John Carter: From Book to Screen

The 2012 movie John Carter was based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars, and is most notable for its disastrous box office than the actual quality of the film, and I think most can agree that the biggest stumbling block the movie had was that it was saddled with one of the worst marketing plans in film history. Trailers and posters both seemed intent on hiding the fact that the planet Mars was involved at all, which is kind of a strange thing to do when your movie is based science fiction fantasy series based almost solely on Mars. But because the heads of Disney were still reeling from the failure of the film Mars Needs Mom, and somehow got it into their heads that it was the use of the word “Mars” in the title that caused that film to flop, they did their best to dance around the Mars aspect in their ads. The studio heads are not totally to blame for all this as Andrew Stanton’s trailers, which he insisted show little of the story, failed to hook audiences and most likely the biggest reason for its poor box office results.

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A movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series had been in the works in Hollywood for decades and would make fascinating film all on its own. Bob Clampet, of Looney Tunes fame, back in 1931 wanted to adapt A Princess of Mars into an animated feature. Burroughs was excited with that notion as at the time animation would be about the only way one could do that book series justice. Sadly the test footage shown to local exhibitors did not receive much positive feedback and the project was shelved.

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1936 Test Footage

It wasn’t until 1980 that Disney acquired the rights to the book and approached John McTiernan (Die Hard) to direct and Tom Cruise to star as John Carter. Realizing that the current movie magic still wasn’t up to the task of bringing Barsoom to life McTiernan exited the picture and John Carter went into limbo again.

legend-722544lThis could have been John Carter.

Next up at bat was Robert Rodiguez at Paramount with the plan to use the same digital backlot technology that they used for Sin City. Studio politics ended this teaming which they led Jon Favreau entering the picture. Favreau wanted to remain faithful to the books but he also wanted the first movie to contain; A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars and to use mostly practical effects with as little as much CGI as possible. I love Favreau but cramming three books into one movie is a bad idea.  He went on to make Iron Man so I guess we can say that it all worked out for the best.

Disney Studios re-acquired the rights and Pixar director Andrew Stanton was given the task of once again trying to bring this Martian epic to life; Stanton was a professed Burroughs fan and always wanted to see the Barsoom stories on the silver screen, so what went wrong?

John-Carter-Official-Movie-Logo-wideThe lame title for one.

To best understand we look back to 1912 when Edgar Rice Burroughs released his story Under the Moons of Mars; the first adventure was published in serial form under his pen name Norman Bean, this was to protect his reputation because Burroughs himself believed the book to be “Too outlandish,” much to his surprise his story of a Confederate soldier on Mars went over like gangbusters with the public, and later his publishing company decided to collect the stories in novel form and title it A Princess of Mars.

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And here begins the first problem in adapting A Princess of Mars to film, the book is basically a travelogue of adventures with no main plot or story structure; John Carter arrives on Mars, has exciting adventures, falls in love and that’s about it. A pretty simple format and as a monthly serial that works great, but as a two hour movie not so much.  So Andrew Stanton and the folks at Disney had their work cut out for them; how do you remain faithful to the source material but still make a structural coherent movie out of it? It’s a balancing act that many have tried and more have failed.

Another difficulty in translating a story written back in the early Twentieth Century is that audience sensibilities change, things that were wildly acceptable in 1912 may not fly so well 2012. The biggest change the movie John Carter made is that of the lovely Martian princess Dejah Thoris who in the book is your standard damsel in distress but in the movie she is a kick ass action hero and a scientist. I whole heartedly agree with this change, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris was damn awesome and she gave us a character I think worthy of starring in her own movie.

dejah thoris movieDehah Thoris, Badass!

As much as agreed with that change there were a few a really questionable choices throughout the film and the one that stands above them all like a sliced Achilles is that of the film’s opening…or should I say openings.

bad kitty“Bad kitty!”

The book A Princess of Mars starts out with a forward by Edgar Rice Burroughs stating that he has decided to publish this manuscript about his incredible Uncle John Carter and his adventures on Mars. He describes his Uncle as to have been this most amazing man; great horseman, excellent swordsman but still one of the courtliness men he knew. Upon hearing of his Uncle’s death Burroughs arrives at his estate to find instructions about putting the untreated body of John Carter into a strange tomb that can only be opened from inside and that this manuscript would remain sealed and unread for eleven years and not divulged to anyone its contents for twenty-one years after his death. The forward is roughly three pages and is beautifully economical in its set-up.

The movie John Carter  starts off with a prologue giving the viewer a crash course history of Martian or Barsoomian politics, of how only the city of Helium stood against the evil world conquering forces of Zodanga and how for a thousand years they kept them at bay until one day the Therns, led by priest Matai Shang (Mark Strong) stepped in to offer the Zodangan’s villainous leader Sab Than (Dominic West) an ultimate weapon and a plan to marry the Princess of Helium (Lynn Collins) thus ending this destructive conflict.

johncarter036Evil Therns.

The adventures of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is your basic fish out of water story, the hero is the readers or viewers identification figure and we learn and explore wondrous new lands with him, we do not need a six minute prologue explaining the machinations of the people of Barsoom. We will find out about these things along with Carter. In Star Wars: A New Hope our hero Luke is part of this expansive universe and knows much of what is going on so we get an opening crawl getting us up to speed with what’s going on but then the rest we find out while traveling with Luke. In the case of John Cater he knows as much about Mars as we do and so we should be finding information on this strange world at the same time as he does. Also the opening crawl at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope was not six minutes long.

The movie then jumps to Earth and we get the Forward that was in the book with young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) inheriting his Uncle’s estate and receiving the manuscript of his adventures. This section uses some elements from the book while introducing the idea that there are villains on Earth that were pursuing John Carter.

john-carter-movie-image-19-600x400Dear Diary.”

Chapter one of the book has John Carter, late of the Confederate Army, telling how while working as a prospector he discovered a mysterious cave while running from a group of Apaches that killed his partner. In the movie we get this overly long set-up where he is arrested by the Union Army who wants his expert skills to fight the local Indians. Carter just wants to find this mysterious “Spider Cave” and its rumored gold and has no interest in fighting. He escapes and while fleeing the army runs into the Apaches and a nasty skirmish which ends up with him hiding in the vary cave he had been looking for all along. Nothing says well written script then starting off with a major coincidence, and it doesn’t stop there because in the movie it just so happens a Thern was using the cave transport system as Carter arrived. The Thern activates his transport medallion after being mortally wounded by Carter and accidentally sends John Carter to Mars. If that many contrived elements in so short of a time is required to get your heroes journey started you best chuck the script and start over.

medallion prop JohnCarterSpace MacGuffin

In the book there is no Thern in the cave. There is no MacGuffin transport device that moves a person between planets, Carter enters the cave and is overcome by some sort of gas and is paralyzed, when he tries to force himself up off the cave floor he ends up yanking himself out of his own body.  This would freak anyone out.  A naked John Carter looks down at himself wondering if he is dead, but he feels solid enough and so wanders out of the cave to look up at the stars. He notices Mars, god of war, bright and mysterious in the heavens and he reflects on how it has always fascinated him. Whoosh bang he is whisked off to Mars. Why the movie thought we needed such a huge set-up for getting our hero to Mars is beyond me. If your audience is already set to go along with your story about life on Mars you really don’t need to spend that much time getting us there.

johncarter-truth1Able to leap tall plot devices in a single bound.

Now that we are finally on Mars/Barsoom let us take a quick look at the differences in plot. In the book as I said early it is more of a travelogue of adventures rather than plot centric story. Almost immedialty after his arrival Carter is discovered by the Tharks, the green men of Mars, who think he is raiding their hatcheries (all the humanoid races on Mars lay eggs) but quickly upon realizing a naked unarmed individual isn’t much of a threat they bring him to a nearby dead city. His ability to leap great distances due to the planet lesser gravity as well his great fighting skill earns him great respect and titles among the Tharks. It’s when the Tharks shoot down a Helium science vessel and capture the Helium princess Dejah Thoris that things for Carter get complicated. The Tharks hate the people of Helium, the red men of Mars, and when Carter finds out that they plan to take her to the Jeddak of the Tharks, where she will most likely be tortured to death. This is something he will not allow to happen so he decides to rescue her. That is the plot in a nutshell. Everything that follows is basically a serial adventure of Carter trying to escape with the Princess and getting her home to her people. Many misadventures befall them along the way but that’s the gist of it.

JOHN CARTER“Come with me if you want to live.

The movie has John Carter encounter the Tharks in roughly the same way though they take his jumping ability as some kind of indicator that he is a “prophesied one” that will lead the Tharks in battle, but how Carter encounters Dejah Thoris is vastly different here. In the movie it is a Zodanga craft that attacks Dejah Thoris’s ship not the Tharks, and it is John Carter who saves her from the clutches of Sab Than the evil ruler of Helium’s mortal enemies. The movie’s plot is basically Carter escaping the Tharks with Dejah Thoris and then eventually helping defeat Sab Than and the evil Therns. And when I say “eventually” I mean it takes forever for him to step up as a hero. So now let’s take a look at the characters and how the differ from book to movie.

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John Carter: In the book John Carter is a bit of an enigma, he states he has no memory before the age of thirty and has always appeared the same, without ever aging. When we later learn that the humanoid races on Barsoom are basically immortal we start to wonder just where John Carter originally came from. That he and Dejah Thoris are able to have a child together is another clue. As to John Carter’s character in the book he is your standard stalwart hero that cannot stand by when he sees an injustice; he will fight against incredible odds if he thinks someone is being wrongfully treated. His superior strength and fighting skills keep him and his friends alive on more than one occasion.

Taylor KitschTaylor Kitsch is John Carter.

Movie John Carter is a slightly different animal, gone is any hint of a mysterious origin and it’s sadly replaced by a tragic past where we learn that his family was killed during the Civil War, and so he decided to no longer fight for anything. Your character is going to lose points right off the bat when you introduce him as an ex-Confederate soldier and then add on the “Reluctant Hero” trope, this was a mistake. John Carter is Superman on Mars, we don’t need him to be a brooding hero with tons of emotional baggage. When Dejah Thoris tells Carter that she is being forced to marry the evil Sab Than he refuses to help her because it’s not his problem, he’s done fighting. That’s not a reluctant hero that’s a dick.

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Deja Thoris: As mentioned earlier this is the one great improvement Disney makes over the book for in the pages of the book she is your standard damsel in distress; her beauty and unbridled love for John Carter being her only real character traits. In the movie she is shown to be an incredible fighter as well as a scientist, not something common in science fiction heroines. Movie Dejah Thoris is being forced into marriage with Sab Than by her father, and she tries everything to get out of it, while book Dejah Thoris agrees to marry Sab Than to end the war even though her people would rather die than see their beloved princess marry for any reason other than love. I kind of like the book better here as it gives her a nice noble aspect in what was mostly a generic heroine, but overall action movie Dejah Thoris is the fuller, richer character in the end.

Dejah wedding dress Lynne Collins is Dejah Thoris.

Tars Tarkas: In the book the Tharks are green four armed humanoids that stand fifteen feet tall and sport nasty tusks, movie Tharks are only a bit taller than humans but everything else is the same and one can only say that cinematically a fifteen foot dude talking to a six foot human would be hard to film. So that comparison is wash as they work for each medium. As for the great and noble Tars Tarkas himself, well Willem Dafoe gives a very nice performance but sadly because of the added Zodanga plot his character in the movie isn’t given much backstory. In the book Tars Tarkas is notable for being one of the few Tharks that has the rare ability to feel compassion, have friendships and love towards others. He had a forbidden love affair that resulted in a child, which was incubated in secret (Like in the movie Tharks children are not raised by parents as out of the hatchery no one knows whose kid is whose), while off on a campaign his lover was exposed and killed for the crime of unauthorized childbearing.  Even under torture she never reveals who her lover was, and she was able to hide the child among the other newborns before she was executed. In the movie Tars Tarkas is Jeddak (head chief) of the Tharks while in the book he was just a low level chieftain, but who becomes Jeddak with the aid of John Carter.

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Sadly movie Tars Tarkas is given no backstory, he does have a daughter that he has kept his parentage a secret from his people as well the girl herself, but because the movie spends very little time explaining how Thark society works it doesn’t come across as that big of deal. In the book Tars Tarkas eventually challenges the Jeddak who murdered is true love and when he defeats him Tars Tarkas becomes Jeddak of the Tharks.  While in the movie John Carter kills the evil Jeddak who usurped Tars Tarkas giving his friend his throne back. So basically we get another “White man is better at everything” moment.

John-Carter-Trailer-Still-05Willem DeFoe is Tars Tarkas.

Sab Than: In the book Sab Than is just a minor obstacle on the way to true love, while in the movie he is one of the chief villains that John Carter must defeat. In both the book and movie Zodanga has been warring with Helium for ages but in the book things didn’t go south because of any interference from magical Therns, no it was when the Helium navy went out to look for their lost princess and left the city vulnerable to a siege. Sab Than barely is a presence in the book, he is just this dude she agrees to marry to end the war. This takes place during the last third of the book when Dejah Thoris believes Carter is dead, when she marries Sab Than and then John Carter turns out not to be dead, things get complicated. Carter immediately plans to murder Sab Than for the crime of marrying his beloved but Barsoomian culture will not allow Dejah Thoris to marry a man who murders her husband so that plan is out. John Carter goes with the easy work-around by having his friend Tars Tarkas kill Sab Than in battle.

JOHN CARTERDominoc West is Sab Than.

Movie Sab Than is almost cartoonishly evil, when the Therns show up to rescue him in the middle of a battle he was losing he shows them gratitude by turning the super weapon on the Therns themselves. Dick move dude, also very stupid.  It of course doesn’t work on the Therns and he agrees to their aid in conquering Barsoom. Their plan involves him marrying Dejah Thoris and then murdering her on their wedding night. I think someone may have watched The Princess Bride. It’s hard to compare these two Sab Thans because the book version has almost no character at all, but as he is only a small part of the book he didn’t need much of one, while the movie Sab Than is your typical two dimensional villain that we see all the time, but as he is one of the main antagonists in the movie he needed to be better written.

Matai Shang: The character of Matai Shang as portrayed in the movie has to be the greatest departure from the books, in the movie the Therns are this mysterious bald race of manipulators that move from planet to planet, controlling things from behind the scenes. They had discovered the Ninth Ray which powers their weapons and teleportation devices, and its Dejah Thoris’s discovery of the Ninth Ray that has the Therns so eager to see her dead. This is not at all how the Therns operate in the book and the Ninth Ray isn’t a weapon but the very thing that operates the Atmosphere Factory which keeps Barsoom alive.

Matai-Shang-john-carter-260212Mark Strong is Matai Shang.

The race of Therns do not appear until the second book in the series The Gods of Mars, though A Princess of Mars does make references to aspects of the religion that the Therns are the head of, and they are not the pale bald shape-shifters that we see in the movie. Now the Therns are bald, actually completely hairless, but they wear blonde wigs to hide this fact. Also they are not pale like in the movie but Caucasian white like an Earthman, but their appearance is a minor quibble compared to what the movie changes or leaves completely out. This leads us to one of the most intriguing element of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoomian books, and that would be it’s very anti-religion slant.

fraz102White Apes in the Garden of Eden.

The Holy Therns and their churches promote that down the River Issus is the Barsoomian equivalent of Heaven and when one has reached 1,000 years of age, or has just tired of living, they take a pilgrimage down the River Issus to the Valley of Dor where they would spend their rest of eternity in a land of plenty. A nice step up from the arid landscapes of Barsoom. A little wrinkle in this is that it’s all total bullshit as the Valley of Dor is no paradise but is in fact inhabited by ferocious white apes, and plant men that devour you immediately upon your arrival.  Those that survive these terrifying creatures are enslaved by the Therns.

Gods of MarsFighting the plant men in the Valley of Dor.

John Carter has a hard time exposing this evil society because to say anything against it is blasphemy and punishable by death, also if one was to escape the Valley of Dor and return home that would also be considered a blasphemous act and you would be put to death. Even stranger is that Carter discovers that the Therns themselves worship the Goddess Issus who turns out to be a living ancient Black Martian who rules over “The First Born”  who are most notable for being one of the oldest humanoid races on Barsoom. This race of black skinned Barsoomians survive by pirate raids against the Holy Thern, taking their brightest and most beautiful subjects to be their slaves. So basically religion on Barsoom is a giant pyramid scam and gives us quite the insight into how Burroughs himself thought of religion.

John Carter by Gino dAchille

This certainly would have made a better movie; sure a plot about generic evil guys wanting to remove smarty pants princess so they can continue to play puppet masters with a bunch of one note villains isn’t terrible, but wouldn’t an adventure where the hero exposes the world’s religion to be a giant fraud be vastly more interesting?  Or maybe that’s just me.

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I liked John Carter, it pays better homage to Burroughs than Lucas did in his Star Wars prequels, and it certainly didn’t deserve the box office drubbing it got, but if they had just trimmed up that terrible opening, and maybe gotten a little ballsier with the script, we could have ended up with a great franchise.  As for the cast I liked pretty much every actor in their perspective roles with the possible exception of Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, he wasn’t terrible but he just seemed a little too young for the part, and when standing next to James Purefoy  who played the Helium soldier Kantos Kan I couldn’t help but think that Purefoy would have been the better choice to play Carter.  I’m sure the writing of the characters had something to do with it but it seems to me that Purefoy was having a lot of fun with his role while Taylor, as John Carter, was not.

john-carter-woolaWoola, man’s best friend.

Special shout out to Woola the Barsoomian dog that befriends John Carter, in the book he is this awesome beast that is loyal and fierce beyond compare, and generally just a kick ass companion, while in the movie he is exactly the same thing. Every moment in the movie with this lovable hound was a joy to watch, and it’s a shame that with the truncated version of Tharks in this movie that we don’t get the sense as to why Woola so loves John Carter. Still Woola is amazing in either version.

There you have it, my rather long winded diatribe on John Carter and A Princess of Mars, I hope you found it if not educational at least a little entertaining.

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.