John Carter of Mars

I just came back from seeing the movie. I’ll get to the review, but first is the tale of my connection with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars.

I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in 1971. The free book(s) I received when I joined was The Treasury of Great Science Fiction edited by Anthony Boucher. I still have it. I recommend it for an excellent overview of SF prior to the 70s.

Next I received the two featured books they sent that month. One was Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison. It was too intense for 11-year-old me. I read it again a few years later, and found it to be more style than substance. I gave it away years ago.

The other book contained The Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars, the second and third of Burroughs’ Mars novels in a single volume. I still have it. After reading it I immediately purchased the first book in the series from the book club, then all the rest.

Before I read my first Marvel comic, I accompanied John Carter as he adventured across the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom, under a night sky lit only by the twin moons Cluros and Thuria, accompanied by his faithful calot Woola. Before I read Lord of the Rings, I escaped from traps set on the shores of the River Iss and frozen mountains of Okara. I even made my own jetan set (Martian chess), sculpting pieces out of modeling clay.

I’ve re-read the books many times over the years, more than any others I own. Only Bridge of Birds comes close in the number of re-readings, followed by Lord of the Rings. I re-read them just a couple of years ago on my phone. The first five (and best) Mars books are in the public domain, and can be downloaded for free in most e-reader formats; the links above lead to no-cost Kindle versions.

Why do I like these books?

For one thing, Edgar Rice Burroughs knew how to build worlds. His Barsoom is the Mars of Percival Lowell: dying as the last few seas go dry, with survival dependent on giant canals that link the decaying cities. He also wrote a series of books set on Amtor (Venus), a watery jungle world. His Pellucidar books are set in the hollow core of the earth, lit by a sun in its center, and inhabited by dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts.

I certainly can’t claim that they are works of great literature. Amidst the descriptions of exotic races and locations, the formula is evident: John Carter fights the green four-armed Martian hordes to rescue his love Dejah Thoris; Carson of Venus braves the miles-tall jungles of Venus to rescue the beautiful princess Duare; David Innes battles the reptilian Mahars to win the affection of the lovely Dian…

Have you figured out why these books appealed to an 11-year-old? I can’t deny it: for about a century, Burroughs’ chief audience has been adolescent males. Even today, forty years older and presumably fractionally wiser, I feel a strong tug of escapism that overwhelms any intellectual objections: his stories are racist (in the first three books John Carter meets the green race, the white race, the black race, and the yellow race, all while falling in love with a member of the red race); they are most definitely sexist (women are there to be beautiful and protected while their male heroes save them).

With my biases disclosed, what did I think of the movie? Overall, I like it a lot.

Let me deal with the negatives first: The film drags in some sections, most notably where it departs from Burroughs’ original text. For example, the film spends more time on Earth than Burroughs did to give John Carter a back story. This gives him a character arc that didn’t exist in the books. None of Burroughs’ heroes needed motivation; they were heroes, dammit! That’s what they did!

The film also compressed the plot of the first book, A Princess of Mars, to the extent of introducing elements from the second book. I understand the need for time compression; it’s easier to write “and I spent months in captivity” than to show it. My problem is that they took the therns and turned them into much more powerful beings than in the second book. It seemed to me that this was done to give an explanation for Carter’s trip to Mars. In the books, Carter looks at Mars, *boom* he’s there, and the adventures begin. Providing a reason for how he makes the trip doesn’t move the action along any faster.

Let’s move on to the positives: Action there is, and plenty of it. Some scenes are from the books, others made for the movie, and none of that matters. When he decides to do it, John Carter is a hero and an army of Warhoons won’t stop him.

The character of Dejah Thoris is modernized. She’s a sword-fighter (hot!) and a scientist (geek hot!). This is all to the better. Other characters survives more-or-less intact, from the bitchiness of Sola to the friendship of Tars Tarkas.

I also appreciated the small details of Burrough’s world incorporated into the film: the doors that rotate at the center, the use of ramps instead of stairs, the ornate carving on every wall, the hands-on-shoulder greeting, the Martian language Burroughs invented, the towers of Greater and Lesser Helium. These add up to create an alien world that’s clearly Burroughs’ Barsoom.

I think the filmmakers did a good job translating Barsoom to the screen. It’s impossible to film Burroughs’ Mars books literally; the amount of nudity and gore would make it an X-rated film. (Before you get excited and rush to the read the books: it’s one thing to use the word “naked” and another thing to do anything with it. Burroughs dictated his books to his secretary, except for the racy parts; he’d send her out of the room and type those sections himself. Reading the books now I can’t figure out which parts are racy even by 1920’s standards.)

Burroughs is best known as the creator of Tarzan, mainly because Hollywood popularized the character in movies for decades. For those who’ve read his books, the Tarzan books are not regarded as his best work. That distinction is belongs to his Mars novels. I hope this film marks the beginning of a series to rival Tarzan.

One last gripe: Why did they title the film “John Carter of Mars,” later shortened to just “John Carter”? The problem: The book “John Carter of Mars”, 11th in the series, is easily one of the worst; mainly because Burroughs didn’t actually write it. Way to pull in bad karma!