John Carter,Disneys $250 million,3-D sci-fi epic,is based on a novel,Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars,that is 100 years old. Burroughs,better known for his Tarzan saga,published it in monthly installments in February 1912. It was the first thing he ever wrote,after a lifetime of failing at just about everything else.
The book is filled with inconsistencies and plot threads that are never followed up. And as science fiction goes,Princess of Mars is not very scientific. Ostensibly it is a first-person narrative by one John Carter,a Civil War veteran who unaccountably wakes up naked on Mars,where he falls in love with a red-tinted princess named Dejah Thoris.
Its typical of Burroughs that there is no attempt to imagine a rocket ship or a time machine. Space travel is just something that happens,and if the prose werent so methodical and matter of factand if Burroughs werent so meticulous in explaining how he came by Carters manuscriptwe might think he had dreamed it all.
Andrew Stanton,the director of John Carter,said recently that he discovered the book in 1976,when he was 11,via the Marvel comics version. All through my 20s and 30s, he said,long before I ever thought Id become a professional storyteller,I couldnt get that stuff out of my head.
The charm of the book,is not its futurism. Mars,or Barsoom,as its called by the inhabitants,seems stuck in a 19th century of its own. There are airships,apparently made in part of wood. There is mention of rifles with a range of hundreds of miles,but most of the fighting is done with swords. What really interests Burroughs is the strange taxonomy of its mostly primitive inhabitants,especially the Tharks,a race of giant green-skinned,four-armed nomads with tusks that curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located and whose whiteness is not that of ivory,but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china.
There are also thoats,hairless beasts of burden equipped as well with extra limbs,four on each side; calots,enormous,toadlike watchdogs; fearsome white apes; creepy plant men with mouths in their hands; and two warring city states,Helium and Zadonga,inhabited by red-complexioned humanoids. Dejah Thoris is one of these,except for her ruddiness a more or less standard-issue heroine in need of saving.
In the 70s,Ballantine reinvigorated the Barsoom franchise by publishing the books in new editions with covers by the fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. These editions were what caught the eye of the novelist Michael Chabon,who wrote the screenplay along with Stanton and Mark Andrews.
I was 11 or 12, Chabon recalled recently,and I thought: What are these? This is something I ought to know about. It was a magical moment in my childhood.
This is not a very sexy book. As in the Tarzan novels,what interests Burroughs is not so much romance as what it means to be humanto be manly. Much is made of the Tharks primitive sense of humor,which finds amusement in the suffering of others. The reason,the novel suggests,is that they are socialists,who raise their children communally.
Stanton was the lead writer for the Toy Story trilogy and the writer and director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. John Carter is his first movie to employ live actors. (Carter is Taylor Kitsch,from Friday Night Lights.) In the course of making the film,he said,he kept coming across people with deep and long-standing connections to the material. One of the costume designers,for example,recalled that her father used to drive around with a Utah licence plate that said JEDDAK. Jeddak, as any close reader of Burroughs can tell you,is Barsoomese for lord or chieftain.