I saw the movie John Carter last night. Having read many of the reviews that label the movie a flop and failure, I was happily surprised to find it is a very good movie. The reviewers all harp on the large price tag ($250 M) of the movie and the relatively low return of its first weekend ($30 M here in the US, though $70 M in Europe). So it seems movies, like everything else in America, are judged purely on their financial as opposed to artistic merits. If that is so, why does the Academy Award for Best Picture so often go to some low-budget film that no one has actually seen? As others have pointed out, some poor marketing and the apparently derivative nature of some of the scenes work against the film getting a fair viewing. Hacking off “of Mars” from the title didn’t help, leaving prospective viewers wondering what a movie named “John Carter” could possibly be about. As for the movie imitating Star Wars or Avatar — well that’s just pure ignorance.
As I waited for the movie to start, it was hard to sit still while listening to a guy in the row in back of me explaining to his girlfriend that the movie was based on a comic book by the creator of Tarzan. There were no comic books in 1912 when A Princess of Mars was published. Science Fiction was not a recognized literary genre. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who went on to create the iconic feral human in Tarzan of the Apes, wrote this first novel of Barsoom after having failed at countless jobs. He had an idea that he could write works of fantasy, and he decided to try his hand at it. Thank goodness he did! With this book and the 10 that followed, as well as his tales of Pellucidar, Venus, and many other alien worlds, he managed to invent a majority of the themes that have unabashedly been used by George Lucas, James Cameron and others who create the SciFi movies of today.
I have read everything available that Burroughs wrote, and, yes, that includes such obscure works as The Girl From Farris’s and Marcia of the Doorstep. The Mars books were always my favorite, more so than the Tarzan series. They are just so imaginative. Burroughs had a unique knack for creating alien worlds and alien cultures. There is great attention to details in these books: the geography is consistent, the languages and names sound right, the many-legged animals are amazing (from thoats — Martian Horses, to calots — Martian dogs, represented by Woola, whose realization is one of the high points of the movie), and the cultures and motives of the many Martian races are well defined. The bright covers of the Ballantine and Ace editions of these books first appeared in my early teenage years in the 1960s and immediately captured my attention. Even though paperback books back then only cost 50 cents, this was still a lot given my 25 cent weekly allowance, so it took a while to get all the books. I also had to make sure my mother didn’t see the covers, which invariably included scantily (for the time) attired princesses (see illustration above). But the joy of reading these books back then is still palpable today.
So, what about the movie? Well it would be hard to fit the sensibilities of the early 20th century into a movie made today. In the books, John Carter does what is right because that’s just the way he is. He is a born fighting man, and chivalrous to a fault. In the movie he is given a back story, and, other than his jumping ability (which the movie exaggerates) he doesn’t seem special — not the best swordsman of two worlds, as the John Carter of the books immodestly bills himself. Being Burroughs’ first book, it improves as it goes along, but starts out with a huge unexplained deus ex machina — Carter’s astral projection to Mars. The movie probably improves on the book for not only providing an explanation of sorts for this, but making this technology a major theme of the movie. The movie brings in elements from the 2nd and 3rd Mars books (together they form a trilogy that chronicles John Carter’s rise from an unarmed captive of the Green Martians to the title of “Warlord of Mars”), as well as other elements that aren’t in the books, but none of this hurt things too much. Zodanga was not a moving city, and the Therns don’t have the same role in the books as the movie, but it didn’t matter to this Burroughs fan. To see the wonderfully rendered Green Martians (though not exactly according to Burroughs, they were even uglier with eyes of the sides of their heads), the magnificent fliers (powered by the Martian Eighth Ray), and the “incomparable Dejah Thoris,” played incomparably by Lynn Collins, made up for any discrepancies with the books. ERB himself sanctioned the various Tarzan movies, almost none of which portrayed the character as he himself did (Tarzan was an English Lord who was fluent in numerous languages; no “me Tarzan, you Jane” in the books). I’m sure he would have been delighted with the movie John Carter.