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Volume 3038
Heady Days for Edgar Rice Burroughs Fans:
Avatar, ERB, and John Carter of Mars
by Michael D. Sellers

James Cameron
Mars Art by Joe Jusko
Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom

Cameron's Pandora
In his review of Avatar, Roger Ebert writes:  "Watching 'Avatar,' I felt sort of the same as when I saw "Star Wars" in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations. James Cameron's film has been the subject of relentlessly dubious advance buzz, just as his "Titanic" was. Once again, he has silenced the doubters by simply delivering an extraordinary film."

Roger, for once I have to disagree vehemently with you.  About Star Wars -- not Avatar.   I walked into Star Wars in 1977 just like you did, and I did so after having read plenty of commentary to the effect that with this movie, sci-fi finally 'had arrived' -- something that excited me no end, as I had grown up reading the great sci-fi of the fifties and sixties; Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson -- as well as the great planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitator, Otis Adelbert Kline.

So I was primed and ready to love Star Wars. But as I was watching it on the huge screen at a packed Grauman Chinese Theater, I could tell that the audience was loving it but I wasn't.  To me, having devoured all the great sci-fi that I could lay my hands on from the time I was 8 or so (I was twenty-something when SW came out), all I could think of was that Star Wars just didn't quite measure up to what went on in my head when I read good sci-fi.  It just seemed rather small, and shallow.  Some of it was fun -- I liked the bar scene, and Luke's home, and Harrison Ford's character.  But overall, it was not on the level with the great works of Heinlein, Asimov, Poul Anderson -- and absolutely was not in the same league as the grandmaster of what they're more recently calling 'planetary romance' -- Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Flash forward to 2009, opening day for Avatar.  I'm there, 3D glasses on, and my expectations are pretty high -- not off the charts, but high.  But I'm wary that I will be disappointed again.  The film starts out okay -- I like the shot of the cryo bay as Jake Sully wakes up; the arrival on Pandora is pretty cool; but I'm still not sold.  Then Sully gets to try out his Avatar...still not sold.  Even when he runs out and sprints through the jungle, I'm still going -- not too sure about this.  Then the screen goes black for a moment, and suddenly it's the next day and they're in the chopper flying through Pandora.

Suddenly the landscapes are starting to grab me, and the creatures (that flock of birdlike things is the first hint of what is to come) ... and then they're on the ground and the hammerhead creatures appear, then the six-legged lion-like thing (which I immediately classify as a Barsoomian banth) ... and now it's starting to rock me.  Then it's dark, and we see Neytiri crouched on a tree limb and when she leaps up, stalking Sully, she's as silent and jungle savvy as Tarzan could ever hope to be -- and as uniquely beautiful as Dejah Thoris.  I'm getting hooked. She draws back her bow -- and does so exquisitely, convincingly -- and is about to kill Sully when the tiny floating dandelion-like creature lands on her bow, a sign of something, and she hesitates, then doesn't shoot.  Sully is under attack from the doglike creatures, and she leaps into action to help him -- and from about this point on I find myself completely in the grip of a film that for once, finally, approximates the imaginative act of creation that Burroughs routinely managed to create with nothing more than the written word interacting with the mind of a teenage boy.

From that moment until the end -- I found myself captivated by the richly imagined world, created with the same kind of loving attention to detail that marked Burroughs' best work, brought to life by Cameron via CGI and 3D technology that was frankly astonishing.  The story of Jake Sully's assimilation into Na'Vi society, his love for Neytiri and his appreciation of the ways of the Omaticaya people all are at once comfortably familiar, and fresh because of the extraordinary execution.

Walking out, I was filled with a sense that, for the first time, a movie had reached the level of imaginative creation that Burruoughs alone of all the fantasy and sci-fi writers had been able to achieve.  I was certain that Cameron must have had Burroughs in mind, even though the film had elements that, strictly speaking, were not "Burroughsian" (more about that in a bit.   What was ERB-like was the creation of a complete world with detailed flora and fauna and an indigenous culture that was well thought out and presented in detail that made me think of Burroughs -- that plus the hero-tale of a human thrust into the midst of an alien culture, alone, who finds love and earns respect.

Thrilled, I wrote an initial post about the movie that traced my enjoyment of the film back to my days as a teenager devouring any sci-fi I could get my hands on, and especially the great Martian series of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

A few days later it occurred to me to do some googling and find out if Cameron was in fact acknowledging the Burroughs influence.  I found an interview of James Cameron which showed I was on a wavelength that was pretty close to what Cameron had in mind:

James Cameron: "It's a double-edged sword. Obviously, he's able to go into his avatar through a futuristic technology, but on the other hand he's living this very primitive and ultimately somewhat spiritual life. He becomes this warrior on behalf of this disadvantaged culture. Not disadvantaged - they're sort of being bullied or dominated by the highly technological earth forces. So it's definitely a love/hate. And it's the same thing with movies, but you've got to learn to balance the two. As a film director, you can embrace the technology and go crazy and have a big mad love affair with the technology, but you still have to tell the story that's about people, emotions, and all that. The big irony of this film is, you know we're doing this story that takes place out in the rain forest, a very simple story, almost classic in a sense, almost an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure, and yet it's being done with the most advanced technology in the history of film. So there's this weird juxtaposition. I take the actors to Hawaii and we're out on some muddy trail someplace learning how to shoot a bow in the woods and not get bitten by mosquitos so that they'll have enough of a sense memory of what it's like to move through a rain forest so that when they come back to this very sterile stage environment, they can recreate that."
And Cameron in another interview:
This story could've been written in the '30s. It could have been an Edgar Rice Burroughs type story or a Rudyard Kipling story or a western, absolutely. But it's an adventure story of a guy from one culture dropped into another culture.
And finally:
Ya know, in the old school way -- in the way that MEN will respond to.  It's fine for a guy to be attracted to wmen, but I need the male audience to respond to this guy and say, "Yeah, I see why people would follow him."  So ultimately he becomes a messianic leader who leads them into battle ... in the old school Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard way. Where a guy kinda wanders into another culture, then rises through the ranks--or whatever--a Lawrence of Arabia kind of story.
Q:  How did you come up with this story?
A:  Well, my inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren't science fiction. The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers. I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.

Q:  Your premise reminded me a lot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter, Warlord of Mars series.
A:  It's definitely got that feeling, and I wanted to capture that feeling, but updated. To be certain, I wanted a film that could encompass all my interests, from biology, technology, the environment — a whole host of passions. But I've always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference. Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.

And finally -- and perhaps most tellingly -- this quote from a New Yorker article:
"With 'Avatar,' I thought, Forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars—a soldier goes to Mars.”
So clearly Cameron had Burroughs in mind when he penned and later directed the film.  But it isn't a 100% match.  So what are the similarities and differences?  Let's taka a look.


The Basic Setup: As Cameron notes, Burroughs was the master of the story of a man--a warrior--dropped into a foreign and typically very dangerous culture, who must survive on his wits and skills, and who through the use of his wits and skills wins the love of a worthy woman and rises to a position of greatness in the society.  This aspect of Avatar resonates completely with Burroughs.

The World Created: Far and away the biggest similarity for me was the one thing that Burroughs did better than anyone else, and that is to create a world that feels complete.  Barsoom became real in my mind -- I could have drawn a map of the planet; I could recite the history; I even tried playing jetan; even today, decades after reading the books, I remember the names of the creatures -- banth, thoat, calot, orluk, sith.  The vividness with which Burroughs created Barsoom, Amtor, Caspak, Pellucidar, and Tarzan's jungle has been captured for the first time cinematically.  And that means that the experience of viewing Avatar is every bit as immersive and satisfying (and uniquely so) as was the experience of reading Burroughs tales and getting lost in the worlds he created.

The Creatures:  The six-legged horselike "Pa'li" controlled by thought (with the help of a plug-in) seemed to me to be almost a direct lift of Burroughs' Barsoomian thoats -- even down to the fact that they were guided by telepathy.  The flying creatures made me think about Amtor (Burroughs' "Venus"), although in one of the Barsoom books there is also a flying creature not unlike the "ikran" created by Cameron.

Neytiri: There was no doubt that the beautiful Neytiri fills the bill as a Dejah Thoris, and creates the romantic drive that was central to virtually every Burroughs novel, or at least to all the novels that were a "first" novel about a given character.  Because Burroughs' characters were honorable and faithful and appeared across a number of novels, it was not unusual for Tarzan, for example, in the later novels to undergo adventures without a romantic dimension.  But certainly any standalone novel, plus the first several novels in any series, relied heavily on havng a "Neytiri" like figure.  I think it is ironic in a way, that both Cameron and Burroughs figured out how to use the romance genre -- one we normally associate with female readers -- as a way to tell a testosterone drenched story and that appealed in some very primal way to young (and perhaps not so young) male readers and viewers.  Indeed, I understand that matters have evolved to the point where Burroughs novels are considered examples of a subgenre of sci-fi called "planetary romance".  Okay -- fair enough.

The Level of Action: Complete, over-the-top action was a hallmark of Burroughs stories and from the moment Jake Sully and company exit their helicopter in the jungle of the Na'Vi, the action is every bit as exhilirating as that written by Burroughs.

Something About Flying: I was struck by the way that Cameron's use of the 'ikran' -- (flying banshees) provided the same kind of exhilirating thrill that Burroughs achieved in his description of flight -- whether it was Tarzan's ability to practically 'fly' through the canopied rain forest, or of John Carter setting off across the dying sea bottoms of Barsoom in a one-man flyer.  (How many times did JC do that?  Seems to me in almost every book there was the image of John Carter in a tiny 'one-man scout flyer' heading off into danger.)
I'm sure there are more points of similarity but those are the ones that got my "ERB" juices flowing.

But what about the differences?

Aspects of the Setup: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of any Burroughs sci-fi novel that included a setup wherein large numbers of humans were present on the planet the hero visits -- and certainly none in which the conflict between the humans and the natives is a central facet of the story.  That feels quite a bit more like Heinlein or Poul Andersen.  (I do recall various Tarzan stories written during World War Two which made use of the Germans in Africa in a manner similar to what Cameron has done with the humans on Pandora.)

Jake Sully: Jake's status as a paraplegic ex-marine is a bit different than any Burroughs hero I can remember.  Burroughs heroes were always, without exception, exceptional physical specimens.  I do recall one of the Martian novels -- Mastermind of Mars -- in which the hero, Ulysses Paxton, lies dying (and possibly maimed with legs destroyed--can't remember for sure) in a trench in World War I when he looks into the sky, sees Mars, and finds himself transported to Barsoom. He then gets involved with a scientist, Ras Thavas, who is in the business of transplanting brains to allow old Martians to inhabit the bodies of young ones.  This has a little bit of the flavor of Avatar's central concept.  But other than this one novel, I can't think of a Burroughs novel that contains these elements.  The rest of Jake Sully's story, however -- resonates completely.

A Human, Quatrich, as the Main Antagonist: This is definitely different from the Burroughs setup for 'planetary romances' -- and resonates more with other sci-fi authors.

Having said all of that -- all of this buzz about Cameron and ERB has gotten me to thinking more about John Carter of Mars and wondering how that's going to turn out.  Like most  ERBophiles, I've been frustrated by the neverending saga of the development of this project, and it seems like we have to preapre ourselves for neverending delays.  It does look like it's really happening now -- they've signed up the actors and are in what seems to be advanced pre-production.  The team is great -- Andrew Stanton is uniquely qualifed to marry the CG aspects to the live action.  But will it really deliver?  Has Cameron warmed up the audience for JCM?  Or has he spoiled them with something that is so good that JCM will inevitably fall short?

I guess we'll have to wait and see.  In the meantime these are heady days for Burroughs fans.  My one regret is that Danton Burroughs didn't live to see Avatar, much less JCM.  But who knows, maybe he's on Barsoom having his own adventure.  After all, it was at the moment of death the Burroughs' heroes typically found themselves transported across the void to the red planet.  Wish it could be true for Danton.

Michael D. Sellers discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs at the age of 11 when, as an Army brat who had grown bored of reading sports books in the base library at Robinson Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, he attempted to start at the A's and work his way to the Z's looking for something new to read.   He never made it past the B's, where he came across a curious book title -- Llana of Gathol -- that he thought had a typo in it.  (Two L's at the beginning?).  He pulled out the book to see if it really was a typo -- and thus discovered John Carter and Barsoom and his life was changed forever by it. 

Michael and Rena Sellers, with Danton BurroughsBy the age of 15 he had read and reread every Ballantine and Ace ERB paperback -- all the Tarzan novels, all the Barsoom novels, all the Amtor novels, the Pellucidar novels, the Caspak novels -- plus the one-offs like The Mad King, Outlaw of Torn, Beyond the Farthest Star, Eternal Savage, The Cave Girl,  and Jungle Girl.  He thinks he's read all ERB in print right down to The Mucker and Bandit of Hell's Bend. He counts meeting and getting to know Danton Burroughs as one of the great treasures of his life, and was working on getting movie rights to The Eternal Savage (properly The Eternal Lover when Danton died tragically in May 2008. 

He makes feature films (smallish, indie ones) and dreams of being able to direct an ERBian epic or, better yet, and biopic of ERB's extraordinary life.   For his day job he's head of Quantum Releasing, an independent film distribution company.   He blogs at and some of his movie sites are,,,, and He dreams of making an ERB epic or possibly a biopic of ERB's extraorindary life. 

Fifteen years ago he managed to find his Dejah Thoris in the person of a Waray "Princess" from the island of Samar in the Philippines named Lorena Llevado (the Waray are considered the most warlike of the Filipino ethnic variations, something she reminds him of frequently)  and is happily married with four children, living a few miles from Tarzana in Burbank.  He's always happy to chat or correspond about ERB and can be reached via email at

Art by Thomas YeatesMars poster by Ballantine ~ Art by Gino D'Achille


ERBzine 3038
ERB & Avatar
Avatar Gallery I
James Cameron at Work
Avatar Gallery II
Poster Display
Avatar Gallery III
Command Centre
Avatar Gallery IV
Pandora's Na'vi
Avatar Gallery V
The Mission

An Evening with Danton Burroughs by Michael D. Sellers
John Carter Film News
Edgar Rice Burroughs
ERB's John Carter of Mars
ERB's Master Mind of Mars
ERB's Synthetic Men of Mars
ERB's Mars
ERB C.H.A.S.E.R Illustrated Bibliography
Otis Adelbert Kline
Michael Whelan Images of Barsoom

Scott Patton: Avatar Concept Artist

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