Columns > Published on March 9th, 2012

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.

About the author

Originally from Concord, Massachusetts, Jon Korn spent a decade in Los Angeles trying to get warm. He now lives in Oakland, where he works as a writer and film festival programmer. Over the past 10 years, Jon has watched tens of thousands of movies for the Sundance Film Festival, AFI FEST, Outfest, and CineVegas, among others. Not all of them were good, but it is still a wonderful job. Jon is the co-creator of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart and a Jeopardy! champion. His hobbies include cooking, being sad about baseball, and not answering the phone.

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