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Volume 30, Number 2, Winter, 2012

Under the mishaps of Mars—from ERB to silver screen

By David Wayland

Movies featuring “Mars” in their title appear to suffer much the same fate as NASA’s many unsuccessful missions to Mars. From Mission to Mars (2000) to Mars Needs Moms (2011) and in between, cinematic tales of the Red Planet fail time and time again to recoup costs and to capture the imagination. Either under “the Red Planet” or “Mars” it’s almost as if evil telepathic thoughts stream from the Martians themselves to the movie-going public. When Disney budgeted a quarter of a billion dollars for Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, A Princess of Mars, no doubt two thoughts went through the marketing department heads’ minds as the sought the male movie-going demographic: ix-nay on the “Princess,” and don’t mention “Mars.”

Perhaps shying away from naming that planet in the title is apocryphal, a convenient story to fit a funny pattern of failed movies. So, when the movie adaptation, John Carter of Mars, (the focus from princess to a male character made to target a more fannish demographic, perhaps?) lost the “of Mars” portion of its title, maybe Disney thought they had a fighting chance. And yet, in 2012, John Carter turned into one of the biggest box office flops in recent years, at least in the US.

Why did it fail? After all, those early planetary novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs form the source material of so many movies in the past 50 years, from Star Wars to Avatar, and those science fiction epics raked in billions of dollars, despite borrowing liberally and lacking in original content. Is science fiction no longer box office gold? Did the movie fail because it didn’t adhere closely enough to the book, or because it followed the book too closely, or some other factor entirely?

Reading some of the history of the making of John Carter serves to generate both relief and ripples of fear. Apparently, the first steps toward the movie took place in 2004, with director Robert Rodriguez part of the project. Though the script is not detailed in the Wikipedia entry, it states that when Jon Favreau later replaced Rodriguez, he argued for taller Tharks and retaining Carter’s links to the Confederacy. Implied in this is that earlier scripts would have featured a modern Carter and human-sized Tharks, a scary prospect, although mucking around with source material is normal procedure in Hollywood. Adapting ERB’s first novel—any novel—requires some changes; no book transfers directly to the screen; the purists would have to deal with a clothed Dejah Thoris.

The end product merged parts of all three John Carter of Mars novels, and added a few twists of its own. Yet it still appeared when all came down to development to be in good hands. After all, director Andrew Stanton directed two very successful movies (Pixar’s WALL-E and Finding Nemo), and reams of money guaranteed quality special effects. However, Stanton’s experience came from animation, not live action movies, which possibly played a role in actor selection and direction. Yet with the failure at the box office, despite the movie’s open-ended conclusion, fans of ERB face slim prospects of any sequel, while Hollywood green-lights scores of lesser ideas.

Fans of ERB who would finally see “their” movie realized after nearly 100 years since the first book appearance either never showed up, or that segment of fans existed only as a small group, while the general public just didn’t get the message. My inclination leans toward the latter theory, for several fans wrote glowingly about the experience, and despite a few minor issues, I for one thoroughly enjoyed watching John Carter on the big screen. Typical for current science fiction movies, John Carter relied on special effects possible only today; twenty or thirty years ago those effects would have grounded such a visionary tale. Effects aside, the movie foundered mostly on the shoulders of the actors, who seemed un-Burroughs-like in appearance and manners.

The source material, a planetary romance tale from the pre-pulp era, bears the marks of its serialized appearance. Non-stop action, cliff-hangers, improbable actions and escapes all set a hectic pace. Though pre-scientific in the sense that ERB graces Mars with inhabitants whose history goes back centuries, and Carter magically teleports to the red planet from a mysterious Apache cave, the novel inspired countless readers to write similar stories or take up the space exploration that later would show no life existed on Mars, now or earlier.

There are three main John Carter novels, out of a collection of 11 books set on Barsoom, Burroughs’ name for the planet. (Incidentally, an anecdote in E. Hoffman Price’s Book of the Dead gives as inspiration for the name of Mars an Armenian dealer in carpets, Barsoom Badigan, who ERB met and asked if he could use the name in one of his tales.) The first book, and Burroughs’ first novel, long before Tarzan transformed him into an icon of 20th century popular culture, A Princess of Mars, appeared in 1917. The movie John Carter derives 80-90% from this book. However, the journey down the River Iss taken by Carter and company in the movie never happens in the book, and the scene at the source of the River Iss appears only in the sequel, The Gods of Mars.

One of the major sets of characters in the movie, the evil Therns, also derives from The Gods of Mars. Given Hollywood’s penchant for evil antagonists against whom each hero must battle, turning the Therns into a race of aliens sucking dry the life on Mars and in process of the same actions on Earth, seems driven by a meeting between the suits and writers. One can image the weekly development meetings, where one of the studio suits says, “We need this evil race of beings working behind the scenes. Great conspiracy stuff. They have this Star Trek technology, brings the whole thing up to date.” While Matai Shang appears briefly in The Gods of Mars, he assumes his terrible and adversarial role only in the third novel, The Warlord of Mars. In the movie his bad-guy persona oozes far darker than any actions in the third book. The only advantage of making the Therns such technologically advanced beings is how Carter teleports from Earth to Mars. I never quite got past the “reaching to the sky” method from the second book, or the accidental teleportation in the first.

A Princess of Mars opens with Confederate veteran John Carter prospecting for gold with a companion from the Civil War in the Apache territory in Arizona. The brutal Apache capture Carter’s associate. Carter rescues him, but they are pursued and take cover in a cave. His friend dying, Carter feels overcome with a strange sleep. When he awakes he finds himself in a strange land. After dealing with the strange effects of gravity, he is captured by tall, green, four-limbed creatures. These are the Tharks, a nomadic, warrior-based race, who wear their metal to indicate their warrior status. That metal is decoration that they win through battles, and Carter quickly proves his mettle as a warrior. The Tharks capture a native Martian, or Barsoomian, one Dejah Thoris, the princess of the book’s title. Carter decides to help return her to her people, despite her being pledged in marriage to the leader of a rival city. Many battles later, Carter and Thoris wed, and live in bliss for nine years, until the planet’s air supply is threatened and Carter sacrifices himself, waking up back on Earth in the original cave where he hid from the Apaches.

In the sequel, the Gods of Mars, Carter finally succeeds after years of effort in teleporting himself back to the red planet. He ends up immediately in danger, attacked by plant people and great white apes. By now, readers on Burroughs’s work are familiar with his style—relentless action, dialog centered around action honor, and vivid imagery in depicting alien life and scenery.

It is also in Gods of Mars that we encounter the Therns. While they are evil in this book just as in the movie, they are Barsoomians through and through, though ancient and manipulative in their priest-like existence upon the superstitions of other Barsoomians. Key to this novel is the idea of the pilgrimage to the source of the River Iss, where Barsoomians believe they travel to die. Here is where John Carter finds himself, and where his true love Dejah Thoris ventured to search for him, as did Tars Tarkas. And here John Carter battles the Therns, who live a life of luxury by enslaving the pilgrims who travelled down the River Iss.

Yet the Therns are not evil enough for Burroughs, who introduces a group of pirates from the moons of Mars, who prey on the Therns and steal their slaves. John Carter must battle both Therns and pirates to find Dejah Thoris, only to face another cliff-hanger at the end of The Gods of Mars, as she is trapped inside a prison that will not unlock for a Martian year, and the reader likewise in suspense must wait until the sequel, Warlord of Mars, to learn her fate. In Warlord of Mars, John Carter must travel the length of Barsoom to save Dejah Thoris, and we encounter other, equally strange denizens of the red planet.

Possible sequels to the movie might have tapped into these two novels, but the alteration of the nature of the Therns likely would require altering the source material even more to fit the direction of any movie sequel. Having failed at the box-office, it is unlikely there ever will be any sequel, however, and fans are left with only the one movie to see the scope of the books realized on the big screen.

The host of changes included Carter’s prospecting associate. In the movie he’s a soldier trying to recruit Carter in the war against Indians. The Apache lose some of their bloodthirstiness. Carter teleports to Mars via a Thern device. The conflict on Barsoom between Helium and Zodanga gets more attention. A ninth ray is introduced. The list grows.

Why then did the movie fail? Reviews by fans generally were favorable, and many critics also liked the movie. Did the “curse of ‘Mars’”—even after being excised from the final title—fulfill it own prophecy? Perhaps the press playing up this angle started a small trickle that played a larger effect in the minds of movie-goers. Popular culture lives a strange life of its own, and some movies fail undeservedly. Others reap far more than they deserve, such as Avatar and the Twilight series; originality doesn’t always translate into success, and if John Carter is one of those works that seems unoriginal, it is only because many SF movies robbed unashamedly from the book. Thus, the movie appears to maybe take from other movies, but merely looks back at its own source material.

John Carter is one of those movies that deserved better. Although the acting at times seems tired, this might have been the result of recasting Carter as a war-weary veteran who lost his family in the war, and now cares only about his gold. Although best appreciated in the vastness of the big screen, enjoy it now on the small screen. Mars may well remain a desolate wasteland in reality, but the various races imagined by ERB lives on in our imagination. Consider the original work, perhaps more than any other novel has stirred up passions for space travel and adventure in the hearts of many readers. Barsoom forever!


Endnotes

1. “‘John Carter’ and the Curse of Mars”, AMC Blog, March 7, 2012,

2. Though not all missions to Mars were failures, several failed spectacularly: “Mars: NASA Explores the Red Planet

3. “John Carter: don’t mention Mars,” The Guardian, March 12, 2012

4. John Carter Wikipedia entry

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