This past week for the fare of a mere $0.99, I took a trip back in time. I came across a title in the Amazon Kindle store and pounced on it with delight, and soon I was back in the halcyon days of dime novels, when science fiction was still in its infancy, its heroes and heroines, its villains and landscapes and tropes still being shaped by its earliest authors.
The title was The Adventures of John Carter of Mars, a collection of five of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Barsoom” novels. The first of these, A Princess of Mars, appeared in novel form for the first time in 1917 (it had been serialized in magazine form starting in 1911) and serves as the basis for the upcoming Disney film JOHN CARTER, due out in March.
In John Carter we find the prototype for hundreds of action heroes to follow—from Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers of the 1930’s serials, to Jim Kirk and Han Solo in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to AVATAR’s Jake Sully—with a few interesting additions: Carter is immortal (a fact he never understands, or explains), and the battle-weary survivor of the American Civil War. He arrives on Mars through a form of astral projection occasioned by his first apparent “death”, and returns to Earth the same way. And though Burroughs’s matter-of-fact, all-action, all-the-time style allows for very little angst on the part of his hero, Carter’s aversion to war does play a part in the story.
Like Burroughs’s better-known hero, Tarzan, Carter is a lover, as well as a fighter, and not for nothing is the first book in the series entitled A Princess of Mars. In the course of his adventures, Carter falls in love with, and later marries (!), the princess of the title, Dejah Thoris of Helium. So we can place Burroughs squarely in the science fiction romance camp: the lovers meet within the first few chapters, the romance takes equal precedence with the SF and . . . well, I’m not sure about the ending yet.
Burroughs and his Barsoom series occupies a place in the history of SF between the steam-driven fantasy of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the darker post-WWI, pre-WWII Golden Age of editors Hugo Gernsback and John Campbell. In that fantastic place, our nearest planetary neighbor harbors a world of bygone wonders, monstrous violence and the very human characteristics of greed, lust for power and dominance over the natural world (themes that Burroughs also explored in his Tarzan series). It is a place of marvelous, almost innocent, imagination.
John Carter of Mars has appeared many times in comic form, beginning almost as soon as the novels appeared. The Disney organization first approached Burroughs about bringing Carter to the screen in 1937 as an animated feature. If that project had gone forward, it would have been the earliest animated full-length feature ever. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES must have seemed like a better bet for family fare, and it got the nod instead.
Now, finally, we’ll get a chance to see the Green Men of Mars, the faithful Woola, the “incomparable” Dejah Thoris and all the decaying glory of Mars onscreen as part of JOHN CARTER. “Friday Night Lights” bad boy Taylor Kitsch plays the title role, with Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, Willem Dafoe as Thark leader Tars Tarkas and supporting players Mark Strong, Thomas Hayden Church and Samantha Morton. Using a combination of live action, motion capture and CGI, director Andrew Stanton (FINDING NEMO, WALL-E) promises a faithful recreation of the rousing SFR action-adventure he enjoyed so much as a boy. (Stanton and his co-writers on the project, Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews, reportedly all still had drawings they’d made as boys of John Carter and scenes from the books.)
The action scenes of the movie were filmed in the deserts of Utah around Moab, Lake Powell and the Delta salt flats near Hanksville. The actors playing the 12-foot-tall Tharks suffered 100+-degree heat in motion-capture suits to lend authenticity to the scenes, and the desert itself gave a stark realism to the Red Planet’s dying world. In a strange twist, the film crew came upon the apparently abandoned Mars Society Desert Research Station while filming. It appears the Society found the location a suitable stand-in for Mars for its purposes as well.
Disney has high hopes for JOHN CARTER. After all, there were eleven books in the original Barsoom series. Tarzan was a gold mine; can John Carter be any less a sturdy screen hero? Well, that depends. A lot. We’re not nearly as innocent as we used to be; our heroes and our villains tend to be a lot more complicated than Burroughs’s originals. There is still a place for epic battles between good and evil—LORD OF THE RINGS and AVATAR proved that—but the quality of the film must be absolutely first-rate, and there can be no sense of irony to it. (That doesn’t mean it must be without humor, but it must believe in itself.)
The other obstacle here is that too few audience members will have any knowledge of the originals, or any chance to truly enjoy them. Tolkien has always had a devoted following—and gained even more with the movies. His language is dense, but within the scope of modern adult readers. Since his themes are more adult, this is not a problem. Burroughs’s language is at once more archaic and less “weighty”, his themes more appropriate to his audience of young boys and magazine readers—just the kind of modern readers who would find his books impenetrable now. It’s really too bad; my ten-year-old grandson would love the stories, but he won’t have the skills to read them for many years to come. (At his age I was reading Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and Alice in Wonderland, but don’t get me started on modern education.)
Still, I wish all involved the best of luck with JOHN CARTER. At the very least I can always stand to see more of Taylor Kitsch! In the meantime, I’m enjoying my time on Barsoom, courtesy of Mr. Burroughs, imagining myself as the Incomparable Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars!