Book Vs. Film: John Carter

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series is rightly recognized as a seminal achievement in modern science fiction. The Tarzan author wrote eleven books in over thirty years set on his war-torn, techno-magic version of Mars, blazing a trail for all who followed. The books feature many of the familiar trappings of the space opera: multi-limbed aliens, feisty princesses, mystical priesthoods, badass weapons, and loveable monsters. Numerous filmic adaptations have been attempted, including a memorable 2009 endeavor featuring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords, but none featured the big budget  special effects necessary to bring Burroughs’ complex world to life.

It had been years since I read any of the Barsoom books, so I revisited the first, A Princess of Mars. Burroughs’ prose is still compulsively readable, which should come as no surprise given the series’ serialized origins. As one might expect from the era – the stories first appeared in print in 1912 – the books also feature rampant sexism and racism. In fact, Burroughs’ passion for dividing the inhabitants of Barsoom by color (Green, Red, White) recalls some of Tolkien’s squickier forays into eugenics.

The other characteristic of A Princess of Mars that leapt off the page was its overwhelmingly epic scope. There are giant, ruined cities, flying armadas, and multiple aliens races engaged in full-scale battle – all in the first few chapters. The idea of making a film out of this material grows more daunting by the page.

Enter the Mouse. John Carter is Disney’s opening salvo in what could be a series of Barsoom films. (The narrative of the movie is mostly taken from A Princess of Mars, although it was heavily adapted by a screenwriting team that included author Michael Chabon.) It seemed as though someone had finally devoted the sort of resources these books needed to make a jump to the screen. Sure, it would feature Friday Night Lights heartthrob Taylor Kitsch and be presented in 3D, but those were just the commercial concessions, right?

As if the sprawling source material wasn’t challenge enough, the project has gone through some very public struggles. Director Andrew Stanton was making his first live-action film after great success at Pixar with Finding Nemo and WALL-E. The release date was pushed back almost a year, from June 8, 2011 to March 9, 2012. And “of Mars” was lopped off the title, ostensibly to placate women filmgoers who don’t truck with sci-fi. There were several rounds of reshoots. Word online was dire.

In October of this year, The New Yorker ran a long profile of Stanton that examined his struggles on John Carter. The piece is overwhelmingly positive (and stranded behind a paywall, I’m sorry to report), but it was possible to see the stress surrounding the film. Stanton comes across as bluff, confident, and slightly overwhelmed, saying “This is what I wanted - after two decades in animation I was spontaneity-starved." Given the multiple plot issues still surrounding the film while the article was being reported, it would appear the director got all he desired – and more.

With all that said, the film is undeniably more charming than the books upon which it is based. In Burroughs’ prose, John Carter is a misanthrope obsessed with honor and formality. On the Ninja Turtle personality scale, he would rate the pure, boring blue of Leonardo. Stanton uses an early comedic sequence involving the mounting difficulty the U.S. Cavalry has convincing Carter to join their fight against the Apaches to transform him into an irascible, unstoppable force. This guy is fun, a heady mixture of Michelangelo’s bumptious orange and Raphael’s fiery red.

It should be surprising to exactly no one that the film struggles with the massive amount of raw information it must convey. The audience knows nothing of Barsoom, its culture, its technologies, or its inhabitants, and Carter’s journey often takes a backseat to long stretches of exposition that feel like lectures in Martian Civics. (Which, sure, have their place, most notably in my dreams, but do slow down the proceedings considerably.) What’s even more frustrating is that much of this information is addressed multiple times throughout the film. The viewer is left with the distinct impression that the studio executives delivered innumerable notes on the subject of ‘being clear,’ that the filmmaker thinks his audience isn’t quick enough to follow the intricacies of his plot… or some mixture of both.

The opening sequence of the film is emblematic of this problem, as the story starts on Barsoom, moves to 1880s New York, and then flashes back to Arizona in the 1860s. Stentorian narration introduces us to warring city-states, noble personages, and Dominic ‘McNulty’ West as a heavily-tattooed baddie with some sort of wrist-mounted Death Ray. By the time Carter resolves his dispute with the cavalry, discovers a mythic cave, and is transported to Mars ten minutes later, the entire introduction had almost completely faded from my mind. This cannot have been the intended effect.

Stanton also makes some major plot changes, most notably the inclusion of the Therns, a race of scientist monks that don’t show up until Burroughs’ second book, but here function as Carter’s main adversaries. The Therns’ involvement almost completely changes the second act, but the final battle follows the book’s lead and matches Carter against West’s character Sab Than. Truly, John Carter the film is absolutely recognizable as an outgrowth of Burroughs’ vision. It captures the Barsoom series’ special mix of adventure, grandeur, and rampant silliness.

Remember: these are books in which extremely tough people are named things like ‘Tars Tarkas,’ the most important city on Mars is named ‘Helium,’ and a whole chapter is titled ‘Love-Making on Mars.’ Burroughs’ Barsoom features a dearth of both water and irony. Stanton takes things a step further by revealing that Carter’s love interest, the aforementioned feisty Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), is also the head of Barsoom’s Academy of Sciences. Seriously.

Overall John Carter succeeds more as an adaptation of Burroughs’ book(s) than it does as a film unto itself. Fans of the Barsoom series will be amazed at how much of its seemingly unfilmable material Stanton has managed to get onto the screen. And while the sweeping changes to the story might anger purists, I felt as though most made good sense and some actually improved matters.

Less logical, though, is Disney and Stanton’s decision to transform a dense, dated – and yes, undeniably fun - space opera into a would-be 3D blockbuster. The elaborate trappings of Burroughs’ world seem almost universally extraneous onscreen, serving mostly to get in the way of what seems like a ripsnorter about a badass soldier of fortune who finds a cause worth fighting for on an alien planet. Maybe someday someone will make that film, but until then John Carter serves as a mild warning to would-be adapters. Classic source material is great, but no amount of nostalgia can replace actual entertainment.

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JameseyLefebure's picture
JameseyLefebure from Liverpool, Uk is reading The Gunslinger- Stephen King March 10, 2012 - 6:59am

I heard that the opening figures of this movie have been really bad - pity really, although I'm not fammiliar with the books they do sound quite interesting - the movie just doesnt' seem to capture my attention though when I see the trailers :(

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology March 11, 2012 - 5:43pm

good write-up. and, I completely dug the movie. reminded me a lot of District 9 in the way it never let up, just kept persistently escalating.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes March 30, 2012 - 9:06pm

I had some issues with the movie.

The book kicks ass.

There wasn't much chemistry between John and the Princess.

 John Carter was more of a bad ass in the book.

 The depiction of the big ground battle, with theTharkian infantry, was derivative. 



mkl's picture
mkl May 31, 2012 - 8:33am

Hm. I'm late to the game, but one point: racism?

There are four humanoid races in the novels, Red, Yellow, White and Black, the Green people are different enough to count more as a separate species. Of the human-looking ones we meet only the Red people in the first book, but later learn of the others. The White are the worst, with pretty much no redeeming qualities (and definitely no scientist monks in the novels, they keep sex slaves and practice cannibalism, among other things). The Black have some good guys among them, even if on the whole are as bad as the White. They are, however, smarter than the White people, having tricked the White to serving them, unknowingly, for generations. The Yellow are sort of average, good and bad mixed.

The Red people are described as the most vital, and in all ways the best, of all the races, and here Red means something like a copper skin color. They are at least once said to look a lot like American Indians. They are also a mixed race, what had happened when, in Barsoom's past, the White, Black and Yellow people had started to mate with each other (the White, Black and Yellow groups still existing are just remnants of those people who wanted to keep their purity). Carter, a white confederate soldier, marries a Red princess, Dejah Thoris, and their two mixed children get their own adventures in later books.

Could somebody explain me where the rampant racism is here?

Cathorsis's picture
Cathorsis May 3, 2016 - 1:30pm

I agree with MKL - can't identify with 'Rampant Racism' - certainly no one color was superior or inferior - all felt that they were superior.  The books were fairly straightforward - Carer wasn't always the narrator or the hero - each novel was essentially it's own story.  The movie was lacking from the get go in it's miserable depiction of John Carter on Earth - I couldn't fathom for the life of me what the writers were trying to do - it was stupid, it was boring, it wasn;t necessary and it failed to convey much of anything.  The mystery of the cave was solved by introducing Therns - and how did that make sense again?  The concept of John Carter - if anyone bothered to even read the books, was that he had no recollection of a childhood, didn;t know how old he was, etc.  And he was above all things, a Gentleman and a Soldier - that image was crapped upon at the start.  Sometimes people don't get it - you don't to explain things to the audience as if they were children - I understand at the theatrical release of Dune they handed out some kind of primer to help orient the viewer - screw that - if they are too stupid to figure it out, so be it.  So instead, considerable real estate which could have been used much more effectively - went wasted - chansing after some high tech, nonsense plot, feministic techno mumbo jumbo - instead of simply selecting one of the stories and sticking true to the plot - didn't even need to start with Book One - and probably shouldn't have.  Look at the groundwork that was just laid down - was it sufficient to warrant a sequel?  Never.  The movie was so bad that I went back and started re-reading the entire series.  And yes, the books were written in a different time - when these were largely adventure stories, produced for a younger male audience - the choice of Dejah Thoris was just sad.  And did they forget that Frazetta was the illustrator for these books in the early 70s? 

Remember - not always a need to one-up the other guy - just stay true to the author's intent - if possible - and stick to the storyline.  Guy finds girl, guy loses girl, guy must go through all sort of challeges and adventures until he reaches the climax - which includes some form of self fulfillment, strange new friends and the guy and girl reunited.