'A Princess of Mars' v. 'John Carter'
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
from various publishers)
|Cover of the first edition of "A Princess of Mars," from Bill & Sue-On's ERBzine|
I caught a few minutes of John Carter on cable last week. As my wife put it, it didn't look as bad as she expected ... not that it looked good or compelling, but it seemed professional, and far from the worse science fiction film ever made.
What those few minutes did reveal to me, however, was that either there had been major monkeying with the plot, or I didn't recall the book as well as I thought.
So I decided to re-read the book for probably the first time in 35 years, and I'm surprised at how well it holds up. The plot is a jumble, ideas are tossed out and then not followed up on, and coincidence plays far too large a role.
But the story is fun. It's a tall tale and inventive. There are details that I forgot (such as that the six-limbed green Martians' middle limbs, used as arms for the most part, may also be called into service as legs when needed. Handy.)
In the book, A Princess of Mars (originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars), John Carter, a Virginia gentleman, prospector and former Confederate soldier, is transported to Mars, where he discovers his Earthly muscles give him great leaping ability and strength. He encounters a tribe of green Martians, six-limbed and 12-to-15 feet tall; similarly equipped white apes; and more Earthly sized and looking red Martians, among them the beautiful Dejah Thoris, the titular princess. After many adventures, he wins her heart and hand before being drawn back to Earth, where he waits (seemingly in vain) to be returned to Mars.
The film has taken certain liberties with the plot. Not having seen the whole film, I can't judge how well the changes work, but if you've seen the film, here's one of the differences.
In the film, John Carter is hiding in a cave (in the book, he was fleeing Apaches; the book begins in the post-Civil War gold-rush period) when a strange robed man (a Thern, not introduced by Burroughs until the sequel) with a glowing medallion materializes. Carter kills him, either in self defense or because he's on edge and was startled. He picks up the medallion, and is instantly teleported to Mars. In the book, Carter is in the cave when he is physically paralyzed by strange fumes (at the end of the book, it's revealed that it was probably herbs burned by an old shamaness to protect herself against hostile intruders; she also has a sort of mobile made up of human skeletons to scare away intruders). His astral self leaves his body, he moves out of the cave and sees the planet Mars in the sky. An idle wish to be there, since he is a fighting man and in mythology Mars was the god of war, causes his spirit to be transported, where he finds himself in a replica of his (naked) human body.
The plot then follows the book fairly closely, with Carter meeting the green Martian "Tharks," including future friend Tars Tarkas, and discovering one of their "hatcheries" (all Martians, of whatever hue, lay eggs rather than bear live young).
The next change I noticed is that while the book was told exclusively in the first person by Carter (except for a framing device) because the book is a manuscript he left behind after his "death," the movie changes viewpoint several times. First, we see things from the viewpoint of Dejah Thoris, the "princess" of the red Martian (in the book, sort of like Native Americans, though just white in the film) nation of Helium. Here she's given back story as a scientist trying to develop "the ninth ray," a power source that is already available in the book.
Next, we see things from the viewpoint of a Thern (in the book, a white-hued race like Carter, but usually with blond hair or blond wigs) who has given a powerful gauntlet weapon to the leader of the Zodangan army at war with Helium.
Another new idea, and one I find in questionable taste, is that the Tharks punish those who break their laws by branding them. If their transgressions are so numerous that they have no flesh left to brand, they are executed. Sola, a kind-hearted green Martian who is put in charge of Carter, and the secret daughter of Tars Tarkas (Martians don't usually know their biological children) is so punished.
The worst change to my mind is the character of John Carter. He is entirely too modern, hesitant and unhappy to be on Mars. As said, in the book he is a Virginia gentleman, a confident man of action, but courtly in manners when he is not in battle. And he loves battle. Once he has met the princess, he never desires to return to Earth. Despite his occasional travails, he feels more at home on Mars than he ever did on Earth.
Another major plot point in the book is that Mars has an artificial atmosphere, maintained by an oxygen "factory." Near the book's end, it fails, and no one can get past the mental locks placed on it (to prevent tampering) to repair it. Carter, by plot contrivance, had learned the code, and attempts to open them before succumbing to a lack of oxygen. He is returned to Earth without knowing if the factory has been repaired in time, or if all on Mars have now died. In the film, the Therns' evil schemes extend to Earth.
The book series resumes with Gods of Mars, in which it is revealed that Carter didn't die on Earth, but that his spirit/astral self finally returned to Mars, where he encounters old friends and new foes, including the Therns. By the end of the book, he is again separated from Dejah Thoris, and her life seems in imminent peril. In the third book, Carter vanquishes his foes and is named Warlord of Mars (making the title of the book a big, fat spoiler).
I presume the Therns were introduced early in the first film to give the trilogy a unifying theme and villain. If Burroughs had been thinking in terms of a trilogy at the beginning, he might have done so himself. As it was only his first story, and he had no idea whether a second would even be wanted, he left it open-ended but relatively complete in and of itself. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like there will be a second film, let alone a third.
(Either a curious coincidence or a source for Burroughs' book was Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation by Edwin Lester Arnold, in which a soldier on leave finds a flying carpet, idly wishes he were anywhere else, then says "I wish I was on Mars," whereupon the carpet wraps itself around him like a cocoon and carries him to Mars. Once there, he finds not precisely the same types of Martians, but does fall in love with a Martian princess, and is abruptly returned to Earth at the end. Author and Burroughs scholar Richard Lupoff also believes the character of John Carter, who is not all like Lt. Gullivar Jones, was based on an earlier Arnold novel's title character, Phra the Phoenician.)
Burroughs returned to the series for eight more books, but he replaced Carter with surrogates: his son, Carthoris, in Thuvia, Maid of Mars; his daughter, Tara, and an intrepid suitor in Chessmen of Mars; Earthman Ullyses Paxton -- who, like Carter, is astrally transported to Mars when he is severely wounded on the battlefield -- in Mastermind of Mars; and, in the seventh book, by A Fighting Man of Mars. (Carter again plays a leading role in the last four books, though he is not always the narrator.)
Burroughs definitely becomes a better writer as he goes along, with Chessmen and Mastermind two of my favorites. Then there's a dropping off, with only occasional glimmers of the old imagination until his last, incomplete Mars story, Skeleton Men of Jupiter.
The editions of Burroughs' Mars I first read were Science Fiction Book Club special editions with covers and interior illustrations by Frank Frazetta, while the best-known (and possibly best) are the Del Rey covers by Michael Whelan (used on the current SFBC editions).
A selection of artists' interpretations of Burroughs' A Princess of Mars -- including the not terribly textually accurate cover of the first book edition at the top of the post -- may be found here. Burrough described his Mars as like the Arabian dessert, climate wise, with the Martians virtually nude most of the time (another difference with the film), so some are NSFW.