‘John Carter’: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

July 17, 2011 | 10:47 a.m.

GUEST ESSAY

The first trailer for Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter” has arrived to introduce a century-old bookshelf hero to today’s moviegoers. The character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also created a certain jungle hero) has never really gone away but Disney knows one challenge for the expensive new fantasy epic is to tap into the brand’s heritage but also make the property feel fresh and cutting-edge. Juhani Nurmi, a Finnish journalist and screenwriter, is one of the longtime fans of the Burroughs books who believes that the warlord of Mars is ready for his moment in the 21st century spotlight.

In the late 1970’s, when I was still a wide-eyed kid watching TV series like “Six Million Dollar Man” and “Space: 1999,” as well as movies like “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” and the early James Bond entries at the cinema, a very good buddy of mine visited me one day. With a knowing smile, he lifted a set of well-worn books from his school bag. I must’ve been around 12 years old at the time, with testosterone, fears and dreams kicking on overdrive. My buddy was 14, and he’d already turned me on to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” But how on Earth could the Tarzan author’s pulpy sci-fi fantasy series even dream to compete with Tolkien’s mastery?

a princess of mars 1 John Carter: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

An early Frank E. Schoonover cover for Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars" (1912).

Well, it rocked my world. Maybe it wasn’t as cultured or finely tuned as Tolkien’s, but I’m telling you: I’m still reeling from the experience, at the age of 45. If you love fantasy, pulp sci-fi and yarns crammed with all kinds of derring-do and swashbuckling, these books have it all – and then some. As I browsed through the elegant cover illustrations, I was instantly hooked by their Space Gothic imagery. Most importantly of all, the imagery spoke to me on a deeply personal and atavistic level. I was gawking at half-naked male warriors fighting to save voluptuous damsels in distress, Mad Scientists surrounded by bizarre contraptions, black-hued villains with ivory-toothed leers and fiendish noblemen wearing bright yellow hairpieces, all of them plotting to eliminate the main hero. Somehow, I knew instantly that I also wanted to co-habit that most elusive of alien worlds, Barsoom, the “Mars That Never Was.”

Obviously, I’m talking of “A Princess of Mars” and its ten literary sequels, perhaps more widely known as “The John Carter of Mars” series. However, this series (which according to some was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ personal favorite of all of his literary creations) isn’t really that well known in popular culture, not to mention the younger generations. This is very important to point out these days, since right now one of Pixar’s best and brightest, Andrew Stanton, is adapting the first novel, with the title “John Carter” (recently shortened from “John Carter of Mars”). The movie will open in March 2012. We only had to wait an entire century for it.

johncarterfrankfrazetta John Carter: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

Frank Frazetta's cover for the 1970 Doubleday edition of "A Princess of Mars."

Despite its less than PC world view (“A Princess of Mars” saw first light in 1912), Burroughs’ rousing tale still ought to be pure dynamite on the screen: A Civil War officer fights Apaches in Arizona, and gets inexplicably teleported to Mars (a.k.a. Barsoom) after getting wounded. Once on Barsoom, Capt. Carter, miraculously healed – but not bound by the planet’s natural ultra-light gravity – doesn’t waste any time making larger-than-life friends and lethal enemies. He ultimately wins the heart of a gorgeous Martian princess (Dejah Thoris of Helium), and fights all kinds of monsters alongside an enormous, six-armed Green Martian warrior (the fiercely loyal Tars Tarkas), only to end up becoming “the finest swordsman on two worlds.”

But Barsoom is also a dying world, as its fauna and sentient life are sustained only by the Atmosphere Plant. The ending leaves the reader with a tantalizing, infuriating cliffhanger, leading to the inevitable sequel, “The Gods of Mars.” So, will the brave Barsoomians survive, and what will happen to the two lovers, John Carter and Dejah Thoris? If you haven’t read the books, my lips remain sealed.

marvel duo John Carter: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

"John Carter: Warlord of Mars" (Marvel Comics)

I still think that the sword fights depicted in the John Carter books are the most rousing and riveting I’ve ever seen or read, either on the page or the screen. A sword duel in the John Carter series is often like a hypnotic dance of death, where John Carter and his nefarious opponent first taunt and complement each other (a cat-and-mouse game in its purest form) until inevitably, Carter gets fed up, and skewers his overly arrogant enemy with his long-sword.

The John Carter aficionados know that Walt Disney himself had serious plans to make a John Carter animated movie in the 1930’s. Animation maestro Bob Clampett (working closely with Burroughs’ son, John Coleman) produced some spectacular footage, which impressed producers and exhibitors alike. But that project was never to be, alas. The cost of making even one John Carter movie, with six-armed Green Men and multilegged Thoats (Martian horses), would’ve been prohibitive in the Depression era. But imagine, if A Princess of Mars would’ve been released before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and thus become the first American feature-length animated movie? The mere thought is mindboggling.

1 darkhorsejohncarter John Carter: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

"John Carter of Mars" vintage comics, reprinted (Dark Horse Comics)

They tried to make a live action John Carter movie in the 1980’s and the 1990’s, all the way into 21st century. Hollywood directors including such talents as John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau were heavily involved. Ultimately, each of the aforementioned filmmakers had to witness, disillusioned, how the plug was pulled from their respective productions. Harry Knowles, the founder of the hugely popular Ain’t It Cool News website, was one of the key media personalities who urged Tinseltown players to recognize the unique qualities of E.R. Burroughs’ original pulp sci-fi material. After all, even George Lucas and Frank Herbert had cherry-picked elements from Barsoom for their works (Star Wars, Dune).

jc teaser poster image hi res John Carter: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

Poster for Andrew Stanton's "John Carter." (Walt Disney Studios)

A few years before Andrew Stanton started filming, he readily admitted: “John Carter will either make or break me.” For months, little was known about the under-wraps production, which shot in London sound stages and the Utah desert last year. Supporting actors such as James Purefoy (playing the heroic Kantos Kan of Helium) and Mark Strong (playing the main villain of the piece, Matai Shang) have lauded Stanton’s craft in interviews and said that movie audiences can look forward to something very special. I think that Strong’s comments about male warriors wearing “helmets with wings” speaks volumes about Stanton’s uncompromising eye for beautiful details in John Carter. I also hear there’ll be a lot of sword-fighting in the movie. Princess Dejah Thoris herself will wield a sword in a lethal manner! Guess what, that’ll earn an extra rating star in my book. The shooting part wrapped early last summer, whereas the postproduction – or, as Stanton puts it, “digital cinematography” – continues until early 2012. That’s when the Green Martians, the Great White Apes, the grand cities of Helium and Zodanga will finally come to pristine, digital life.

John Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch and Dejah Thoris is portrayed by Lynn Collins. (A tidbit: Both actors were seen in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” two years ago). Perhaps my favorite Barsoomian character, Tars Tarkas will be brought to life by Willem Dafoe, one of the finest character actors in the known universe. The latest version of Performance Motion Capture (which brought us special effect tentpoles like Gollum and the Na’vi) will help Dafoe with his unearthly performance and translate it into photorealistic CGI.

John Carter was an essential part of my childhood. It still occupies a sizeable amount of my daydreams. In my mind’s eye, I’m already watching Andrew Stanton’s John Carter adaptation in a packed theater. While doing so, I find myself enjoying it as much as “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I owe those two movies my entire career as a film journalist, but long before I sat in the dark with those adventures my heart belonged to Barsoom.

–Juhani Nurmi

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Comments


36 Responses to ‘John Carter’: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

  1. JKelinske says:

    As much as I love the "John Carter" books (especially the original trilogy), I have to say that unfortunately, this is turning out way too much Stanton and not enough ERB.
    I first read the series over 45 years gone as a boy, and it captivated me then and now. That being said, Stanton took the wrong road with this (too many deviations and changes from ERB) and this is unlikely to bode well. What we are likely to get is: "Prince of Persia meets Avatar". ERB fans in general will be disappointed and the current non-reader generation will think it is just Avatar in the desert. A shame.
    Stanton is out of his depth here (perfect example of the "Peter Principal" in action) and I can easily predict right now that this will crater badly for Disney and cost them a load of $s.
    It will be seen in the future as the film equal to the automotive world's Chevrolet/GM SSR and the two sequels will probably not be made.

    JK

    • VLaszlo says:

      I appreciate the somber tone of the trailer, and the music, but I agree entirely, JK.
      Instead of exotic/savage, almost everything looks generic/mundane.

      Then, the official synopsis grinds in words like 'war-weary' and 'reluctant', which are pretty much the exact opposite of the character.

      'A Princess of Mars' still reads like nothing else I've ever encountered, yet somehow this manages to entirely unremarkable. It really does look like a slightly more serious 'Prince of Persia' with a lesser Princess (crime of the century?).

      We didn't wait 100 years for some limp, watered-down "JCM: Disney John Carter".

  2. Patrick Gilmore says:

    While other kids were reading The Hardy Boys, I was buried in endless volumes of Doc Savage, until a family friend said, one day, "John Carter can beat up Doc Savage any day." Like you, at the age of 12, I became obsessed with Carter's adventures. Seeing the preview in the theater, and hearing, 30 years after reading the book, the name John Carter, I had experienced an involuntary physical jolt of joy like none I'd had since, well, since I was 12. So glad Andrew Stanton is directing–I wish him luck!

  3. Brent says:

    Actually, that would be 6 limbs but 4 arms for the green martians.

  4. pyk says:

    Dear Mr Nurmi,

    As a nine year old, I read the original Martian Series of Edgar Rice Burroughs in hardcover at my grandparents’ house. There were two bookcases for their children (one of whom was now my father), called the Boys’ Bookcase and the Girls’ Bookcase. I read from the Boys’, (although not a boy,) which contained all the Tarzan books and many of the Martian ones, which I loved. I am amazed to see that someone will now try to film this story.

    I too remember everything about this group of books, and know absolutely that

    JOHN CARTER WAS NOT A CIVIL WAR SOLDIER–INSTEAD HE WAS A SOLDIER IN WORLD WAR ONE, AND WAS TELEPORTED TO MARS FROM A FOX-HOLE IN FRANCE, via the Gridley Wave. Remember the Gridley Wave? (France–not really a location used during the Civil War in the US.)

    You state that the books began to appear in 1912, and are partially right, but it was the TARZAN BOOKS that began to come out in 1912. Weirdly, I just reread The Beasts of Tarzan this last weekend, and looked at the copyright dates on all my Tarzan book original copies. The Beasts of Tarzan is #2 in the Tarzan series, and it was first published in 1912.

    I suggest you reread John Carter of Mars yourself to confirm from where he was teleported, and when. Best choice would be an original copy. Perhaps someone edited this story later.

    And ps: Dejah Thoris ALWAYS was using a sword–she was raised as a warrior as well as a princess.

    • lecloche says:

      Actually it was Ulysses Paxton who was transported from the World War I trenches to Mars as chronicled in Paxton's narration in "The Mastermind of Mars" which is the sixth book in the series.

    • guest says:

      Ulysses Paxton in Mastermind of Mars fought in WWI. Carter fought in the Civil War. :)

    • Bryan says:

      John Carter was in the Civil War. Ulysses Paxton, from Mastermind of Mars, was in WW2. Also Beasts of Tarzan is book 3, not book 2. Book 2, of the Tarzan series, is The Return of Tarzan.

    • MadMikeyD says:

      "Under the Moons of Mars" a.k.a. "A Princess of Mars" was first serialized in 1912 – before the first Tarzan story was ever published. The first novel was re-printed in its entirety for the first time in 1917.

  5. James Welch says:

    Barsoom on the big screen? This ROCKS!

    Now, how about getting E.E. Smith's Lensman series on the big screen? Even better than Barsoom!

  6. Mike says:

    Here, here!

  7. Shirl says:

    his Tanor serries is great too

  8. Jeff says:

    Pyk – you are highly incorrect about John Carter being in ww1 and France. And he was not transported by the Gridley wave. Perhaps you read an adapted version of the text . Grab a digital copy and go check it out, then apologize to Jihani ;) – Jeff

  9. Pecos45 says:

    Do we have another "Treasure Planet" in the works here?
    Hope not, but there is typically a reason that studios pass on an idea…..until someone convinces them otherwise.

  10. Jukka says:

    As far as I can recall, Matai Shang doesn't appear in the first book and is the main villain only in books 2 and 3. Is the movie trying to incorporate elements of the entire first trilogy into it, I wonder.

    • VLaszlo says:

      Indeed – Matai-Shang doesn't even appear on-page until the opening of the 3rd book, and even then, Thurid is the more prominent enemy.

      I also somehow doubt Disney is letting Mark Strong play him as the revered High Priest of an abominably corrupt Religion of racist cannibals who trade in sex slaves that he is in the novels.

      Seems they're taking the pieces they want from where they want them — you'd have to completely re-write the 2nd and 3rd books anyway to make them lame enough to hit all four demo-quadrants.

  11. Jon says:

    I also fell in love with these books in the '70s. I had misgivings about the project until I saw the trailer – It's the perfect blend of the epic and melancholy. The Peter Gabriel song is a wonderful touch. Now I'm certain Stanton loves the material and has exactly captured the mood of the novels. Here I am at 50 years old, wishing the next 6 months of my life away so I can get to that cinema! I don't think I've ever been so stoked about a movie

  12. Jeff says:

    I see there are some long time John Carter fans on here, come drop on by http://www.Barsoomia.org for more John Carter news and chat – Jeff

  13. auralenz says:

    Lots of older nerds here. Awesome. I hope to be at the red carpet premiere in '12. Someone show me how to get a ticket! Great books. Great Trailer. Now, will Hollywierd do Venus, Caprona, and Pellucidar too? If they do I will be so excited! EGB is da Man! (PS-lets all pray Stanton' s plot tweaks are to change it from a serial-based adventure to a modern 3 movie arc?-dont be too concerned about aestetics like ships not having 8th-ray bouyancy tanks. Just getting it made is almost a miracle!!

  14. Gordo says:

    John Carter, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Conan, The Lensmen, The Skylark of Space, The Hobbit and LOTR, all of my old friends are still my preferred comfort reading, 45 years after we met. It's good to know I'm not the only romantic fool still around.

  15. dewstarpath says:

    "While fleeing Apaches, this (gentleman) from Virginia found a
    strangely shimmering cave. When he entered it, he discovered
    his body had somehow split in two – one form lay dead on the
    cave floor while the other was mystically transported through time
    and space to the planet Mars".

    – That intro introduced me to the Warlord of Mars when I was
    seven years old (taken from issue # 7, "Showdown"). Over the
    years, I've seen the John Carter story sampled in so many works –
    Saturday morning cartoons (Thundarr, Blackstar, He – Man), other
    comics (Kamandi from DC and Ka-Zar from Marvel), movies (Star
    Wars as Luke Skywalker, not to mention Princess Leia in that Dejah
    Thoris – like bikini in Return of the Jedi, and of course 2009's Avatar),
    and countless video games.

    The Marvel Comic 1977 issue of ERB's work is one of my most cherished,
    and no doubt this blockbuster will be for fans around the world. I'm glad to
    see the character finally get his due, and I hope there will be sequels of
    equal or greater achievement.

  16. John says:

    The whole movie is going to suck and strays to far from what ERB envisioned in his books! Only ERB could have made this film a success. Movie goers that have not read the book will be highly disappointed that the movie did not better encapsulate the book series once they begin to read ERB's words. The man had a way of making the reader see thru his eyes. Granted one can not fully judge completely from one and half minutes of viewing. But as a long time reader of ERB, I saw so many flaws in what he described in his books of Mars, the structures and inhabitants. I hate when people like pyk, get on a forum and start spouting off things from their memory who can not remember clearly! Other have covered how wrong he was. But that is exactly the kind of wrong thinking that has made this movie a bastard child of some one seeking fame and fortune, not honoring a great writer with a realistic adaption of the writers book! I will not spend the money to view this movie or buy it, no matter how long I have longed to see it on the big screen. If the green martians are 5' tall and see eye to eye with Dejah and not 15' tall as seen in the one scene, the movie will completely suck after reading the books, many, many times over. And Helium does not have a bridge and where were the twin towers? The moss that covers nearly the entire planet? DETAILS! READ THE BOOK!
    I apologize for the rant, but HIGHLY disappointed after waiting so long to see it on the big screen! More so that the non-readers will not get to experience ERB's world and people!

  17. zach says:

    Ya, I noticed right away the fact that:
    A: John Carter arrives upon Barsoom dressed in earth clothes… defeats the mysticism of his transport there, and
    B: no moss, just a barren dessert. BOOO!

    • John says:

      What are the thoats to eat?? Poor animals must eat sand now!! And get their water from waterfalls that fall from midair! Hope ya get to read my rebutable to Jon above when it gets approved. LOL

      Maybe before making the movie the should have held a contest for all ERB readers, Picked 10 avid readers and paid them to consultants on the movie! Or better yet! Let TRUE ERB and John Carter fans be consultants for FREE!!! I for one would have gladly volunteered just to see the movie mirror the books as close to possible while still appealing to the XMEN, ALIEN, HULK, IRON MAN fans!

  18. Jon says:

    Lighten up guys :-)

    I love these books and I've re-read them all several times

    But there is nothing worse than a movie which slavishly follows a novel. Stanton needs to tell the story fast and capture the spirit of the novels. He also has the chance to make the trilogy a more cohesive story than Burroughs did, which is why the Therns may need an early entrance.

    And someone here posted that Dejah Thoris was a warrior princess – I don't remember much of that. She was brave enough, but didn't do any fighting. Her main role was to get kidnapped and have John carter chase after her. I really hope Stanton has beefed up her part for the 21st century.

    And naked actors? Come off it.

    …and the tattoos and airships look great

    …and there is no way you can tell how tall the green martian is from that clip!

    …and I sincerely hope he's dropped the idea of Dejah Thoris laying an egg :-/

    • liverlips says:

      I hear ya Jon. Stanton knows what he’s doing. Imagine if Singer strictly adhered to the X-Men comics…Hugh Jackman would have looked pretty silly in yellow spandex. Personally, I like the realistic approach to the material. The somber music sets the perfect tone and the green horde charge had me hooked!

    • John says:

      I understand your opinion. But no true ERB fan will ever truely enjoy a half hearted attempt to follow the book. To many changes to ERB's vivid imagination, just in the clip. Imagine the whole movie full of changes and purely made for the movie makers profit. True ERB have been awaiting this film for many years. Sure it will go over ok with non readers. I understand your point about the Xmen series. But this film does not appear to even remotely mirror ERB's book series. One can argue all day about why the film was made as it was, simple fact is is does not come close to ERB's very vivid imagination!
      If you want cool factor, fine, but the airships were described to be remineincent of the sea faring days, not ALIEN or Treasure Island or Predator! The only actor that would have been naked would have been John Carter in the beginning scenes, other actors would have been dressed similar to the American Indians and described in the books. I would hope that Dejah, as well as all Martians lay eggs as described in the book, seeing how they are MARTIANS, NOT HUMANS! As for her fighting in the movie, she has been known to pick up a sword in the book, but I NOT as in the movie. Her part in the book was written as was for many reasons that became clear thru out the books. She was a proud warrior princess, but well protected by John Carter and many others. It had much to do with honor, something left out of the movie, I am sure! I completely understand Men and Women like John Carter and Dejah Thoris are a dying breed on this planet! But on Barsoom, they still live!! As John was found of saying! And I too Still Live! For the day someone will make the movie ERB wrote about!

  19. Palidyn says:

    It was Ulysses Paxton who was transported to Barsoom from France during World War I. John Carter was a former cavalry Captain fighting for Virginia during the American Civil War.

  20. BrianThomas73 says:

    I realize that it can be frustrating to see differences from an original work and a screenwriter/director's film, especially when the original work is as beloved as it is, but save your criticism for the completed product. I remember noticing and reading about small variations when the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was being filmed and worrying only to be extremely pleased with the outcome of the films.
    I am only now reading the books (as a result of seeing the trailer and becoming intrigued) and am very excited to see the world of Barsoom on the big screen. If the movie is as good as the trailer looks, I have a feeling we will not be disappointed.
    And to the person who said that because John Carter was passed on by so many studios it must be bound to be terrible, tell that to George Lucas. He did not get a green light easily either.

  21. AutoEAC says:

    I too am apprehensive of the telling of this story. I read with relish everything I could find with Burroughs name on it after devouring the entire Martian series. As an artist I have been inspired for a lifetime by the great Frazetta and earlier illustrator's interpretations of this wonderful world. My visions are more retro, and I can't say that I'm totally impressed with what I've seen so far— but we will see. It's been a long time coming.

  22. horseshrink says:

    I really hope they don't screw this up.

    They're treading on sacred ground here.

    John Carter stood out from the characters that populated my copious adolescent reading, at times flashlight in hand in the closet so my parents wouldn't scold me about staying up too late.

  23. Ed Collins says:

    I have this Marvel Comics Group John Carter Warlord of Mars- War With The Wing-men, 19 Dec 1978
    that I can't find the value on. Help Me Please. Ed Collins e-mail: edlovesdebi3@yahoo.com. Thanks
    Its in real good condition.

  24. R Mohr says:

    Please don't suck! Please don't suck! <watched a few trailers> s**t, it's going to suck! The FX look terrific, stunning, etc etc … but, that doesn't sustain a movie. It's the STORY!! And judging from the trailers it looks like Stanton figured he had to "improve/expand/update" Burroughs' story. Big mistake! JC was mysteriously transported to Mars. Leave it at that, a mystery is part of the fun! "Explaining" it by use of some razzle dazzle matter transporter is cheap storytelling (but, having not seen the movie yet, could this be a use of the Gridley Wave?). And Taylor Kitsch as JC? With some major visual sources to draw from (Frazetta's Doubleday dustcovers and interior illos, or Bob Abbetts covers from the '60's Ballantine paperbacks) Stanton wimps out with a wuss of a JC! And with Stanton's moss-less Barsoom there's plenty of sand to kick into Kitsch's face! The one bright spot is Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, though I've already seen she's way, way too clothed!

    Please don't suck! Please don't suck! Please don't suck! Please don't suck! Please don't suck!

  25. Eric Cooley says:

    I share said thoughts.
    I read all the books as a wee lad myself, and reveled in the fact it was my thing; even then, in the 80s NO ONE knew or cared about John Carter of Mars. The inevitable "same author Tarzan" aways managed to follow the conversation in following years– and I sorta forgot about my boyhood hero until recently. And in its hype, it's managed to trigger all my dormant loyalties;
    Please mega-mouse factory, be true to the story and don't ruin it.
    Conversely, I've effectively shelved the Disney Tarzan cartoon's to the "out of sight/out of mind" region of my brain.
    I just wonder if the conspicuous absence of ERB in the John Carter promos isn't a foretelling of the movie distancing itself from its creator.
    I guess we'll see this Friday, now won't we?

  26. eric cooley says:

    BTW, the **** in conspicuous isn't my doing.

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