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Some thoughts on John Carter


There’s always been something more appealing about the idea of John Carter than about the books in which he features. It’s pure wish-fulfillment, of course – being magically transported to an alien world, becoming a fearsome warrior, falling in love with a beautiful princess… John Carter was always the manliest of men, and deeply honourable to boot, and so formed the sort of ur-hero it was easy for impressionable boys to worship and wish to emulate.

And, it has to be said, there something exciting in the mix of savagery and sophistication which pertained on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars. Ancient cultures with flying ships and radium pistols, who still fought with swords from the backs of riding animals. The Barsoomian cultures had all the trappings of decadent cultures, yet were still vigorous and thrusting and more than able to put up a good fight. Which they did. Frequently.

But Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his eleven Barsoomian novels between 1912 and 1964, and they were never more than pulp fiction. Adapting them faithfully for the screen in the twenty-first century was always going to be problematical. Attitudes and sensibilities have changed – for the better, of course – and it’s no good pretending fidelity to the source material excuses sexism or racism (though Michael Bay has no such excuse for his Transformers films).

Harder, of course, to realise would be the world of Barsoom itself. Not just the landscapes of Mars, the vast canyon that is Valles Marineris, or the 21-kilometre high Mons Olympus; but also the various races and fauna, the flying ships, the cities… The Tharks are 4.5 metres tall, with four arms. Prosthetics and make-up are not going to produce convincing copies of that. But CGI can. Especially 2012 state-of-the-art CGI. After 2009’s Avatar, we know such things are possible.

As a result, the Barsoom in Andrew Stanton’s John Carter looks fantastic. Some of the long shots are breath-taking. Perhaps they didn’t get in a shot of Mons Olympus, but there was a canyon which could have been Valles Marineris. And perhaps in places the Martian landscape did resemble the Arizona desert a little too closely. But there’s no denying John Carter is a great-looking film. And that applies to the production design too. It feels as though it melds elements of all the various cover-arts that have graced Burroughs’ books through the decades.

It is in the story, however, that the film has suffered the majority of its attacks. I’m not sure I understand quite why John Carter has come under so much fire. It resembles a typical sf tentpole release inasmuch as it’s a spectacle film, full of awesome visuals and frantic action. No other film of this type seems to have been criticised so much – and mostly for not being what its detractors wanted it to be. True, the white man leads natives to victory is a problematical story, though John Carter is nothing like as offensive as Avatar in that regard. What Carter brings to Helium is an alliance with the Tharks, and that is solely because the Tharks were first to discover him on his arrival on Mars. Yes, he can jump higher and strike harder than any Barsoomian, but it’s his facility with a sword – learnt as a member of the US Cavalry – which makes him a good warrior. The jumping is useful, and moves the plot along in various places; but it doesn’t make Carter better than everyone else.

Perhaps the biggest change between the books – or rather, between peoples’ memories of the books – and the film is Dejah Thoris. In the film, she is a scientist – Helium’s chief scientist, in fact, and close to discovering the “ninth ray”. She is also an excellent swordswoman, as is amply demonstrated throughout John Carter. And Carter himself has no problem with this. It’s a welcome change.

The film does suffer from a couple of narrative longeurs. A long trip down the River Iss seems to serve little purpose, though it does give John Carter the magical phrase he needs to travel between worlds. When the chief Thern explains the presence of his race on Barsoom to Carter, it does seem a somewhat blunt way of getting the information across. There are long journeys across the Barsoomian desert in which little happens. Despite this, the film’s 132 minutes pass surprisingly quickly.

There are elements of the film worthy of praise. There is wit in the script. The cast – many of whom are British – are uniformly excellent; though Tardos Mors, the ruler of Helium, seemed a bit useless. The Tharks are especially good. The story wrapped within a story wrapped within a story structure I thought worked well, and primed the film for two endings, both emotional – the first heart-breaking, and then a proper upbeat one after. Initially, the decision to hold off on revealing that Carter had lost his wife and child years before seemed odd, but when it did appear, intercut with a battle scene, it had a great deal of impact.

It’s been too easy for people to criticise John Carter. “It’s not like the books.” Well, no. I should hope not. “If they were going to bring Barsoom to the cinema, why did they do it that way?” Because that’s the way the film-makers chose to do it. Since when has it become a valid criticism to complain that a film wasn’t made the way the critic wanted it to be made? The fact of that matter is that Hollywood has been praised for creating tentpole sf extravaganza films which are sexist, racist, and insultingly stupid. John Carter is none of those. It’s a surprisingly modern spin on an old-fashioned sf adventure film. And happily it’s been done with intelligence. So yes, I would pay to see a sequel.

17 thoughts on “Some thoughts on John Carter

  1. Your ‘…no good pretending…’ is in my case spot-on. Having had more than enough experience with the horrors of WW2, most but not all vicariously, gives me nearly zero-tolerance for claims that a racist text is ok, since it was written before the War. My argument for this rigid standpoint has two parts. First, who knows whose minds such a text warped around the time it was written? Second, Who knows what influence reading such vile crap has or had on a person reading it today? Several weeks ago I ceremoniously gave away all four of my Lovecraft books thanks to this attitude, even though I knew that the author’s racism and anti-Semitism are hardly visible in them (they are in his correspondence). If this seems overdone or dogmatic to a reader of this Reply, so be it.

    • While I cannot say that I feel as black and white about the issue as you do George, I certainly stand behind your desire to live by your convictions. It is very easy to compromise in today’s society, especially when it isn’t popular to stand by held convictions if they rub others’ the wrong way.

      I enjoy Burroughs’ work, and Lovecraft’s for that matter, but, by way of comparison, had a really hard time when I read Fleming’s “Live and Let Die” a few years ago when I was making my way through the Bond books. The overt stuff really socks me in the gut, whereas I am not so sure that I’m always aware of the more subtle, for lack of a better word, racism.

  2. Interesting. I was all set to refuse to see it, because it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test and comes from pulp fiction written in a decidedly non-PC era. And, it’s on Mars rather than some realistic New Mars that might possibly not be a barren wasteland we’ve already explored.

    But you say it’s intelligent, with layers of stories within stories and a witty script. Maybe I will give it a go after all.

    • But it does pass the Bechdel Test. Both Dejah Thoris and Sola are major female characters, and they have agency. Nor do their conversations revolve entirely around John Carter. Dejah is in danger of ruining the Therns’ plans because of her discovery of the ninth ray, and Sola assists Carter and Dejah in their escape from the Tharks.

      • I’m not sure there were more than a handful of lines exchanged between women in the film (i.e. did two women actually have a “conversation”?), but some of those were certainly about things that were not men.

        Whether or not it literally passes, however, women are shown in a decent variety of strong, pro-active roles, from fighters, airship staff, and a presiding priestess, to Dejah Thoris and Sola. Yes, a few gender-swaps on some of the leaders would have balanced the situation more; in that, the film augments existing named roles rather than massively changes them.

        • IIRC, there were three main female characters – Dejah, Sola and Sarkoja. At one point, Mark Strong transformed into a woman while explaining the Therns’ aims to Carter. And there were plenty of female soldiers and flying ship crew. But yes, I take you point about the preponderance of male speaking parts.

    • Err, what’s the Bechdel test?

  3. Nice post, mate. ERB was demonstrating an ability to defy death worthy of John Carter if he wrote the Martian series between 1912 and 1964 though. Conventional lore has it that he died in 1950.

    • The final book in the series was published in 1964, though it comprised a pair of novellas – one written by ERB’s son, and the other the first of an unfinished series first published in 1943.

  4. Interesting about the racist ideas. I wish I could find the post but I just read a different reading of Burroughs’ works in regards to it actually being a little forward thinking in the race dept. Sure, John Carter is white, but he does fall for a member of the race of red people, unites the natives and the dominant “human” race against a shared enemy, and the most “savage” of all the creatures met in A Princess of Mars are the “white” apes. I’m not saying Burroughs is not a writer of his time, but I do believe his Tarzan novels are perhaps more indicative of that than the Mars ones. Although I really shouldn’t make that statement with any authority since I cannot think of any examples right now.

    Really enjoyed your review, Ian. I have to say that I came over here expecting you not to like it at all. I think you raised a lot of valid points that echo my own and many others (who aren’t “critics”) experience of the film.

  5. Im quite surprised at your upbeat review of this Ian, are you saying its better than Dune which, everyone apart from me hates?
    I kinda liked the idea of the film apart from one thing, its set on mars, which as we all know now is pretty lifeless! Is this a future mars, or perhaps a distant past one? It all seems silly to me,plus its Disney! But Ill give it a watch, for a laugh!

    • I like Dune too, though more for the film it promises to be than the film it is. John Carter is set on Barsoom, which is the Mars of 1912 (or thereabouts) and wasn’t much constrained by what was known of the Red Planet then anyway. It’s a planetary romance, it doesn’t have to make that much sense.

    • When Burroughs wrote the book the theories of astronomer Percival Lowell were in vogue. He espoused that there were canals on Mars, leading some to believe that this was evidence of life having been on Mars. They actually worked this in very nicely in the film with the roving city that dug great channels in the landscape as it moved.

      Part of the charm of this movie is that they didn’t get away from the idea of it being on Mars. Downplaying that aspect would have been so far from the spirit of the books that the film would not retain the same sense of fun that it has.

  6. Loved the book when I read it fifty years ago, loved the film when I saw it last week.
    I think perhaps the adverse critical reaction is a product of genre confusion. When the book was written it was science fiction and bore the trappings though now, knowing what we do about Mars, it is clearly fantasy.
    Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian accused it of being a ‘mash-up’, apparently unaware it was written about 100 years before that term was even invented. He then went on to give it one star so I will never listen to another word he says.
    The only criticism I would make is that the actress who played Dejah Thoris wasn’t Incomparable.
    But then again who could be?

  7. Pingback: The best of the half-year: 2012 « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  8. An utterly ridiculous film! But thats Disney for you!!

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