|I know that you were/are a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. After I discovered his novels when I was in my early teens, I couldn't read them fast enough, particularly the Pellucidar, Mars and Venus series. For some reason, the Tarzan novels never held a lot of appeal to me. They actually seemed a bit boring when compared to his other world creations. Reading Burroughs ignited an early passion for science fiction. One summer vacation I read 60 science fiction novels in 60 days. |
While I probably will not see it at the theater (all the children in my life have grown too old), I hope that Disney has done a good job with their "John Carter" movie.
Quaint Martian Odyssey With Multiplex Stopover
By CHARLES McGRATH
New York Times
Published: March 4, 2012
Edgar Rice Burroughs's sci-fi series has captivated readers for a century.
“John Carter,” Disney’s $250 million, 3-D sci-fi epic, which opens on Friday, is based on a novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Princess of Mars,” that is 100 years old and was already a little dated when it came out. Burroughs, better known for his Tarzan saga, published it in monthly installments in the All-Story Magazine starting in February 1912. It was the first thing he ever wrote, after a lifetime of failing at just about everything else, and he was clearly learning on the job.
The book is filled with inconsistencies and plot threads that are never followed up. And as science fiction goes, “Princess of Mars” is not very scientific. Ostensibly it is a first-person narrative by one John Carter, a Civil War veteran who unaccountably wakes up naked on Mars, where he falls in love with a red-tinted princess named Dejah Thoris.
It’s typical of Burroughs that there is no attempt to imagine a rocket ship or a time machine, as in Jules Verne, say, or H. G. Wells. Space travel is just something that happens, and if the prose weren’t so methodical and matter of fact — and if Burroughs weren’t so meticulous in explaining how he came by Carter’s “manuscript” — we might think he had dreamed it all.
The Library of America plans to reissue “Princess of Mars” in April with an introduction by Junot Diaz, an unusual elevation for a book that began as a pulp serial and whose appeal remains a kind of cheerful boys’ adventure romanticism. Seldom, if ever, out of print, “Princess” has enjoyed a remarkable shelf life not so much in libraries or classrooms as in the cluttered, dreamy, overheated minds of teenage boys and certain grown-ups. Out of nostalgia or affection they have preserved that part of their mental storeroom from housecleaning and have not only made early editions of the John Carter books into expensive collector’s items, but have also extended the character into fan fiction online.
Andrew Stanton, the director of “John Carter,” said recently that he discovered the book in 1976, when he was 11, via the Marvel comics version, and though he wasn’t much of a reader then, he quickly graduated to Burroughs in book form. “All through my 20s and 30s,” he said, “long before I ever thought I’d become a professional storyteller, I couldn’t get that stuff out of my head.”
The charm of the book, and the 10 novels that followed, is not its futurism. Mars, or Barsoom, as it’s called by the inhabitants, seems stuck in a 19th century of its own. There are airships, but they are very sketchily described and are apparently made in part of wood. There is mention of rifles with a range of hundreds of miles, but most of the fighting is done with swords. What really interests Burroughs is not the physical properties of Barsoom but the strange taxonomy of its mostly primitive inhabitants, which he lovingly describes, especially the Tharks, a race of giant green-skinned, four-armed nomads with tusks that “curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located” and whose whiteness “is not that of ivory, but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china.”
There are also thoats, hairless beasts of burden equipped as well with extra limbs, four on each side; calots, enormous, toadlike watchdogs; fearsome white apes; creepy plant men with mouths in their hands; and two warring city states, Helium and Zadonga, inhabited by red-complexioned humanoids. Dejah Thoris is one of these, except for her ruddiness a more or less standard-issue heroine in need of saving.
In the ’70s Ballantine reinvigorated the Barsoom franchise by publishing the books in new editions with covers by the fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, who didn’t actually bother to read the series and imagined a hunky, Conan-like John Carter and very sexy Dejah, clad in just a few diaphanous scraps. (Neither the Frazetta paintings nor the books offer any clues about her reproductive system: though womanly in every respect that meets the eye, Dejah eventually bears Carter a son, Cathoris, who like a Thark, is hatched from an egg after incubating for several years.) These editions were what caught the eye of the novelist Michael Chabon, who wrote the screenplay along with Mr. Stanton and Mark Andrews.
“I was 11 or 12,” Mr. Chabon recalled recently, “and I thought: ‘What are these? This is something I ought to know about.’ It was a magical moment in my childhood.”
Egg hatching aside, “Princess of Mars” is not a very sexy book. As in the Tarzan novels what interests Burroughs is not so much romance as what it means to be human — or more precisely, to be manly. Much is made of the Tharks’ primitive sense of humor, which finds amusement in the suffering of others, and in their cruelty to animals. The reason, the novel suggests, is that they are socialists, who raise their children communally and have no concept of parental love.
Carter, on the other hand, is a courtly Southern gentleman, who remarks of himself: “I was always kind and humane in my dealings with the lower orders. I could take a human life, if necessary, with far less compunction than that of a poor, unreasoning, irresponsible brute.”
The Barsoom novels are a little like the Oz novels of Burroughs’s friend and eventual California neighbor L. Frank Baum, whose estate, Ozcot, was not far from Burroughs’s Tarzana. Both are partly reflections of how the authors saw the United States at the time. But even more, they’re escapes from it, written by relatively late bloomers who found in writing a fulfillment that had earlier been denied them. Burroughs was 35 and a struggling salesman of pencil sharpeners when he began “Princess of Mars.” He was an avid reader of the pulps himself and decided, he said later, that “I could write stories just as rotten.”
The novel is escape literature in every sense. Its animating feature is a yearning to be somewhere else — anywhere, just as long as it’s not the pencil sharpener factory — and the book’s impassioned feeling of otherness (right down to those weird names) is what has made it so transporting for generations of readers and both tempting and daunting to filmmakers, who have struggled since the ’30s to come up with a version that will play to both young viewers and adults, newcomers and members of the cult.
Mr. Stanton was the lead writer for the “Toy Story” trilogy and the writer and director of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E.” “John Carter” is his first movie to employ live actors. (Carter is Taylor Kitsch, from “Friday Night Lights.”) In the course of making the film, he said, he kept coming across people with deep and long-standing connections to the material. One of the costume designers, for example, recalled that her father used to drive around with a Utah license plate that said JEDDAK. “Jeddak,” as any close reader of Burroughs can tell you, is Barsoomese for lord or chieftain.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, more well-known for "Tarzan of the Apes," did away with all logic in creating his sci-fi series.