"Twenty-two years before I had been cast, naked and a stranger, into this strange and savage world. The hand of every race and nation was raised in continual strife and warring against the men of every other land and color. Today, by the might of my sword and the loyalty of the friends my sword had made for me, black man and white, red man and green rubbed shoulders in peace and good-fellowship. All the nations of Barsoom were not yet as one, but a great stride forward toward that goal had been taken, and now if I could but cement the fierce yellow race into this solidarity of nations I should feel that I had rounded out a great lifework, and repaid to Mars at least a portion of the immense debt of gratitude I owed her for having given me my Dejah Thoris."
(Chapter 16 of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Warlord of Mars - www.literaturepage.com/read/warlordofmars-163.html)
With those words, Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) brought the opening trilogy of his eleven-book Barsoom series to its thematic fulfillment and placed the capstone upon a lavish accomplishment of imaginative storytelling. In a work that evoked many of the grand settings and figures of myth and legend, particularly Camelot and its peace-making King, ERB gave us a living Mars and the hero John Carter, who came to be known as the Warlord. First published in All-Story Magazine in 1912, John Carter and his literary sibling Tarzan (published later the same year and also created by ERB), went on to inspire much of the superhero and adventure-based storytelling of the last one hundred years. Landmark creative descendents include Superman, Star Wars and Avatar. Jerry Siegel, George Lucas and James Cameron each cited ERB’s John Carter as a major influence on their own flagship creations. Into this literary and cinematic sphere stepped writer/director Andrew Stanton in March of 2012, with a film adaptation entitled “John Carter”, based on A Princess of Mars, the first book in the Barsoom series. Stanton, a lifelong ERB fan who first discovered the world of Barsoom via the 1970's Marvel comic book adaptations, was the first filmmaker in a checkered eighty-year development history to successfully bring the property to the big screen.
A friend who knows that I'm an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan recently posed a few questions to me regarding “John Carter”. To paraphrase the questions: What do you feel is the most significant change from book to screen? Is Taylor Kitsch's performance true to the character you envisioned when reading A Princess of Mars? Is the screen version a faithful adaptation of Burroughs or does Stanton bring a different vision to bear on the story? Do you think the filmmakers chose to emphasize certain elements at the expense of others? Overall, what observations and implications have you drawn from a comparison of the book and the film?
Before sharing my responses to each of the questions, an objective analysis of Andrew Stanton’s fidelity to the source material is in order, as well as a concise summary of his goals, methods and results.
Stanton’s adaptation is accurate to the book in many ways. He kept the period setting of the late 1800s. He kept the Confederate cavalry background of John Carter. He kept the frame story featuring nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs. On Barsoom, we meet Tars Tarkas and Woola and Sola in near identical ways to how we meet them in the novel. The nations of Thark, Helium and Zodanga are all represented. Character names are straight from the book, across the board. We see thoats, airships, ancient ruined cities and technologically advanced cities. The mixture of sword and firearm combat is portrayed. Many of the iconic moments are present, such as the early incubator scene, the Warhoon battle, gladiatorial combat, and the shattering of the glass window to disrupt the almost-wedding of Dejah Thoris and Sab Than. The mythos of the River Iss and the goddess Issus is prominent throughout the film. As a lifelong ERB fan, Stanton delivered more of the details of Barsoom than would have been the case with many other filmmakers.
More important than mere details, however, Stanton also took great pains to capture aspects of the heart of the tales. The books' pulp adventure moments, which were crucial to the influence on superhero storytelling and “Indiana Jones” type of action films over the last century, make the film a joy to watch. John Carter leaps into action to save the incomparable Dejah Thoris numerous times. They fall in love and are married. The interaction between John Carter and Tars Tarkas evokes an unlikely friendship and brothers-in-arms bond. The uniquely compelling family history of Tars Tarkas and Sola, though modified from the novel, is an emotional cornerstone in the film. The Tharks in general are a Burroughsian combination of barbarism and nobility. There is a clear sense of Barsoom as a dying world full of desperate nations. Courage and leadership are central, while manipulation and predation are painted in a villainous light. These and other glimpses of the timeless appeal of the novels are evident in the film.
In contrast to the distinctive science-fantasy backdrop of the novels, Stanton’s aesthetic vision was that of a National Geographic documentary crew exploring a previously unknown continent on Earth. As a result, the Barsoom of the film is one of terrestrial deserts and inconspicuous topography reminiscent of photographs taken by Mars rovers. The sky is blue and the ground is dusty, in comparison to the butterscotch skies of the real Mars and the ubiquitous ochre moss covering the ground of ERB’s Barsoom.
Stanton’s goal was to make an “Indiana Jones on Mars” film, set on a visually realistic and historical Mars. The film has a purposeful retro sensibility, evident in the pulp adventure focus of the narrative, in the swashbuckling action scenes, in the steampunk styling of the airships, and in the Roman-style costuming. In keeping with the goals of realism and an identifiable retro sensibility, priority was not given to fantasy elements and distinct alien qualities.
Stanton’s objectives and methods allowed him to capture much of ERB’s planet Barsoom. He created a John Carter film that is treasured by many, ERB fans and newbies alike. His film has won a place in the hearts of an extraordinarily vocal following. Due to his project, there is a cry on many internet discussion boards and comment threads for “more Barsoom!” It is a cry that will be heeded someday, though the exact form of its fulfillment is yet to be seen.
A more subdued but nonetheless widespread opinion in internet discussions among those who have studied the source material, however, is the conviction that ERB’s novels could have been leveraged more confidently, to make a film that would have been both more faithful and much more impressive as a piece of cinema. The enthusiasm shown by many toward Stanton’s film is tempered by this knowledge that different priorities and principles in the adaptation could have resulted in a film of immeasurably greater impact. Though Stanton used many elements of the source material to great effect, he let several key pieces go by the wayside. These pieces could have been used to create a much more powerfully resonant experience, an adaptation which would have been worthy of every aspect of the legacy of the source material. There is a lineage of storytelling, with roots in the oldest known narratives of Earth’s history, which is present in the ERB books, but sadly lacking in Stanton’s film.
Generally, in an adaptation it is easier to make drastic changes than it is to carefully weigh the original elements and develop, combine, alter or judiciously dispose of them. In the writing process, it is possible to come to view the source material as an obstacle, at least in part. Bigger changes that “liberate” the screenwriter from fidelity to the source material can be appealing as quick fixes, though they invite the risk of alienating the film from the strengths of the source material. Despite Andrew Stanton and his co-writers being lifelong ERB fans, there are reasons to believe, from interviews and from the finished film, that they opted for quick innovation over careful leveraging of the source material on several fronts.
What do you feel is the most significant change from book to screen?
In a change that is both subtle and profound, the Barsoomian “code of chivalry”, which is one of the most striking and memorable aspects of ERB’s world, is essentially absent from the film. Many of the individual changes in the adaptation relate back to this foundational shift away from the key cultural particulars of ERB’s fictional world. Those particulars owe much to mankind’s long history of storytelling, as will be illustrated throughout this article. The chivalric code of honor on ERB’s Mars guides virtually every aspect of civilized Barsoomian life. Personal behavior, culture, politics and war revolve around a system of principled conduct, rather than mere expediency.
In accordance with this code, duels for the sake of honor and military promotion are common. A warrior may not respond to an attack with a weapon greater than the weapon wielded by the attacker. If a warrior is killed in a duel or in fair combat, everything that was his is acquired by the victor. The only way an airship may be surrendered is if the commanding officer voluntarily leaps off of the deck to his death. The ruler of a nation can only be replaced if that nation’s council of advisors allows a challenger to engage in a mortal duel with the ruler. Pledging one’s sword at the feet of another is equivalent to a lifelong promise of allegiance. The Barsoomian mercenary class, composed of warriors known as panthans, is highly respected and trusted.
Additionally, romantic interest is conducted in a manner consistent with chaste, courtly love. A woman’s promise of engagement is respected as a virtual marriage vow, making it completely off limits for a man to attempt to kill her fiancé in a duel or by any other means. If the fiancé is killed in battle, the man who slays him is forbidden from courting the woman to whom the fiancé was betrothed.
In general, virtue, friendship, courage and self-sacrifice are highly celebrated. The heroes and villains of ERB’s stories define themselves according to whether or not they follow the code. Even the barbarian green men, who are cruel and loveless, never lie, and believe in the rights of a prisoner to state his case before sentence is passed. Theft is unheard of on Barsoom. The dregs of Barsoomian society include an assassin subculture, and anyone involved in it is regarded as a villain.
Former Confederate cavalryman, John Carter, is immediately drawn to the chivalric aspects of Barsoom, himself having been steeped in the Virginian southern gentleman code of honor. With John Carter of Mars, ERB gave us a knight in a world well suited for the continual testing of his personal character and abilities.
It seems that Stanton abandoned this code as a means of “updating” the source material, particularly in order to accommodate the modern appetite for cynical and sassy characterizations. The experience of Barsoom feels blunted and diffused because of those modernized personalities. Several themes of the novels were altered to allow for the shift, which resulted in a world that was less uniquely Burroughsian. When something is made less distinct in a nod to “formula” or to modern trends, it runs that much more of a risk of seeming generic or clichéd.
Was the curtailment of the chivalric code necessary, or does the book have an appeal that could have been mined more faithfully and allowed to stand on its own narrative strengths? There are reasons to believe the latter is the case. A confident, full-bore, chivalric Barsoom could have brought in an Arthurian or Greek mythic sensibility which would have lent the film a stronger historical flavor and more of a timeless quality. As is, the film is reflective of characterizations which are currently in vogue – tastes which are likely to change. Meanwhile, the appeal of historical, honor-driven characterizations has persisted for millennia (Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Arthur, Hamlet).
The primary goal of a historical science-fantasy film should be to create a unique, internally consistent, transportive alternate reality for audiences who are desperate to be taken to a new world, away from the mundane. One such transportive film, which succeeded wildly at the box office, was James Cameron’s “Avatar”, set on the planet Pandora. A world where a man’s consciousness is transferred into a human/alien hybrid amidst a forest where trees store memories and talk to each other through their roots beneath the shadows of floating mountains captivated audiences like nothing cinema has ever seen. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Cameron cited ERB’s John Carter stories as the primary inspiration for Avatar.
In regards to John Carter, if a story is going to be set on a living Mars, it might as well take the confident step of presenting a world that is truly “other”. It should be distinct from our current culture, yet relatable in a more classic, timeless manner, and not be limited to the realism of filmable Earth deserts and Mars rover photographs, as was the case with Stanton’s film. The realism of Barsoom is in its archetypal, mythic history and its outwardly bizarre yet essentially human cultures and characters. The ways in which Barsoom is relatable will enable it to remain relatable a hundred years from now, just as it has already remained relatable for a hundred years. Barsoom may be strange in many ways, but we see ourselves in it nonetheless – all while being exceptionally entertained.
For a specific example of how the change to the honor code altered the nature of ERB’s world, in the novel Tardos Mors, the Jeddak of Helium and father of Princess Dejah Thoris, would NEVER have forced Dejah to marry the enemy ruler, Sab Than, not even with the fate of Helium hanging in the balance. In fact, when the Tardos Mors of the novel is presented with that exact scenario, he makes it clear that he and his people would rather see themselves and their nation destroyed, than see Dejah wed to their enemy against her will. Of her own volition, Dejah professes love for Sab Than, in order to stop the war. Tardos Mors’ grim resolve and Dejah’s noble self-sacrifice evokes a distinct and alluring cultural standard that is reminiscent of the Samurai Bushido code. The situation in the film is a complete inverse, in which Tardos Mors desperately forces Dejah to marry Sab Than and Dejah flees in an attempt to escape the situation.
In the book, Dejah is a scientist and national figure who finds herself thrown into undesirable situations, to which she responds by boldly seizing opportunities to advocate for peace with the Tharks, and later with the Zodangans. She is the planet’s most stunning beauty, a Helen of Troy, a face that launches a thousand airships. The film turns her into what has become the clichéd warrior princess. She isn’t just bold in the film, but comes across as arrogant toward the Tharks and toward John Carter, all seemingly meant to convey that she is a fierce, independent and sassy individual. The Dejah of the novel, who earns respect by her courage and political resourcefulness, is largely lost and replaced with a character who is presumptuous much of the time. The Dejah of the novel would never have willingly done anything that would potentially harm her people, yet the Dejah of the film selfishly flees Helium at a decisive and potentially catastrophic moment.
The Dejah of the novel would never have tried to deceive and manipulate John Carter into helping her. In the movie, after she and John Carter and Sola escaped from the Tharks, she pretended to be leading their party toward the Gates of Iss where John Carter hoped to find information that would help him return to Earth, but she was actually leading them toward Helium, where she hoped to essentially coerce John Carter into fighting for her people. After they do end up at the Gates of Iss, Dejah learns immediately how John Carter can return to Earth at any moment, but hides her knowledge from him, again hoping to force him to go to Helium in an effort to coerce him into aiding her nation. While her schemes are in play, she and John Carter are gradually realizing their romantic interest in each other. First time viewers of the film are largely unaware of Dejah’s ploys until later in the film, but once her dishonesty is revealed, it taints her character retroactively for viewers who have been paying close attention to what she knew and when she knew it, and muddles the believability of the romance that was budding between her and John Carter. She is falling for the guy, and yet treats him like a political/military pawn? That is a blatant betrayal of the Barsoomian honor code and is the kind of behavior typically reserved for ERB’s villainesses. In the logic of the film, Dejah was forced to resort to her manipulations because of John Carter’s reluctance to fight, which brings us to the starkest departure from the Barsoomian honor code of Burroughs’ novels, the change to the character of John Carter.
The John Carter of the novel was a man in search of a cause. In contrast, the John Carter we see for the first three-fourths of the film is actively running away from joining any cause. His goal is to return to his recently discovered riches on Earth and live for himself. He springs into action only in the most extreme circumstances, when there is no one else available to help, rather than acting assertively out of principle. The character seems selfish, distant, and potentially unlikeable for most of the film. It is difficult to sympathize with the wound or flaw that Stanton’s John Carter must overcome, as his over-reluctance becomes more of an encumbrance than an aid to the tension of the story. Instead of an increasing sense of identification with a character who is facing and taking on incredible odds, the audience is presented with a character who selfishly refuses to participate in the pressing conflict. The much lauded Warhoon battle sequence, which many people cite as their favorite scene, is the one refreshing exception to the rule, and even then, Carter soon after reverts to his reluctance, robbing the earlier triumphant scene of much of its impact. At three fourths of the way through the film, he finally fully commits to the conflict at hand. Stanton skirted the line between a reluctant hero and an unlikeable hero, and many would say that he crossed it.
I understood going into the film that it would be a “damaged goods” portrayal of John Carter, and so was spared much of the disappointment that an ERB fan might experience at surprise changes to the iconic character. Even the degree of appreciation that I had for the character, however, was hindered somewhat by the knowledge that he could have been much more charismatic and likeable if he had been crafted more along the lines of the character in the novels.
In a world as foreign and threatening as Barsoom, the emotional need to identify with the hero and feel “safe” with him is that much greater. A more engaging and sympathetic arc closer to the John Carter in the novel could have been chosen. At the beginning of the novel, ERB makes it clear that John Carter is a man cut adrift, a former Confederate cavalryman who, after the Civil War, finds himself without a nation. He is a knight errant, a ronin. The obstacle that must be overcome in his character arc is perhaps the most universal and relatable of all – the need to find purpose. He must find that place where he can and should apply himself for the good of others. He has internal questions and conflicts, and discovers more about himself along the way, but that process of discovery does not prevent him from being an active, virtuous prime mover in the narrative.
The John Carter of the novel is more akin to T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), John Dunbar (“Dances with Wolves”) or Jake Sully (“Avatar”), than to Stanton’s “damaged goods”. Lawrence, Dunbar and Sully certainly grapple with their identities and are tested on many levels, but we know that they are essentially honorable men. They embrace causes and lead the charge. The John Carter of the film is selfish for most of the story, with a few moments of seemingly forced chivalry, until he finally kicks into gear. The John Carter of the novel is a man whose personal character compels him to fight for good, and his arc focuses on him finding his place, using his gifts in the struggle against evil, and achieving fulfillment in a way that benefits others, more along the lines of Captain America or Superman.
Characters who are more nuanced and reluctant, and who go through a moral or emotional transformation as part of their arc, such as Batman, Iron Man, or Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings films, are also fulfilling, but should also have strong likeable qualities from the start, or they risk alienating the audience. Some alienation can be appropriate, but the selfish John Carter of the film over did it for too much of the film. If he had made his decision to fight earlier in the film, audiences would have been able to more strongly identify with him and connect with the film more meaningfully.
In addition to the “good guy” type of hero and the initially reluctant hero, there is a third type of protagonist that is common in today’s films – the anti-hero. This type never achieves moral clarity, never takes up a selfless cause, and is often barely distinguishable from the story’s antagonists. This character may be superficially relatable to many audience members who themselves experience moral skepticism, but ultimately the conflict does not as profoundly resonate, and is not as dramatically fulfilling, as a story in which there is a clear evaluative moral framework. Honorable characters with endearing foibles, who stand up for what is right against terrible odds and devious adversaries both external and internal, have carried storytelling for innumerable generations. The struggle between essential good and evil has been the foundation for the best characters and conflicts for thousands of years. Barsoom is a uniquely rich, not-yet-fully-leveraged cinematic canvas for that timeless conflict.
Stanton’s alterations to the chivalric code of ERB’s world, and to the character of John Carter in particular, muddled the thematic landscape for the bulk of the film. The redeeming final thirty minutes of the film felt like what the whole movie could have felt like – full speed ahead heroism with epic clashes between opposing forces. If the John Carter of the novel had been unleashed on Stanton’s world, he still would have been plenty busy, with ample opportunity for character development along a different arc, and the movie would have been more fun and fulfilling. Stanton’s film was a different entity than what was created by ERB. The changes in the adaptation decreased the distinct heroic signature that has helped ERB’s world stand out in the realm of fiction for more than a century. That heroic signature was what Jerry Siegel, George Lucas, and James Cameron carried on in their own works.
Specific characterizations aside, the chivalric code was also altered from the book to allow for women in the armies of Barsoom. Part of the honor code in the book is that men never kill women, and women never kill men, except in extreme circumstances. Burroughs mentions that women are sometimes called upon as reserve forces and, when required to fight, are at least as ferocious as the men. Barsoomian women are honored and sacrificially protected, ideals which have been celebrated throughout Earth’s history (celebrated, though not always fulfilled). In the movie, women are put on the front lines of war, as part of the status quo, rather than strictly by dire necessity, as in the novels. Again, an attribute which would have lent the story more of a timeless, romantic quality was pushed aside to suit modern sensibilities.
An additional departure from the honor code relates to the aforementioned rule that a warrior may only defend himself with a weapon of equal or lesser power than the weapon wielded by his attacker. If attacked by someone wielding a sword, it is not acceptable to use a firearm in response. If the attacker uses a dagger, the victim may respond with a dagger, a lesser weapon, or just fists. This Bushido-type principle, reminiscent of the themes in “The Last Samurai”, gives Barsoom a distinct cultural flavor, yet was not followed in the film. There is a moment in the climactic battle of the film when a group of Tharks, who are allied with John Carter, fire their rifles at sword-wielding enemies. While that moment was likely meant to highlight the excellent marksmanship of the Tharks, it was nonetheless jarring in light of the principles celebrated in ERB’s novels.
Is Taylor Kitsch's performance true to the character
you envisioned when reading A Princess of Mars?
Comparing Taylor Kitsch’s performance to the John Carter I envisioned when reading the novel requires consideration of how Stanton wrote the character and of how Kitsch portrayed that character. At moments, Kitsch reminds me of Harrison Ford, so, in that regard, Stanton achieved his goal of making an “Indiana Jones on Mars” film. There are some moments during the battles when Kitsch’s courageous actions and enthusiasm are evocative of the John Carter of the book. The moments when Kitsch is in awe of the exotic world of Barsoom are true to the literary character, who is a continual fish out of water for the first novel.
The John Carter of the novel is assertive and driven by chivalry. He exudes charisma and confidence even as he grapples with finding his footing in an alien world. He is consummately respectful, despite occasional unintended social blunders. For the majority of the film, Kitsch’s John Carter is too casual and aloof – a choice by the writers that serves as a further sign of the priority that was given to modern trends in characterization. There are some memorable human moments from Kitsch, with Sola and Dejah Thoris, true to the original character, but due to how the character was written, Kitsch doesn’t very strongly resemble the John Carter from the novel until after the escape from Zodanga.
If the layers of selfish reluctance and “damaged goods” hadn’t been added, I believe that Kitsch would have delivered a solid rendition of the John Carter of the book and would have created a more compelling and inspiring character that would have better connected with audiences. Despite that lost potential, Kitsch did well with the version of the character he was given.
I wish that John Carter had been portrayed as a sublime swordsman, as he is in the novel. The swordplay should have been a more central element of the story, along the lines of Zorro. It seems that Stanton chose instead to focus on an exaggerated portrayal of John Carter’s super strength and jumping ability.
A crux of Kitsch’s characterization was his focus on playing John Carter very much as a Civil War veteran, a decision derived from Stanton’s interpretation of the character’s backstory. While that focus is true to the immediate background of the character in the novel, ERB’s John Carter is also a more storied and mysterious figure, in addition to having been a Confederate. He is seemingly an immortal of unknown origin, who can remember only as far as a hundred years into the past, but who suspects that his experiences and lost memories go much further back. He recalls loved ones who grew old and died, while he continually remained in the physical condition of a thirty-year-old. Ever the warrior hungry for a cause, he traveled and fought on many continents, for many powerful rulers. This itinerancy included time among the Sioux of the American Midwest, presumably in a manner similar to John Dunbar of “Dances With Wolves”. John Carter’s identification as a Virginian and his participation in the Confederacy were only the most recent of many associations over the course of history. But Stanton apparently chose not to use the longevity and mysterious past of the character, as there is no indication of it in the film. Stanton’s Carter is a regular Southerner, a true son of Virginia. In accordance with that presentation of the character, Kitsch studied the letters of actual Civil War veterans as part of his preparation to play the character. Some of those letters no doubt influenced the “damaged goods” aspect of Kitsch’s portrayal, as he read of what some men had lost as a result of the war. His John Carter is cynical and war-weary for most of the film, which is quite different from the famously unwavering, heroic fighting spirit of ERB’s Carter, whose motto in the face of the worst odds is always “I still live!”
Is the screen version a faithful adaptation of Burroughs
or does Stanton bring a different vision to bear on the story?
Do you think the filmmakers chose
to emphasize certain elements at the expense of others?
The partial abandonment of the chivalric code and the modernized characterizations reflect a different vision brought to bear by Stanton. Additionally, it’s clear that he wanted an integrated three-act structure which featured the nations of Helium, Zodanga and Thark from the start of the film. ERB’s “A Princess of Mars” novel is a first-person narrative conveyed by John Carter alone, who spends the first two-thirds of the book with just the Tharks. In terms of pacing and structure, an awkward transition occurs when only in the last fifty pages does he travel across Barsoom and discover the other warring nations, and the story becomes much more involved. This rushed pace in the last third of the novel was due at least in part to the editor of All-Story Magazine, Thomas Metcalf, who required ERB to turn in a manuscript half as long as he had originally planned.
In this respect, Stanton’s re-structuring was a sensible change in the adaptation process. A similar approach will likely be seen in future John Carter reboots, as this change addresses the single biggest structural problem of the novel. However, Stanton’s jump into the middle of the war between Helium and Zodanga in the prologue of the film may have been an overly confusing immersion for people new to the world of Barsoom. The nature of the world-wide conflict would have been clearer and more engaging had it been revealed more gradually. Minimal cutaway scenes to Helium and Zodanga, motivated by John Carter’s experiences among the Tharks in the early parts of the film (such as the sudden airship battle over the Thark city, etc.), supplemented with judicious exposition by the captured Dejah Thoris, could have helped make the overall conflict more accessible to the many audience members who said they were confused by the plot.
There are pros and cons to the structure of the book and the structure of the film. ERB keeps the reader captivated in the mind and direct experiences of John Carter, but rushes through some grand events, robbing them of much of the weight that they could otherwise have. Stanton adopts a more traditional structure, but rushes the exposition, distances the viewer from the main character with an arc based on a “damaged goods” characterization, and undermines the film’s momentum via poorly implemented regressive moments in John Carter’s arc - such as when he refuses to fight for Dejah Thoris after the supposedly transformative Warhoon battle. Stanton’s interest in drawing the wider world of Barsoom into the main conflict of the story earlier on is a good change in the adaptation. However, the film would have benefitted if the exposition had not been rushed and the structural change had been balanced more carefully with a purposeful cultivation of audience identification and sympathy with John Carter.
Another aspect of Stanton’s different vision is his decision to change the environmental condition of Mars from a planet “dying of old age”, as per ERB, to a planet which has been preyed upon nearly to the point of inhabitability by the mobile mining city of Zodanga. In the novel, there is an atmosphere factory upon which the entire planet depends for breathable air. In effect, Stanton changed Barsoom from a world saved by science, to one doomed by industrialism. That seems like another change from the novel meant to echo modern storytelling trends.
In a dramatic departure from the novels, Stanton made the Therns into a universe-wide threat of unknown origin. In ERB’s series, the Therns are native to Barsoom, do not possess advanced 9th ray technology, and do not leave the planet, let alone jump around the universe feeding off the demise of dying worlds. In the novel, once John Carter gets to Barsoom, all of the ensuing conflict relates solely to that world. The variety of locations which are explored and the events which take place on Barsoom throughout the eleven-book series make the planet roughly equivalent to a concentrated version of the Star Wars galaxy, though the history of Barsoom is much more textured and personal. In ERB’s novels, the planet itself is a character with a rich backstory.
Stanton’s interplanetary changes distanced the film from the distinct and uniquely lasting appeal of ERB’s grand and yet intimate world. On Barsoom, the warring factions must settle their differences or risk annihilating each other. There is no seemingly endless galaxy with a virtually limitless number of planets upon which to hide, no stargates to provide escape. Resources are scarce, even the good leaders are desperate, and the conflicts are brutal and decisive. Barsoom is a world of immediacy and stark thematic clashes, its destiny shaped by each individual’s decisions to either manipulate and prey upon others for the purpose of consolidating power, or to serve others for the good of all – a dilemma personified in ERB’s villains and heroes. This is the world that John Carter discovers and devotes his life to serving, with Dejah Thoris as the prime personal link. His honorable personal character, coupled with his love for Dejah Thoris, is what motivates his role as catalyst and peacemaker. The quote at the beginning of this article highlights the thematic statement ERB was making through the character of John Carter. Through courage, friendship and service, John Carter accomplished feats on Barsoom that were much more meaningful than the mere conquering of cities or defeating of villains.
It is clear from interviews that Stanton believed the John Carter of the novels to be too thin, too “vanilla”. Whether or not that is a fair assessment, it should be noted that mthods other than fundamentally changing the character into “damaged goods” could have been used to add dimension and strengthen his arc. John Carter, as written by ERB, has many aspects that could be mined for further development, with the potential for drawing ideas from the broader Barsoomian playbook. Those are the kinds of carefully weighed changes that can allow an adaptation to be innovative and address perceived deficits in the source material while also feeling faithful to the source. Burroughs should be used to patch Burroughs, by default, until and unless the patches just don’t work. That level of trust in Burroughs was not demonstrated by Stanton and his co-writers.
Visually, Stanton’s decision to present a “realistic” rendition of Barsoom significantly toned down the alluring alien quality of ERB’s science-fantasy planet. The exteriors in the film are a hybrid of the Utah settings where they were filmed and enhancements reminiscent of rover photographs from the actual surface of Mars. The ubiquitous ocher-colored moss which ERB used to give Mars its celestial color is featured in only one location, in the scene where John Carter first wakes up on Barsoom and struggles with the lesser gravitation. The remains of Barsoomian cities and canals are interspersed, but the canals of Stanton’s Barsoom are dry and ruined. In ERB’s world, the canals are in working order, full of water from melted polar ice, and are lined by massive trees and agricultural districts. Similarly, the ancient cities in the film are in a more advanced state of decay than in the novel, and are much smaller than those described by ERB.
It is noteworthy that the ruined cities in the film are of ancient Tharkian origin, while in ERB’s novels the cities were not built by the Tharks, but are the remains of a lost human civilization, a people known as the Orovars. The Orovars severely declined as Barsoom’s atmosphere deteriorated and their lifeblood, the great seas, evaporated, cutting off trade and undermining their resources. Their growing weakness left them vulnerable to the nomadic barbarian Tharks, who over time conquered their cities and took up intermittent residence. The role that the Orovars played in Barsoom’s history becomes crucial in the lore of ERB’s novels, particularly in regards to the atmosphere factory, yet Stanton’s film apparently drops the Orovars entirely. Stanton gives their cities to the Tharks, and gives a form of their super-science to the Therns.
In regards to Barsoom’s history, Stanton stepped markedly away from the uniquely appealing world created by ERB, and vastly understated the few historical elements which were retained in the adaptation. Burroughs’ version of ancient Barsoom has a strong, alluring, mythical quality. The novels have a tangible sense of melancholy about the lost grandeur of the ancient world, as seen in the stunning port cities which still stand, their docks jutting futilely into dry valleys which once served as harbors. The Thark city in the movie is an ancient port city, but since the history of the world is referenced so lightly, and nothing of the nature of the city is ever directly mentioned, only fans of the books are likely to identify it as a former port. On ERB’s Barsoom, the atmosphere factory and the canal system stand as living monuments to a bygone era of extraordinary achievement. The decision to pin the deteriorating condition of the planet on the evil mining city of Zodanga curtailed the unique texture of ERB’s world – the kind of historical texture which can make a fictional world feel that much more substantial, real and engaging.
In what is perhaps the single most drastic visual departure, Stanton turned the city of Zodanga into a giant, mobile machine. In the novel, Zodanga is a much larger, walled and heavily fortified city with a sky full of towers and constantly swarming civilian and military airships. Similarly, Stanton’s version of the city of Helium is much smaller than in the novels. ERB’s twin cities of Greater and Lesser Helium are sprawling metropolises, more akin to George Lucas’ Coruscant, and are spaced seventy miles apart, just barely visible on the horizon from each other. In the movie the twin cities are separated by a mile-long bridge. The film’s visuals do not even begin to approach the awe-inspiring scale of ERB’s descriptions. If ever there were a fictional world that called for mind-blowing, immense and lavish visuals, it would be the living Mars imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The characters, themes and conflicts of his world are robust and forceful enough to fill the grandest spaces.
In essence, Stanton simplified and shrank ERB’s Barsoom, seemingly in an effort to present his vision of a “realistic” Barsoom based on filmable Earth locations and photographs from the surface of Mars. That approach resulted in a world that is generic and bland when compared to ERB’s dynamic, dying-yet-exotic planet Barsoom, covered in its characteristic moss, criss-crossed by living canals, punctuated by wild, lush environs, climatic extremes and grand cities both ancient and advanced. One of the most distinct visual elements of the novel, the atmosphere factory, is missing from the film, replaced by the fascinating but relatively diminutive Gates of Iss. In the first film of his would-be trilogy based on the first three books, Stanton chose not to include many of the exotic visual elements featured in the first novel.
Overall, what observations and implications have you derived from a comparison of the book and the film?
Before I saw the film, the statements from Stanton and news I had heard leading up to release had led me to expect an 80% faithful adaptation. While many of the details of ERB’s novel were present in the film, many others were changed or dropped. Given what Stanton changed, what he left out, and what he put in, it was closer to 50% faithful. Had other filmmakers who were not as “wedded” to the ERB source material been in charge of the adaptation, it’s likely they would have delivered a film with an even lower percentage of faithfulness. They would have been less likely to take the time to grapple with the source material and make it work as a film on its own terms. With that in mind, it’s a good thing the film was made by Stanton. Conversely, the potential persists that filmmakers more wedded to the source material than Stanton might still someday deliver a rebooted film that will be more faithful. Even someone with no particular history with ERB or attachment to the novels could possibly make something more faithful, simply out of principle.
In terms of the tone and genre of the film, Stanton went for a “pulp adventure” adaptation of ERB’s world, in line with his “Indiana Jones on Mars” pitch to Disney. This is not the only possible interpretation of the source material. ERB may have written his novels in a fast-paced adventure style, but he also included many historical and cultural details that could be leveraged to create a much more substantial, dramatic film series, a series which would not just be different from Stanton’s film in tone, but which would also be more faithful to the novels.
Many of Stanton’s choices seem to have revolved around an interest in making things more relatable to modern audiences. While that is perhaps the core “school solution” of the film business - the conventional wisdom of much of filmmaking – in this case it resulted in a considerably altered screen version which lost much of the distinct, timeless, and transportive quality of ERB’s world. By aiming to provide what modern viewers supposedly want, namely (1) cynical characterizations and (2) a narrative context where it is acceptable for expediency to win out over principle, Stanton missed many opportunities to provide what hearers of stories have consistently wanted for millennia – virtue in the face of adversity, inspiration rooted in worthy ideals, and a fulfilling sense of purpose.
If there were ever a Barsoom reboot, key differences in the approach to the adaptation, supported by robust marketing, could magnify the impact tenfold. A yet-to-be-made, confident, ambitious Barsoom film could work more faithfully within the logic of ERB’s creation to orchestrate a more profound and timeless relatability. It could further strengthen ERB’s ideas and add additional layers of characterization and plot, developed organically from the Barsoom of the novels. There is strong reason to believe that this prospective film would break new ground in the technical and creative realms, and take audiences to a new level of immersion and entertainment.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, for all of its fun and adventure, is a world akin to the greatest of historical myth, a place where timeless truths are tested and there are profound struggles between honor and villainy. Barsoom, at its core, is a dreamscape of the clash between the extremes that boil within humanity. It is a frightful and breathless place, and that which distinguishes it does not age.
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