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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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