Rethinking John Carter


After recently going through the first five of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11 Barsoom books, I decided to give the 2012 Disney film, John Carter, another viewing. This two-hour-eleven-minute film bombed at the box office, and when I first saw it, I was deeply disappointed. But on reflection after a second viewing, it isn’t all that bad. It’s not great, but it deserves a better rating than it received, and it wears well in a second viewing.

It isn’t quite the Barsoom I grew up with, true, but it borrows heavily from Burroughs, enough to make it a close cousin in many parts. It’s the parts where the writers went off to play mix-and-match with other scifi franchises and stories where it’s actually weakest. That’s where the storyline unravels, but not so much it falls apart.

And, of course, no film or TV series can ever live up to the books, if for no other reason than that no matter how spectacular, no film cannot live up to the imagination. Reading always wins, hands down, regardless of the film’s budget.

I initially saw John Carter through my own lens as a lifelong fan of ERB, who had grown up reading and rereading Burroughs’ tales and still has a substantial library of his novels on my bookshelves. That’s a mixed blessing, because while it allowed me to immediately understand the story, setting and the characters, it made me overly sensitive to that context. I compared the actual novels and the plots to the film from a purist perspective and found them wanting.

I should have been looking at the film more as a tribute, set in the Barsoomian universe, rather than a strict retelling. The film plays homage to the first two Barsoom novels, but also takes many liberties, conflating plots and characters and adding extraneous non-Burroughs elements. I didn’t like these additions at first, but now I understand better what the writers and director were trying to achieve by enhancing the drama.

The consensus of reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes – where it has a mere 51% average approval rating – is:

While John Carter looks terrific and delivers its share of pulpy thrills, it also suffers from uneven pacing and occasionally incomprehensible plotting and characterization.

Ouch. But wait – this basically sums up about 95% of all Hollywood films and TV series.

Is it fair? Critics are often quick to comment, and may only see a film once because they’re onto the next screening, too busy to go back and watch one again. A second viewing actually helped me appreciate the movie for what it was, rather than what I wanted it to be.

And compared to some mega-bombs like the Transformers series, which are physically painful to watch, John Carter seems almost flawless.

These past few days, I read a lot of reviews and watched many YouTube videos about the film and the first thing that struck me was that few,  if any of the reviewers had actually read Burroughs’ Barsoom books before they criticized the film. Without that background to explain the plots, races and the politics, the film is a lot harder to understand – but few critics seemed keen to educate themselves in the Barsoom of the tales. In fact, some even boast of their ignorance.

So you have to read/watch those reviews with this in mind: these reviewers often had no idea what story they were watching. Instead, they keep referring back to Avatar, Star Wars, Waterworld and other recent scifi films as if the John Carter story was derivative of them, rather than the other way around. That’s a lame, inexcusable way to review any film. It’s like reviewing a car from its paint job without actually driving it.


Also, most reviewers didn’t seem to realize that the original tale was published as a magazine story in 1912. That’s only a few years after Henry Ford started building the Model T car! It’s decades before radio, talking movies and many more before commercial TV. It wasn’t published as a book until 1917 (then it was released as A Princess of Mars). It was written more as an adventure; a swash-buckling romance set on another planet, rather than as what we think of today as ‘science fiction.’

Several reviewers commented on the technology in the movie as if it was a modern invention, not something imagined more than a century ago! Frankly, too many reviewers over-think the film. It’s entertainment, not a documentary. And no, it isn’t Mars: it’s Barsoom, a planet entirely constructed in ERB’s imagination.

Burroughs inspired generations of writers – especially scifi writers – to expand on his ideas and his worlds,and to create the genre we know and love today. As Ray Bradbury famously said of ERB,

…Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world… By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.

In an interview in the New Yorker, Bradbury also said of his childhood  what I can relate to:

I memorized all of “John Carter” and “Tarzan,” and sat on my grandparents’ front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, “Take me home!” I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.

I too, read and reread those books and yearned to be transported to the ancient sea bottoms of the red planet when I was young. Some days, when the nonsense and vulgarities of the world weary me, I still do.

Watching the film again this past weekend, I saw it through different eyes. I saw the Burroughs’ stories within, but also the changes, additions, conflations and expansions. It is, as some reviewers have noted, choppy in places, and some of the elements are not nearly as well explained as they should be (not a problem, of course, to those familiar with the stories), but overall, it hangs together as an entertaining, exciting spectacle – if you pay attention.

It’s a grand scale, action film, not quite steampunk, more like swords-and-sandals-punk. It’s also not quite scifi, and something more than adventure or even fantasy. Yes, it’s worth watching a second time. And maybe even a third, once I’ve finished reading the rest of the series.

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Ian Chadwick
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