Lost on Mars with John Carter, and Four-Armed Green Martians

Regular readers know that one of my favorite authors is Edgar Rice Burroughs–so I was both eager and wary regarding the new movie inspired by his Mars series, John Carter.  Fortunately, in the end I think it was a well-handled retelling of Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.  They took a few liberties, as filmmakers will, but the spirit was good.

My Burroughs Mars Collection

The plot was essentially accurate to the book.  John Carter of Virginia is a Civil War veteran who goes out west prospecting.  Out in the wilderness, he finds himself mysteriously transported to a new wilderness, with a red tint.  He eventually realizes he’s on Mars (Barsoom), where he meets the Tharks, giant green men with tusks and four arms (Burroughs was the first to have green Martians, incidentally).  It isn’t long before he also encounters the beautiful Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.  Not green and without tusks, she’s a member of the red Martians, who look human apart from red skin.  Adventures involving swordfights, epic battles and a villain intent on marrying Dejah Thoris quite naturally ensue.

The movie kept all of that from the book, along with many other details, although they also threw in some extra bits.  I can only conclude that they felt they had to explain John Carter’s transportation, which Burroughs never does.  Part of me loves it that John Carter just looked at Mars and wished and was there, but I can see how the filmmakers felt they needed to give a more complete explanation.  So they introduced the Therns, priests of the Martian goddess Issus, who have medallions which allow them to transport between worlds; one of the medallions takes John Carter on his journey.  The Therns also tie the plot together a bit more, by giving a weapon to Helium’s enemies and presiding over the resulting destruction.  They’re brought up in the first five minutes of the movie and gave me a few bad moments–but I felt better once their mysterious goddess was named as Issus, because then I could place them.  Issus and the Therns show up (albeit in a different capacity) in the second Mars book.

I’m generally much more forgiving of movies making changes if they also demonstrate that they really, really know their source material.  Anybody who can get all the minor characters’ names right and very carefully depicts Martian animals according to Burroughs’ descriptions has earned the right to tweak things a little–and I think it was essentially effective, once I figured out what they were trying to do.

The characterization was well-handled.  They gave John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a tragic past, to create a character who was lost in more ways than one when he lands on Mars.  He was a bit surly for a Burroughs hero, but they got a little of the Southern gentleman in, and his prowess in battle was perfect.  In a strange way, my favorite moment may have been when he turns to face an oncoming horde of hostile Tharks, buying time for the fleeing Dejah Thoris.  It’s straight out of the book, and only a Burroughs hero could plunge into an oncoming army, alone, armed only with a sword, and come out of it alive.  I’ve heard it commented before that the biggest mystery of the Mars books is how the South ever lost the Civil War when they had John Carter on their side.  The scene was well-shot too, splicing battle shots with flashes of John Carter’s past, and piling up the bodies without being grotesque (more on that in a moment).

I also enjoyed Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).  Heroines are not usually Burroughs’ strong point.  She was always beautiful, but she was never much else.  The movie made her both smarter and tougher.  Dejah Thoris the scientist throws me for a loop a little, but Dejah Thoris the swordfighter is pretty much awesome.

The more minor characters were well-done too, particularly among the green Martians.  Tars Tarkas, John Carter’s green Martian friend, was excellent, as was Sola, a more sympathetic green Martian female.  The green Martians were all CGI and there were excellent effects throughout.  I avoided seeing this in 3D so I don’t know how that would change things, but in 2D the effects were convincing, for creatures and landscapes and technology.  I thought the green Martians all looked a bit scrawny for a warrior race, but they did wonderful things with the four arms.  I also absolutely loved Woola, John Carter’s dog-monster.  He was delightful, and added some comedy.  Comedy is not really one of Burroughs’ strong points either, but the movie got some good moments in.

On the whole, I thought the movie picked up as it went.  The opening on Earth was not as interesting (although big points for including John Carter’s nephew, a fictionalized Edgar Rice Burroughs, who’s included in a foreword in the book) but it got better on Mars, and eventually accelerated to some wonderful epic battles and excitement by the end.  That was done perfectly and completely in the spirit of the books.  Burroughs wrote about men who lived by their swords, who would fight their way literally through armies and across planets, have clashes featuring casts of thousands and deaths of hundreds–but he wrote it all with a Victorian sensibility that never dwelled on the blood, and was never gruesome or disturbing.  This movie managed to do the same thing.

This is one of the biggest reasons I’ve always been wary of a movie version–the blood, and also Dejah Thoris’ clothes, or lack thereof to be precise.  Burroughs wrote about plenty of scantily clad women, but again, with a Victorian sensibility that kept it all very clean.  It would be very easy to make a movie with half-naked women and disturbing fight sequences, technically accurate to the book but not at all in the right spirit (and nothing I’d want to see, though I’m sure that would have a market too).  So I was so relieved to know that this was being produced by Disney; it even opens with a red-tinted view of the Disney castle logo.  I figured they’d do it right, and they did.  Dejah Thoris’ costume designer seemed to be looking at the same book covers I have; the princess was scantily clad (and for that matter, John Carter spent plenty of time shirtless) but somehow it didn’t feel exploitative either.

So, to sum: good characters, good effects, good Burroughsian spirit.  A few changes but acceptable ones.  If they do a sequel (and they always do sequels of action features, right?) I’ll be watching it.  I hear it’s not doing well at the box office, but we’ll see!

And in the meantime, there are so many exciting movies coming out this month!  Next up I’m looking forward to The Hunger Games, and after that Mirror, Mirror, a Snow White retelling.  If they live up to their potential as well as John Carter did, it’s going to be a good month at the movies.

Other reviews:
Screen Rant
Eclipse Magazine
The Oregonian
Stainless Steel Droppings

6 thoughts on “Lost on Mars with John Carter, and Four-Armed Green Martians

  1. Dennis

    Yes, the movie version of John Carter was great fun with an intriguing cast of heroes and villains– exactly what you want from anything Burroughs. This is Disney’s second attempt to bring Burroughs to the big screen. The first was its animated version of Tarzan, and John Carter was by far the better of the two movies. But the box office receipts will need to pick up if we’re going to see a Disney version of Gods of Mars, the next book in the series. Let’s hope a good word of mouth gets more people flocking to the theater.

    1. In the Tarzan one, they didn’t quite get the idea of getting the details right and then making necessary alterations–they just altered like mad. I’m still hoping for sequels to John Carter. I think the doomsayers are drawing conclusions awfully quickly.

  2. Glad to hear the filmmakers stayed true to the book in many ways, including costumes! Movies rarely are as good as the book version of a story, but it sounds like this one made a valiant and mostly successful effort to measure up to Burroughs’ story.

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