Tarzan (found via Charles Tan). Apparently, the Tarzan obsession in Israel was so great once upon a time that plenty of unauthorized Tarzan stories appeared in British governed Palestine/Israel penned by local authors. So Amos Oz used to write unauthorized Tarzan sequels – who’d have guessed?

Though the practice of having local writers pen unauthorized sequels to popular imported fiction is pretty common. In the early 20th century, German readers were so hungry for new adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter that local authors started filling the gaps when the Romanheft publishers ran out of original stories to publish.

Like the Israeli Tarzan sequels, which had Tarzan smuggle Jews into Palestine or hunt down Nazi war criminals, the unauthorized German Sherlock Holmes sequels were usually adapted to German tastes and reflected the concerns of the intended audience. A few of the unauthorized German Sherlock Holmes Romanhefte – ironically entitled “Aus den Geheimakten des Weltdetektivs” (From the secret files of the world detective – secret because the “real” Holmes never had those adventures) can be seen in the title sequence of Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war (The man who was Sherlock Holmes), a German mystery musical from 1937, in which two down and out private detectives pretend to be the real Holmes and Watson and get embroiled in a jewel heist. I always wonder whether the film’s script was a clever play on the fact that the versions of Holmes and Watson that German readers would have been most familiar with in the first half of the 20th century were really fakes tailored to local tastes. That a film like The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes could be made at all in 1937, let alone starring two of Germany’s biggest stars, Hans Albers as fake Holmes and Heinz Rühmann as fake Watson, is a minor miracle, since the Nazis were highly suspicious of the pulpy entertainment provided by the Romanhefte, particularly disliked Romanhefte with faux Anglo-American heroes (a lot of popular series had to be retitled and germanized to avoid bans) and had an intense dislike of the crime genre (it was deemed “ungerman” and too negative) to the point that very few crime movies were made between 1933 and 1945. The whole film can be seen in installments on YouTube, even with English subtitles. It’s well worth watching even 75 years on and mercifully free of overt propaganda. And Albers/Rühmann are still among my all-time favourite Holmes/Watson interpretations, ranking just behind Cumberbatch/Freeman.

Strict copyright laws have largely eradicated the practice of unauthorized sequels in the West, but it still flourishes in countries that don’t particularly care about western-style intellectual property laws. For example, in China there are dozens of unauthorized Harry Potter sequels, some of which take Harry and friends to China, where they meet characters from Chinese mythology and history. Unfortunately, the New York Times article mainly focuses on piracy, though I for one find it a lot more interesting how characters like Harry Potter, who have become part of the pop cultural furniture of the world, are adapted to Chinese interests.

Meanwhile, Iranians are strangely fascinated by the green ogre Shreck, though they enjoy the local dubs with all sorts of in-jokes and jabs against Iranian politics a lot more than the official Hollywood version. Of course, German viewers still love The Persuaders for much the same reason – because the dubbing just so bloody brilliant. Here are two examples comparing the fairly straightforward original with the much funnier German version. And the great dubbing job by comedian Otto Waalkes has turned the Ice Age series of animated films into a mega-blockbuster in Germany, while the highly acclaimed but very American Pixar movies are much less popular. American adults gush about Pixar movies all the time, but I’ve never heard a single German adult gushing over a Pixar movie and met plenty of German adults who don’t like them (I can’t see the attraction myself).

The big question is why a work of imported culture catches on in one country but not another? This question is surprisingly difficult to answer. After all, Ice Age is not the only animated film that Otto Waalkes has dubbed, his voice is also heard in Mulan and yet Mulan is not nearly as popular as Ice Age. And while the dubbing of The Persuaders is brilliant (during reruns I sometimes still sit there, my mouth hanging wide open after a particularly smutty innuendo, and stammer, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that they just said that on TV and back in 1972, no less.”), German dubs of the late 1960s/early 1970s were often innuendo laden and very funny. Indeed, I have only lately realized that the reason why I can still watch and enjoy the original Star Trek, while The Next Generation and later spin-offs drive me up the wall, is that the original series was dubbed in 1960s/1970s style and has a lot of funny banter, which somewhat masks the earnestness, of which Star Trek suffered in occasion. The Next Generation and the other spin-offs were dubbed in a style that stayed closer to the source material and therefore were a lot more ponderous and earnest. But though a lot of shows in the 1960s and early 1970s had a funny dub, sometimes even by Rainer Brandt, the mastermind behind The Persuaders dub, it’s The Persuaders that’s still regularly rerun, while many others languish in the archives.

As for why Tarzan, though a world-wide hit, struck such a chord in British governed Palestine and later Israel, the author of the algemeiner article believes that Tarzan caught on, because the nature boy image of Tarzan matched the way that the nascent state Israel wanted to view itself. Plus, plenty of people in Israel assumed that Johnny Weissmüller was Jewish (though he probably wasn’t), ergo Tarzan was one of them.

But it seems to me as if there is an enduring fascination with Tarzan in the whole Middle East, not just in Israel. I have remarked before that I get a whole lot of websearches for “Tarzan sex” (which lead to this post, which is one of the most popular on this site) and these searches tend to come from the Middle East. Not so much Israel, most “Tarzan sex” searches come from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Yemen are Tarzan fans as well. So for some reason, Tarzan seems to strike a chord for many people in that part of the world, regardless of political, cultural and religious differences.

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6 Responses to Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Shreck and The Persuaders and adapting globalized pop culture to local tastes

  1. Estara says:

    I agree with your judgement on the nifty dubs of the 60s/70s. Fascinating tidbit about Tarzan there.

    • Cora says:

      It’s really quite striking, when you see the Persuaders original and dub side by side, why the dub was so much better in that particularly case. The A-Team was another US show with great dubbing, though that was post 1960s. Particularly the episode where the A-Team is supposed to smuggle a scientist out of East Germany. They pretty much ignored the original script (which wasn’t all that good to begin with) and replaced it with something that was laced with all sorts of East-West in-jokes that only a German audience would get. I remember one about BA being the new host of Der Schwarze Kanal (I would have paid money to see that) or a bunch of sports commentators with Saxonian accents being very confused by a game of American football.

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  3. Would you be willing to try to translate the German versions of the Persuaders clips into English, or are they just too idiomatic for translation?

    • Cora says:

      Let’s see. Danny is Tony Curtis’ character BTW, Brett is Roger Moore’s.

      First clip:

      Danny (to woman going past): “Grüezi.” [Swiss German for “Hello”]
      Danny (to bad guy): “That way to the hairdresser’s.”

      Okay, so a long hair joke in the early seventies is not exactly revolutionary, but it’s still a lot funnier than the original. Plus, the bad guy’s haircut is awful.

      Second clip:

      Danny: “Can you tell me why the door is open?”
      Brett: “Most likely someone forgot to close it.”
      Danny: “What’s that smell? Is that you?”
      Brett: “Well, I showered this morning.”
      Danny: “Only a cleanly person may enter a stranger’s house.”
      Brett: “If you don’t want to, let me go first.”
      Danny: “I hope you’re not implying that I’m the source of that awful smell.”
      Brett: “No… After you, please.”
      Danny: “What else?”
      Danny sniffs.
      Danny: “Hey, are you sure that you’re not carrying a raven around in your pocket?”

      Here’s another example with bonus Bond reference:

      Judge: “Well, as long as our own people think you’re a traitor, it’s not entirely inconceivable that there might be… trouble on occasion, I mean that someone might try to eliminate you. But that’s rather unlikely.”
      Danny: “Don’t let them ignore you.”
      Brett: “Lovely prospects.”
      Judge: “To be fair, I should tell you that the other side now considers you an important man. And it’s possible that they might… [shakes head] No, they won’t do that.”
      Brett: “That’s doesn’t exactly cheer me up.”
      Judge: “I heard you’re supposed to be playing James Bond soon, so of course one has certain expectations.”
      Brett: “This man really know how to screw you. Somehow, I don’t like this fellow.”
      Danny: “Oh never mind. If things don’t work out with Bond, I’ll take over that part.”
      Brett: “After all, I might die during this mission.”
      Danny: “But nothing else, Lordy Pordy. Besides, you’ve got me, your park warden. I’ll hold my hands over you. From now on, I’ll never leave your side and we’ll crawl through life together.” [This line is a lot funnier in German, because it contains several rhymes.]
      Brett: “You know how easy it is to scare me and now I am scared. And now I’ll buy you a drink and then you must explain to me why I of all people… Where is my bodily harm guard?” [The German line is a play on “Leib” = “body” and “Leid” = “misery, harm”]
      Danny (to girl): “…and then it was an asparagus head after all. I’ll show you the real thing later.”
      Danny (to Brett): “It’s among my most enjoyable duties to check out your surroundings. And now let’s be serious. What do you think they’ll do to you? They won’t flush you down the drain right here in the middle of a hotel.”
      Girl on phone: “Yes, he’s in the hotel lobby right now.”

      And here’s a short one:

      Danny: “Prince Valiant, do you know what I’m thinking?”
      Brett: “No, please don’t say it.”
      Danny: “Let’s lift our glasses for the enjoyment and relaxation of our bladders.” [Again, this one rhymes in German.]

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