Tuesday, March 13, 2012
JOHN CARTER OF MARS
I first read the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs in high school in the 60s. I'd been reading boys' books like Tom Swift Jr and the Hardy Boys, and the Tarzan books were stocked with those. When I found a trade paperback volume of three ERB's Mars novels I picked it up. It contained not the first but the middle three of the series, THUVIA MAID OF MARS, THE CHESSMEN OF MARS and THE MASTERMIND OF MARS - by which time Carter's offspring Carthoris and Tara, and new arrival to Mars Ulysses Paxton had taken up the action. I was carried away to ERB's Barsoom, with its dying civilizations, incomparable princesses and sword-swinging heroes. I was fortunate in that the 60s had a Burroughs boom that saw release of the whole series - and ERB's Venus, Moon Men and Pellucidar books - in affordable paperbacks, with art by greats like Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel and J. Allen St. John. Burroughs took the time to make his books plausible enough for their time; his Mars was as astronomers perceived it at the turn of the century: dead sea bottoms, canals and the possibility of humanoid life. He developed Barsoom with its own ecology, language, customs, mores and science, even set down the rules for the Martian version of chess, Jetan.
The movie was as true to ERB's spirit as could be expected today. It does lack some of the romance that Carter is mourning a recently dead wife and child, and as usual these days his motives had to be personal at first, war-weary and interested only in returning to Earth (Jasoom) and his cave of gold, but he does finally join Dejah Thoris and her cause. One change I did appreciate is that the women are not the "simpering wimps" of 1900s fantasy; Dejah Thoris is a scientist and warrior and we see women among the airship crews.
Also in keeping with today's filmgoers' interests there had to be a threat to Earth, so the Holy Therns are developed from coniving preists to interstellar parasites with high tech/mystical powers. I found that an interesting addition, though, and since they're still around at the end, provides a plot for sequels since the film discarded the original cliffhanger ending.
Carter arrives on Mars fully clothed instead of as stark naked as the book, and the Martians who were described as wearing only sword harnesses or ornaments are overdressed. There is a difference though between being told that without any explicit description and seeing men and women parade around naked on the screen. The same difference between being naked and seeing somebody else naked. I still think they should have worn less, though, if only because their armor and capes made them look more Roman than alien.
Still, most of the TARZAN films were departures from the original and I still enjoy them as well as the books. And the long-running Dell TARZAN comic books, which I'm now collecting in hardcover archives - a mashup of the Tarzan of the novels and the movies.
I was disappointed with the pilgrimage down the River Is, a sort of physical journey to Heaven, which in the book (it was actually in the second book, THE GODS OF MARS), the journey ended in a domain of plant-creatures who killed and fed on the pilgrims. ERB was known for mocking religious fundamentalists and the story was one of his best satires on people who live their lives in futile pursuit of eternal bliss instead of living to the fullest.
One weakness the film can't help is that since it was the seminal interplanetary adventure story, it has been copied and bypassed by later films from FLASH GORDON to STAR WARS and AVATAR. Still, I can only recommend JOHN CARTER (OF MARS as the closing credits have it) highly to Burroughs readers and non-readers alike.