Not only did the John Carter of Mars series introduce me to science fiction, it also played an important role in my legal education. Before every exam throughout law school, as well as before the bar, I read one of the first four books in the series (they were always my favorites). John Carter was so strong, so brave, and so heroic that each time I’d wish – fervently – that I could be a fighting swordsman from Virginia instead of a law student in Texas. Unfortunately, based on my one semester of college fencing, I was pretty certain that I’d be a horrible swordsman (on the plus side, my fencing master did give me the name “Wonder Woman” as my official fencing nickname, which was awesome).
As a result of my lifelong love affair with John Carter (and Tars Tarkas), I was very excited to hear that they were going to make a movie out of the series (or at least the first book, A Princess of Mars). The trailers looked exciting but then the reviews began to pour in and I decided that I couldn’t handle the disappointment of seeing Hollywood butcher one of my favorite books. I skipped seeing the movie in the theaters but this past week, on vacation visiting family, I decided it was time to watch the DVD.
Overall, my expectations for the movie were so low that I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. The plotline was closer to the book then I thought (after traveling to Mars through a movie-made twist) – John Carter met the Tharks first, Sola was placed in charge of him, Woola became his devoted and ferocious pooch, Zodanga and Helium were at war and only by agreeing to marry Sab Than could Dejah Thoris save her people. I didn’t mind the twist on how John Carter was transported to Mars, or the changed role of the Therns. They were clearly setting it up for a sequel and I am curious to know whether they planned to follow the lines of the second and third books in the series.
The biggest disappointment I had with the plot was that they didn’t focus much on John Carter’s time with the Tharks. Not only was that where he received much of his education on the ways of Mars, but the book also devotes a great deal of time to his friendship with Tars Tarkas. Tars Tarkas is one of the best characters in the series – he’s a great leader, compassionate, intelligent, courageous – and his friendship with John is the backbone of the early books.
On the other hand, I appreciated the fact that they changed Dejah Thoris. As a woman, reading old science fiction is always a bit frustrating because, while authors such as Burroughs and Alex Raymond (of Flash Gordon fame) would try to create strong woman, it was within the context of a different time. As a result, these women just aren’t strong enough for 21st Century sensibilities. By making Dejah a brilliant inventor who was also physically able to defend herself, they made a female lead that I could enjoy without hesitation.
That leaves only John Carter himself – Taylor Kitsch. Taylor’s had a rough year, with his two big action leads (John Carter and Battleship) doing poorly at the box office. In the trailers for John Carter I didn’t like Taylor Kitsch in the lead role at all. By the end of the actual movie, I decided he wasn’t objectionable but in no way could he fill John Carter’s metal – and not just because he wasn’t physically large enough (a problem Tom Cruise will also have in the Jack Reacher film). No, the biggest problem with Taylor’s portrayal of John Carter was that he didn’t capture John Carter’s love of a good fight and respect for courage. In a world in which warriors were revered, he was also the best warrior by leaps and bounds. But Taylor’s portrayal of John Carter conveyed none of that, although that may not have been his fault. The movie told a story of a Man of Mars who was sad, disillusioned, and out only for himself. What made the books so special, on the other hand, was that John Carter never shirked a fight, was always willing to jump to the aid of any brave soul fighting overwhelming odds, and fought with steel in his hand and in his eyes. That’s the John Carter I love – the reason I read his books every semester before exams, and without that John Carter there is no reason to make a movie about the books, which is why the movie failed.
[Geek Note: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s portrayal of Mars as a planet filled with canals was based on a view popularized by the astronomer Percival Lowell, who also founded the Lowell Observatory and began the effort that led to the discovery of Pluto. You can read more about him and the search for Pluto in Bill Bryson’s fantastic and funny book, A Short History of Nearly Everything.]