Like most people, it seems, I saw the trailers for Andrew Stanton’s John Carter adaptation and thought it looked stupid. And this is coming from a person who LOVES science fiction, especially of the pulpy kind (more often than not, the stupider it is, the more I love it), and who knew the history and importance of the John Carter name in relation to all kinds of sci-fi since its initial publication. The dismissal of this film has been written about by many people in the last couple of months, but the consensus seems to be that the marketing campaign for the film was completely botched, and that because the marketing failed to capitalize on the movie’s strengths and legacies, it thus failed to appeal to the very people who would have loved it, had their butts been in those seats during the opening two weeks. Because of this, John Carter* seems doomed to go down as one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. Which is a shame, because after reading that Vulture article I linked to above, I was consumed with curiosity about the film and went out to see it the very next day. No surprise, I loved it.
*As an aside, I can’t help but feel that it is extremely stupid that they cut the title from the originally proposed John Carter of Mars (although the film actually ends by adding the words “of Mars” to the title) to simply John Carter. I read somewhere that they were trying to avoid comparisons to the box office bomb Mars Needs Moms, but this is obviously a move both ironic and stupid, as I’m sure it led many people to wonder why they would ever care about that doctor guy from ER jumping around in some desert.
Extremely long story short, my love of the film (which was cheesy and romantic and spectacular in all the best ways) influenced me to finally seek out the source material, which had been on my radar for quite some time as one of the foundational texts of pulp and fantastical sci-fi. There are eleven novels in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books (the first three of which were adapted by Stanton for the film), and the first of these is A Princess of Mars. A Princess of Mars chronicles John Carter’s first year on Mars: how he came to be there in the first place; his capture by the green men of Mars, a warrior race called Tharks; the exceptional physical abilities given to him by the light Martian gravity; his romance with the titular Martian princess Dejah Thoris; and his ultimate acceptance into the culture and lifestyle of Mars, which becomes his home. The novel is actually framed as a manuscript given to “the author” by his uncle, who proclaims his story to be true.
It was a bit strange going from the film to the text, as one of the things Stanton did was update the story a bit for modern audiences (clarifying some of the science, as it was almost a hundred years out of date, modifying problematic racial constructs, and editing a bit here and there for story and content), and weirdly, I like the film’s version* better. The novel does that weird first person POV thing that older novels sometimes do where the narrator tells exactly what happened in an almost clinical detail (sort of like a travelogue), and poetical images and character moments are somewhat rare. (It reminds me very strongly of the writing of H. Rider Haggard, a Victorian adventure writer who set most of his stories in Africa.) Some parts were pretty wacky in terms of Burroughs’ understanding of science, but overall I was surprised at how well most of it has held up. The power of Burroughs’ story (and imagination) makes it easy to overlook most of its faults.
*I will be honest with you here and admit that a large part of this bias PROBABLY has to do with the fact that I am now completely in love with Taylor Kitsch and think he is gorgeous and wonderful to look at and I want my DNA to be with his DNA forever.
I’m rating this 3.5 stars for now, mostly because it took me so long to get through. The beginning is gripping, and once Dejah Thoris comes into play some good character and action stuff starts happening, and then it kind of rockets until the end. The first 1/3 of the novel, however, is mostly concentrated on giving Carter’s anthropological observations about Thark culture, which is kind of interesting, but extremely less so than other things that I can think of (I think Burroughs wasted some opportunity here to really make Carter a sympathetic character by not playing up the fish out of water aspect enough — this is something the film does very well). I also think I had a hard time with it because I was reading it on the Kindle app on my phone, and e-books are REALLY not my thing. I like paper, the way it smells and feels, and the way that the physicality of actual printed books helps me connect to the story. It was hard for me to motivate myself to pick up my phone to finish reading when I have so many lovely printed books at my disposal, and I’m sure reading it so protractedly like that didn’t help my enjoyment of the actual story.
Anyway, moral of the story: John Carter is a good movie. Please rent it when it comes out on DVD.