Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Princess of Mars

This week I’m taking another short break from my series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction for a review of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, as well as some comments on the new film John Carter, which is based on the novel.

Not bad for 1912!
I probably first read this novel in the early '80s and only re-read it because of the new film. It’s hard to believe this story was written 100 years ago. This book is a tremendously fun read and the writing holds up extremely well by today’s standards.

The novel tells the story of Captain John Carter, an ex-Confederate soldier who travels to Arizona in search of gold. After a hostile encounter with Apaches forces him to hide inside a small cave with seemingly magical properties, Carter find himself transported astrally to Mars. While Burroughs spends little time trying to explain how this is possible, he accomplishes this transition quickly, for after the first ten pages the story proceeds on Mars where the real fun begins.

Carter is captured by a race of giant, green Martians called Tharks, who live in an excessively violent tribal society and inhabit the ruins of ancient cities long abandoned by those who built them. His captivity and his relationship with two of the Tharks, the warrior Tars Tarkas and Carter’s caretaker, Sola, comprised many of my favorite scenes in the novel. Carter, who inherits super-human strength and the ability to leap great distances due to Mars' lower gravity, uses his fighting skills to advance to a position of respect in the Thark’s warlike culture, all the while accompanied by Woola, a dog-like creature that becomes Carter’s lovable sidekick.

The plot takes off after the Tharks capture Dejah Thoris, a human-looking, red Martian princess from the city of Helium. Carter is drawn toward the beautiful princess, but must contend with her mysterious customs and fierce pride, creating some of the most classic scenes in the novel, which at its core is a love story. Carter’s struggle to save Dejah Thoris, first from the Tharks and later from a hostile race of red Martians called the Zodangans, dominates the rest of this rollicking adventure tale. While some of the scenes may seem a bit cliché, that’s only because this novel is the original source material which inspired so many later works of science fiction and fantasy written in past hundred years. And that’s why this book, to me, is little awe inspiring – for without it, it’s hard to imagine what the world of scifi and fantasy fiction would look like today.

If only we'd had more Tharks and less religion ...
Which brings me to the film John Carter, which inexplicably sheds any reference to Mars in its title. While I thought the film did a nice job of capturing some of the story’s more fascinating elements, including the Tharks, Woola, the flying machines and the Martian landscape, I found it to be overly complicated and probably confusing for anyone not familiar with Burroughs’ novels. The reason, I believe, is that the filmmakers chose to inject a religious-based plotline that is missing from the book. I understand this plotline may have derived from later books in Burroughs’ series, but I think it unnecessarily muddles what should have been a wonderfully simple and straightforward story.

All of the religious talk throughout the film also helped dour its tone, and at times it felt like a tedious lecture on Martian religion and some alien goddess (which, by the way, reeks a little too much of the earthy religious elements of Avatar). My favorite part of the novel – Carter’s captivity with the Tharks – is rushed in the film, which doesn’t do justice to it or a related storyline involving Sola and Tars Tarkas. The Dejah Thoris of the movie is a warrior and a scientist – in other words, unlike the princess of the novel – and many of the scenes I enjoyed so much in the book involving Carter’s failure to understand her culture and its rules are omitted from the film in favor of a need-to-save-the-world plotline that distracts from the central love story. These factors likely contributed to the movie’s average reviews and underwhelming box office performance.

This is not to say the film was not enjoyable at times, but I much preferred the novel. For a different perspective of John Carter, I encourage you to read the review by Ryan Harvey of The Realm of Ryan. In my opinion, he has written some of best reviews and commentaries on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels available on the web. For others who have read the book and watched the film, I am curious as to your take. What did you think of John Carter and A Princess of Mars?

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