John Carter of Mars and why Edgar Rice Burroughs is so difficult to adapt

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy has an extensive interview with Michael Chabon in which he talks about Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter of Mars (he wrote the screenplay for the upcoming movie), about anti-genre prejudice and about selling Lovecraftian horror fiction to Playboy and The New Yorker.

Actually, the fact that they often published SFF stories (lots of Arthur C. Clarke at the time) was one reason why I liked borrowing my Dad’s Playboy issues when I was a kid. Though I liked the cartoons, too. He never had a regular subscription, he just bought the occasional issue – or rather my Mom bought it for him. Once she bought Penthouse instead and I bitterly complained that that mag was stupid, because it didn’t have short stories and cartoons and the articles were just silly. I guess I’m the only person who really liked Playboy for the articles and short stories.

As for John Carter, I saw a trailer for the film during an ad break on TV today. I’d seen trailers online before, but this was the first time I actually saw one on TV. Now I loved the Barsoom tales when I first found them as a teenager, though not quite as much as Michael Chabon, since I never entertained changing my name to Burroughs. And the idea that there would be a movie made me happy, particularly when Robert Rodriguez was pegged to direct it. But the trailers for the movie that will actually be just leave me cold. Oh, the lead is handsome (he made a good Gambit in the Wolverine movie, too), the Tharks look like they are supposed to and Dejah Thoris looks like she stepped out of the Frank Frazetta cover on the edition that I had as a teenager. Of course, no one is naked, even though they are in the book, but then I hadn’t expected them to be.

But apart from the actors – and the lead may have made a decent Gambit, but he looks younger and prettier than I would have expected John Carter to look – the whole thing just doesn’t look right. At any rate, I looked at the trailer and thought, “Oh look, it’s Monument Valley. Well, where else would they shoot scenes on Mars?”

Now I was pretty annoyed that Doctor Who got to film in Monument Valley and didn’t do anything with it. Because let’s face it, Monument Valley is god’s gift to any science fiction film maker. There aren’t a whole lot of places in the world that can convincingly double for alien landscapes, but Monument Valley can (the island of Lanzarote is another). But that doesn’t change the fact that an alien landscape should look – you know – alien. And when I see a trailer for an upcoming John Carter of Mars film, I want to think, “Oh my God, that looks so freaking cool like they actually shot it on Mars.” I don’t want to think, “Okay, so that’s obviously a clip from are the opening scenes in the American West, cause that’s obviously Monument Valley. But wait a minute, if he’s still on Earth, then why is he wearing a loin cloth and where do those Tharks come from.” Modern effects and camera technology routinely makes it possible to make sun-bleached Los Angeles look like grey New York or rainy Seattle, so you can’t tell me that it’s not possible to make Monument Valley look less like the setting of a thousand westerns and more like Mars.

I suspect the true reason why I was underwhelmed with the trailer is that Edgar Rice Burroughs was an incredibly visual writer and that’s a large part of the reason why his stories still appeal a hundred years later. Because once you get down to it, Burroughs’ characters were all rather similar to each other, the same square-jawed heroes who didn’t even know how to be cowards, the same grizzled scientists, the same beautiful and scantily clad Barbarian princesses. And his plots were mostly a long string of captures and escapes. What made them different from a dozen other long forgotten pulp adventures were the descriptions and the locals. For who could forget Edgar Rice Burroughs’ barren and dying Mars or his lush and jungle covered Venus or Pellucidar, the country at the Earth’s core, where the horizon curves up, or Caprona, realm of dinosaurs and cavemen that time forgot? Who could forget the temple cum swimming pool where the telepathic Mahar eat hapless humans or the city of Helium or the lost city of Opar or the execution chamber with the twelve doors, behind each of which a most grisly form of death awaits?

And the fact that Burroughs was so vivid at describing the settings of his fabulous adventures is the reason why film adaptations mostly fail for me. Because the actual film almost never lives up to the settings described in the book and visualized in my head. Take the 1976 adaption of At the Earth’s Core, for example. The cast were well chosen and I have no problem imagining Doug McClure (who made something of a career of starring in Burroughs adaptations in the 1970s), Peter Cushing and Caroline Munro as David Innes, Dr Abner Perry and Dian the Beautiful respectively. But the sets and effects are where the film falls down. The fearsome Mahar are nothing but people in rubber suits. And instead of Pellucidar with its horizon curving upwards we get a series of fake-looking caves.

Coincidentally, this is also why Tarzan is the only Burroughs character who was ever successfully adapted for the screen, over and over again. Because a realistic African jungle and realistic wildlife are a lot easier to recreate than Barsoom or Pellucidar.

With the improvements in special effects technology in the past twenty years, it is finally possible to make an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation that manages to capture Burroughs’ descriptions of his fantastic worlds. This is also why I was excited when I heard that Robert Rodriguez was supposed to direct a John Carter movie. Because the technology to make Barsoom look like it’s supposed to look was finally there and Robert Rodriguez is a director who can do stunning visuals as evidenced by the unique look of Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn and the Mariachi trilogy. But Robert Rodriguez left over some dispute or the other and instead we get Andrew Stanton, a director best known for making computer animated kiddie films. Though he apparently is a big fan.

Now I haven’t seen the film, since it hasn’t opened here yet. It might well turn out to be everything a John Carter film should be. But purely based on the trailer I’m not gripped with excitement like I should be.

The Atlantic also has a report on John Carter’s torturous journey to the big screen and a look at the many failed attempts to bring Burroughs’ Barsoom stories to life, including some clips of rare animated test footage created by animation legend Bob Clampett.

At the Barnes & Noble Review (yeah, so I don’t like them for being isolationists, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot link to any good articles they might happen to publish) Michael Dirda offers his appreciation of the first three Barsoom novels and also points out the similarities between the Mars novels (or Tarzan or Pellucidar for that matter) and travelogues. Ages ago at university, I wrote a paper about the influence of the travel writing tradition on Edgar Rice Burroughs, much to the confusion of my then professor. Though come to think of it, her issues with Burroughs were a bit strange, considering that she was a western specialist. Outlaw Love was partly a response to her theories about gender roles in the western genre.

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One Response to John Carter of Mars and why Edgar Rice Burroughs is so difficult to adapt

  1. Pingback: An interview, John Carter and what is wrong with Hollywood these days | Cora Buhlert

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