John Carter of Barsoom


I’m tending towards the right this time, although I’m usually a book first, movie second type of person, preferring the original to any form of adaptation. There are few exceptions to this, but I suspect John Carter may just be one. Although I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen more than just the trailer. March 9th… counting down the days.

For whatever reason, my childhood did not include Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ John Carter series. I remember Tarzan, the book, Disney movie and fairly dreadful TV series that not even a Calvin Klein model could elevate from the quagmire of mediocrity. John Carter, however, wasn’t on my radar until I heard rumours of a live action Disney film. My first reaction wasn’t positive. As a fan of anime (Japanese animation) I know only too well how awful live action versions of animation can be so I was more than a little sceptical about John Carter coming to the big screen in all its CGI and real fleshy people glory.

Then I discovered Taylor Kitsch was in it. Yeah, he’s a good looking boy running around half naked in the film, but he’s also a great actor and if you don’t believe me do yourself a favour and watch Friday Night Lights and then The Bang Bang Club in which Kitsch’s portrayal of another famous Carter should’ve won him an Oscar nod. Suffice to say, I was curious. Then I watched the trailer and was blown away. Yes, there’s loads of CGI but there are also lavish costumes, incredible set designs and some character interaction that looks less action orientated and more drama driven.

*possible spoilers*

Thanks to Disney, I sought out the books, because I’m the type of person who has to read the book first (it annoys me to learn a film is based on a book only after I’ve seen the adaptation). So to Project Gutenberg I went and procured a Kindle copy of A Princess of Mars – the first in the series upon which the film is based. I loved the old fashioned prose, the first person narration and emotional but detached John Carter. I couldn’t put the book down, and now I can’t wait to get into the rest of the series. As a writer, my inner editor never goes away and so while reading I was trying to figure out what it was that was making me spend more hours than I should on Barsoom amongst the Tharks and thoats. Burroughs wrote the book almost 100 years ago so trends in science fiction have changed. Drastically. And yet, Burroughs’ work endures and here’s why.

  1. Superb world building – Burroughs goes into just enough detail to let the reader fashion his own image of Mars without cluttering the text with data, facts and details that are unnecesaary. Plus, Carter narrates so Burroughs keeps it real for his character who can’t know the why or how of all the strange new things he’s experiencing.
  2. A balance of science and fiction – although this series is often described as science fantasy due to some liberties taken with astra physics (based on knowledge based in the early 1900’s remember) I appreciated the fact that Burroughs provided some scientific fact (real, or imagined and presented as fact) without getting bogged down by the technicalities. Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the book.
  3. Characters – it’s tough making non-human characters likeable never mind relateable and yet Burroughs achieves this with his Tharks and Red Men. That these creatures had six limbs, tusks and green skin were secondary to the emotional journey they experienced and that’s what I liked about the story. This isn’t plot driven so much as character driven and I really hope they bring that across in the film.
  4. John Carter. He’s not your typical hero, in fact in the book he makes it blatantly obvious that he’s not a courageous man, he just happens to find himself in situations where he’s forced to do the heroic thing before he can think of a way of escaping it – I liked that, refreshingly self-deprecating for a male protagonist. I hope Hollywood doesn’t ruin that by making Carter the hero of the people he definitely never intended to be in the books.

So those are the good things and there were a handful of negatives too, most noticeable the magical means by which Carter is transported to and from Mars. It’s never explained, at least not in the first book. I also really wish Burroughs had explored his leading lady a little more. He actually makes more of the Thark woman, Sola than the Red Princess (minor irritation but I liked Dejah Thoris, I just wanted to know why I liked her…). Burroughs glossed over quite a few scenes that I know, having only seen the trailer, get more screen time in the film – the Gladiator-style arena fights for example, which if anything are an excuse to show off Kitsch’s physique and the brilliance of Disney’s stunt choreographers.

Despite stilted dialogue, reams of exposition, chunky prose and bad science, A Princess of Mars may just be one of my all time favourite stories. So now, for the moment you’ve been waiting for. Here’s the trailer to Disney’s John Carter:

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