Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Who is John Carter?

     Fans of “Atlas Shrugged” are fond of asking, “Who is John Galt?” Many cinema watchers may now be asking, “Who is John Carter?” Ads for the forthcoming (March 9) science fiction adventure film “John Carter,” starring Taylor Kitsch, are popping up with increasing frequency, but I suspect few viewers know who he is. From the title alone, you wouldn’t even guess it was science fiction, unless you’d already read his adventures.
AP Photo/Frank Connor, Disney Enterprises
     John Carter, a former Confederate soldier transported via astral projection to Mars, was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his first novel: “Under the Moons of Mars” (retitled “A Princess of Mars” for book publication) in 1912. The story was science fiction, an adventure, a romance and a big hit in its original magazine publication. That he isn’t better-known today is partly because he was overshadowed by the hero of Burroughs third novel: “Tarzan of the Apes.”
     Though Burroughs was a novice writer when he wrote this book, he was already a master storyteller. The book opens with a statement by Carter’s nephew, 21 years after Carter’s “death” and interment in a special tomb that can only be opened from the inside, with the bulk of the book Carter's story in his own words.  
     On Mars, Carter discovers he has greater strength and jumping ability due to Mars’ lighter gravity (one of the reasons given for Superman's abilities on Earth 26 years later). That’s fortunate, because he soon has to fight 15-foot-tall, four-armed green Martians and similarly sized and armed white apes, often unarmed or only with a sword. He also finds some human-proportioned “red” Martians (about the hue of Native Americans), including the beautiful Dejah Thoris, a princess of the nation of Helium.
     Burroughs’ Mars, known by its inhabitants as “Barsoom” (they call Earth “Jasoom”), is a once flourishing planet, now mostly desert, with remnants of super-science (flying ships) co-existing with medieval weaponry. Even the planet's oxygen atmosphere is artificially manufactured and maintained. The first book ends with the atmosphere failing, and Carter racing to save it. Before he learns if he succeeded or failed, he’s drawn back to Earth.
     (Of course, the film may not follow this scenario too closely; a 2009 direct-to-DVD version, titled "Princess of Mars," made Carter a modern-day sniper in Afghanistan.)
      I first read the books in the 1970s when the Science Fiction Book Club offered an omnibus edition of “The Gods of Mars” (book 2) and “The Warlord of Mars” (book 3), with a wraparound painted cover and black and white interior illustrations by Frank Frazetta. (For some reason, they waited a few years before getting around to “A Princess of Mars,” but eventually produced two-in-one editions of the rest of the series with illustrations by Frazetta illustrations, with a final volume illustrated by Richard Corben.)
     I enjoyed the books as a teen (I also was fond of Conan), though I haven't looked at them much since. I think I'd enjoy a well-done film version, but I'm not sure this is it. From the previews, it looks more like Conan meets Predator on Dune. The green Martians look like high-quality CGI though, more "Avatar" than "The Hulk."

     (For an earlier film proposal trailer by director Kerry Conran, with some demo animation and special effects, augmented by paintings and drawings of some of the main characters, visit Blastr.)
     Burroughs wrote nine novels of Mars, five novelettes and a novella of disputed provenance (Burroughs is listed as author, but it is widely believed to have been written by his son, Jack). In all, eleven books were published. The first five seem to be in the public domain, with multiple editions now available – paperback, hardcover and e-book, with or without illustrations, graphic novels and even a calendar -- to tie in with the film and to celebrate the centenary of the character.
     There’s even a new anthology, just published, allowing modern authors to play with the characters: “Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom,“ edited by John Joseph Adams (Simon & Schuster, $16.99).
Cover art photo from John Joseph Adams.com
      For more information and art, visit the John Carter of Mars website, read or listen to the first five books at Project Gutenberg or visit a bookstore and buy one of the books already.


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