On Things I’ve Been Reading
John Carter: World of Mars
Written by Peter David
Art by Luke Ross
A few weeks ago I saw John Carter, director Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the first of his eleven books set on Barsoom (better known to us as Mars), for Disney. John Carter has become legendary as one of the biggest box office failures of all time, which is unfortunate because the film is really quite good.
Before I saw John Carter I reread A Princess of Mars to refamiliarize myself with a place I’d not visited in a quarter century. I had also intended to read John Carter: World of Mars, a four-issue comic book mini-series that Marvel Comics published last year that served as a prequel to the film, but an inability to find where I’d filed the issues in my longboxes and a shipping error on the trade paperback edition when I gave up on trying to find the singles, resulted in a delayed read of JC:WoM.
And, to be honest, that’s not a bad thing. John Carter: World of Mars is enjoyable and I’ll gladly recommend it to anyone who liked John Carter, but I think it works better after you’ve seen the film, even though it’s about events before the film. Having seen the movie before reading this, I have the benefit of knowing where the stories in this graphic novel end up, and thus things in the graphic novel have a greater resonnance than they would have had I read the issues in February as I’d planned. If that makes sense.
Basically, John Carter: World of Mars answers two questions about the world of John Carter. First, how did Tars Tarkas become the Jeddak of the Tharks. Second, what the root of the animosity between Dejah Thoris of Helium and Sab Than of Zodanga. John Carter, though he only appears on four pages in the entire book (the first three pages of issue #1 and the final page of issue #4), narrates the story — these are stories that Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas individually told him about events that occurred to them about twenty years prior to John Carter, and the narrative style suggests that this is part of the manuscript that Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs reads about Carter’s Martian adventures. And though Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas never realize it, their stories intersect for one brief moment and then diverge once more.
Tars Tarkas’ story is basically a road trip story. Two buddies, one a coward full of bluster, the other a quiet, unassuming sort, set off on a trip to prove themselves, and the quiet one’s nagging girlfriend tags along. The blustering coward is Tal Hajas, the quiet one is Tars Tarkas, and Tars Tarkas’ girlfriend is a new character, Loas. Their quest? To find Gothan, the ancient leader of the Warhoon and defeat him in battle to prove their worth as warriors. The quest plays out as a kind of Indiana Jones-like story, albeit one with Martian White Apes and heroes with four arms.
Dejah Thoris’ story is a Burroughs-esque tale of love and kidnapping. You think I kid, but that’s a standard trope of Burroughs’ work — villain is in love with woman, villain kidnaps woman, hero tracks down villain, hero battles death traps, hero defeats villain and frees woman, hero wins woman. This is the way Dejah Thoris’ story plays out… except there’s no Burroughs-esque hero (in other words, John Carter) to save her, so Dejah Thoris has to brave the death traps (in this case, a sandstorm and a Warhoon arena filled with calots) on her own and save herself from her kidnapper, Sab Than.
And then their two stories intersect when Dejah Thoris’ escape from the Warhoon just happens to coincide with the buddy Tharks finding their quarry…
Peter David gives John Carter: World of Mars a Burroughs-esque flavor throughout. One thing that marks Burroughs’ writing is the way that the story changes every few pages. Some new plot element will appear, a new character will surface, and everything you thought was going on gets shoved aside as the story goes somewhere else instead. JC:WoM has the same kind of breathlessly episodic feel.
Is the story accurate to Burroughs, though? No, it’s not. The Red Martians wear too much in the way of clothing, and the identity of Tars Tarkas’ love differs from the backstory given in A Princess of Mars. However, the clothing is the way John Carter portrays the world (a Burroughs-accurate film would have netted an NC-17 rating), and one could rationalize the clothing by saying that this story (and John Carter, too, for that matter) takes place during Mars’ six month-long winter. And though John Carter never identifies the mother of Sola it would have been nice to have an acknowledgement of the story in A Princess of Mars (where Sola’s mother is a Thark named Gozava), one could argue that 1) Loas is a nickname for Gozava, 2) Tars Tarkas lied to John Carter about the name of his true love in JC:WoM, or 3) Sola was misinformed about her mother’s identity in A Princess of Mars. The important thing is that Loas and Gozava are clearly intended to be the same person, just with differing names.
But I should note that John Carter: The World of Mars doesn’t need fidelity to Burroughs. It only needs to be true to the world seen in John Carter, and that it does very well. Luke Ross’ artwork evokes the world of Andrew Stanton’s film, and though the likenesses of Dejah Thoris and Sab Than aren’t always accurate to the actors from the film, they’re certainly recognizable as the characters that they’re supposed to be.
The graphic novel collection reprints the four issues, along with a sketchbook and Peter David’s script for the first issue. If you’re interested about the process that goes into creating a comic book, this is quite interesting material.
I liked John Carter: World of Mars, and if you like Burroughs’ work (and can accept that this doesn’t match up exactly with Burroughs) or you liked the movie John Carter, then I have a hunch you’ll enjoy this as well. It’s a neat read, it’s nice to look at, and, like John Carter, it’s fun. And while Marvel is publishing adaptations of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, I hope they won’t ignore the world of John Carter because I’d like to see more stories in Andrew Stanton’s version of Barsoom./i
On John Carter
I saw John Carter last night at an advance screening in 3-D. There was a drawing at work, I tossed my name into the ring, and I came away with a pass.
As recently as three weeks ago I was ambivalent about the film. The trailers weren’t exciting me, and Disney was doing a terrible job marketing the film. Hell, Disney was embarassed about the film’s title — they couldn’t call it, as Edgar Rice Burroughs had done, A Princess of Mars because “princess” carries with it certain connotations in a Disney world, and they dropped “of Mars” from the title because Mars Needs Moms crashed and burned like a giant crashing, burning thing — and if Disney was embarassed about the movie, that couldn’t possibly be good. Then I saw what Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow‘s Kerry Conran had in mind for his A Princess of Mars movie, and I thought his demo reel looked better than anything I’d seen in a John Carter trailer. Things were not looking good for John Carter.
And then something happened, something the Ring did not expect.
Wait. Wrong movie.
I started to get excited. Disney released more videos online, and they were more epic than the trailers, which had some strange conceptual thing going on that didn’t showcase the visuals of Barsoom very well or convey a sense of the story. There was no hook to the trailers; if someone watching had no idea of the source material, they wouldn’t have had any idea what John Carter was going to be. Even a simple “The epic adventure from the creator of Tarzan and the director of WALL-E a century in the making!” would have sufficed. But then Disney released a video of Carter fighting two white apes, there was another production video that focused on Dejah Thoris, there was a great review at the Guardian, io9 interviewed screenwriter Michael Chabon, and I began to feel like John Carter got it, that it was going to be the Barsoom movie I never knew I wanted.
And so it was, as the hours wore down to John Carter last night, I was getting very excited. Stuck in traffic on my way to White Marsh, I shouted at the top of my lungs, “Barsoom!” I sat giddy in the theater waiting for the film to start. And then it did. As the lights came back up, I pulled out my phone and tapped out a quick Tweet review (typos in original): “Quick JOHN CARTER take — Bloody fucking awesome! Starts slow, once on Mars picks up pace, surprisingly fuuny.”
John Carter is awesome and bloody fantastic.
The film does start slowly, its story hews only loosely to the major plot points of A Princess of Mars and makes some reasonable extrapolations from it, and it has a nice balance of action, humor, and sensawunder. This isn’t the way I imagined Barsoom when I read the books when I was much younger, but it’s a reasonable facsimile. If you loved the books, it’s wonderful. If you’ve never read the books, I don’t see why that would be a problem. It’s definitely a better film than the trailers made it out to be.
It’s an effective piece of filmmaking. There’s not a dodgy performance in the film, the Tharks are realized much better on film than I thought they would be, there’s a decent attempt at worldbuilding Barsoom so it feels like a real place, and the characters, especially Carter and Dejah Thoris, are invested with a psychological weight that Burroughs never gave them. It hits the major notes from A Princess of Mars, there’s a Tars Tarkas line from The Gods of Mars that gets quoted twice, it’s distilled the essence of Princess down into something that works for a modern audience as a two-hour film.
Take the Tharks, for instance. These six-limbed aliens look very real. Each Thark is individualized, they have individual personalities. There’s something Tars Tarkas does with his four arms that it never occurred to me a Thark would do, but when he did it I was like, “Well, damn, of course a Thark could and would do that!” They do occasionally move awkwardly, but I think that’s a deliberate design choice rather than a limitation of technology because the banths and Woola the calot, which are also CGI creations, move far more naturally. John Carter‘s Tharks aren’t really Burroughs’ Tharks, though; these Tharks couldn’t run like a centaur, for instance, and they’re not as tall. That said, they are very effective on screen.
Much has been made of the fact that this is PIXAR director Andrew Stanton’s first foray into live-action directing, but you’d never tell that from watching. He has easy faculty with the camera, he gets good performances from his live and CGI characters, and he knows how to intercut a scene for emotional impact. There’s a scene that comes about 1:15 into the film that is genuinely moving as Andrew Stanton intercuts between the Barsoom present and Carter’s Civil War past. Yes, it’s a manipulative kind of moving, but the fact that the emotional manipulation works makes it effective.
There are things that I missed from Princess, particularly a piece of Tars Tarkas dialogue that, I think, is worth the price of the book, but I’m okay with that. There’s not as much Tars Tarkas in the film as I’d have liked; the major Thark character in the film is Sola, the Thark that takes in John Carter and cares for him.
I would have loved this film at eight, which is about when I saw Star Wars for the first time. I’m not ready to say I loved this, but I will say that I really liked it and I won’t be ashamed to buy it on DVD on day one.
On the drive home I compared it mentally to Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. It’s not as serious as Jackson and it’s more fun than Lucas. John Carter feels epic, yet it also has an intimacy to it. I would venture that this is what the Narnia movies wanted to be; they’re both working from problematic source material (the Barsoom and the Narnia books are full of incident but not necessarily anything resembling a sensible plot), their writers had to construct a plot that kept the flavor and the spirit if not the detail, and John Carter, I think, pulls it off a little bit better because it does a better job at rationalizing and modernizing its story.
That said, John Carter isn’t perfect. There’s some dodgy effects work (such as in the scene where Carter, after he’s arrived on Barsoom, has no idea how to move in the lower gravity), some of the physics doesn’t make sense, Carter’s accent is all wrong for an 1860s Virginian, Mars looks too much like the American southwest, it’s not at all clear what the villains’ goals were (or why they were seeking to achieve those ambiguous goals in the way that they were), that sort of thing.
The one thing I won’t criticize the film for is its title, though. Yes, it’s gone in for abuse in fandom, but in the context of the film it can only be John Carter. The film is driven by Carter’s desire to go home so he can return to his “cave of gold” (not really a spoiler, since the same arc is in the book), so “John Carter of Mars” would not be true until he finds himself and his place in the universe. Believe me, I would have wanted nothing more than to see the words “of Mars” in the title, but after seeing the film last night I know that they don’t apply.
In short, this is A Princess of Mars distilled down to a two hour movie that will appeal to a modern day audience. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary romance from 1912 has been made relevant for 2012. I enjoyed it thoroughly — it’s funny, it’s moving, it’s exciting, and I want to see more — and I’m thinking of going to see it again this weekend, this time in 2-D.
On Revisiting the Enigmatic Barsoom
In a week and a half, Disney’s John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Barsoom novel, A Princess of Mars, reaches theaters.
I’ve not decided if I’m going to see the film; I know what the film is, because I know what Barsoom is, but the marketing for John Carter has been nothing short of atrocious (the trailers, to say nothing of the film’s title itself, have done nothing to explain to audiences exactly what this film is), and Disney seems to be bracing for a box office bomb of epic epicness.
However, the film did prompt me to reread A Princess of Mars for the first time in a fair few years.
When I was six, my dad and I watched Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, and for Christmas when I was seven my parents gave me Sagan’s book, and I have treasured that book for thirty years. I remember flipping through its pages and seeing Michael Whelan’s cover to A Princess of Mars. Sagan, who was himself inspired by Burroughs, inspired me to read the Barsoom novels. I can’t say for certain how far into the series I read, five or six novels I think, but even so, it’s been a quarter century since my last visit to Barsoom.
Yet, I have some of the books on my shelf. I just hadn’t looked at them. I even have some of the comics published by Dynamite Entertainment (yes, the ones that they’re being sued over), but I’ve never gotten around to reading them.
Last night I closed A Princess of Mars after two days of reading the book on my morning and evening train commutes.
It was fun, exciting, and occasionally frustrating. I have the feeling that I nodded off and fell asleep for about ten pages, because there were some things that I felt I should have noticed (like the introduction of a villain, for instance) and somehow didn’t. I found the writing generally evocative, I found the science generally annoying, and the last page was positively moving.
I know I approached the book differently than I did nearly thirty years ago. The episodicness of the book wouldn’t have bothered me at the age of eight or nine. The plot, which is both random and coincidental, also wouldn’t have bothered me. I won’t say that these things bothered me now, but I do tend to prefer stories where B happens because of A and not B simply happens after A for unrelated reasons. All in all, I’m not at all disappointed that I reread the book. There needs to be more science fiction like this. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed it.
Essentially, I saw in A Princess of Mars the potential for a good story, even if it doesn’t quite get there. The narrative style, which is a memoir by Carter, compresses the story down to a bare minimum and eliminates a great deal of dialogue. Another writer could have (and would have) taken this book and written a whole series of novels, which each group of two or three chapters having enough narrative for a single book.
In many ways, it’s the same issue that Disney had with the Narnia films. (And it’s suddenly occurred to me that the stories of A Princess of Mars and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe really aren’t that far apart.) C.S. Lewis’ books have a wealth of incident, but not much in the way of developing plot.
So I can see how a screenwriter would have a field day with A Princess of Mars — not only does the story need to be pared back in places, but it also needs more development in other places to build story and character arcs, and the lack of dialogue in large parts of the book affords a great deal of freedom to the screenwriter to craft the script.
I mentioned a few days ago on Twitter that I was baffled by the decision to novelize John Carter, since there’s a perfectly good book by Burroughs that needs only a movie-inspired cover. But when I finished A Princess of Mars I realized why that wouldn’t have been effective. There are things in the film, like the Therns, which simply don’t appear in A Princess of Mars. The movie, to judge by the trailers, starts in the same place as Burroughs’ book, but it will apparently go in some different directions. I don’t know that I care enough about Barsoom to read the novelization of John Carter, but I have picked up John Joseph Adams’ new Barsoom anthology Under the Moons of Mars.
Does rereading A Princess of Mars make me any more likely to go see John Carter next weekend? Erm, ahh, ehh…
Okay, I think the movie cannot possibly be that bad. I think that Disney has marketed it horrifically; it’s like The Rocketeer in a way, a movie that’s so far outside of Disney’s wheelhouse that they have no idea how to market it, let alone any idea of whom to market it to. (And to show how little they know how to market John Carter, they don’t even have toy licenses for it, and Barsoom is made for toys.) However, is it a movie that I feel worthy of spending more than ten dollars to see once, when I can wait a few months, spend a little more than twice that, and then watch whenever I like, for as many times as I like? It’s going to come down to the reviews and the word-of-mouth, basically. If the reviews and the buzz are good, then maybe I’ll go see John Carter. If the reviews are mixed and the buzz is soft, John Carter can wait for the DVD.
But that doesn’t mean I’m done with Barsoom. I may toss Gods of Mars, the second book in the Barsoom series, in my bag tomorrow and read it on the train.