Almost a week ago, I posted about my intention to compare the “Barsoom” series of Edgar Rice Burroughs with its recent film adaption, John Carter. The other night I watched the movie with a friend of mine. Here are some of my thoughts.
I want to address this film first from the perspective of a person who has read the books, because that perspective is the most striking. Whoever was responsible for the writing/directing/producing of this film is clearly a fan of the books. Many book-to-movie projects have a lot of their original flavor, world-building, and novelty wrung out of them as they are stretched across the big screen. Not so here!
The high-jumping John Carter, for the most part, performs his function as an indominable male protagonist, swinging his greatsword as a mighty Thark might swing one of his own four arms! His relationships with various comrads (Tars Tarkas, for instance) develop somewhat differently, because of the altered plot, but the relationships themselves are pretty much the same.
The Tharks (the 9-foot tall, 4 armed, green men of Barsoon) also fulfill the hopes of any reader. They are not mere monsters, but a people with a real, if a bit bipolar, sense of honor and justice. From what I understand, the actors actually “did” everything on location and on stilts and then the CGI was plastered over them. This created very realistic Martians, in my opinion.
The people of Helios and Zodanga are pretty much the same as in the books: the former an intellectual and just society and the latter a slightly less refined group. I will say that they stretched the Zondangans to be a little bit more warlike and vicious, but overall I didn’t notice a huge difference in the two nations.
The biggest similarity was the “feeling” of Barsoom. There were a million little details from the book that were lovingly woven into the movie. In one scene, an old Thark saying is mentioned (paraphrasing): “Leave a Thark his head and one arm and he may conquer.” As far as I have gotten in the books (I’ve finished the second book, The Gods of Mars), this saying was only used once and only for just a moment. Also, the great airships, Martian vistas, and epic battles really helped bring the reader’s Barsoom to life!
Of all the things that really stuck out as different to me – for some of the plot elements were necessarily different to make a workable movie – the two greatest changes were Dejah Thoris and the mythology around the Therns.
“Dejah,” as she is affectionately called by some in the movie (though never in the books), is a completely different character from the one written. She has intelligence, cunning, slightly looser morals, and seems to care about her own well-being enough to do something about it. Also, she is a scientist who can fight with a short sword. In the book…she’s very beautiful and very loyal. That’s it. So is this change a bad one?
Overall, I think this character was more realistic than the Dejah of the 1910’s. Unfortunately she and John Carter had NO on-screen chemistry, so their love story is slow, forced, and confusing. The DRIVING force behind John’s questing and fighting throughout the books is his love for Dejah Thoris. The fact that he only really commits to her near the end of the movie takes the main drive of the story in another direction. I wish it could have been a higher point of the movie.
The other big divergence from the books is the role of the Therns. Now the Therns, the white-skinned people of Southern Barsoom, don’t actually show up in the series until the second book. They and the black First Born represent various facets of false religions that John Carter endeavors to defame and defeat. In the movie the Therns are a much more all-powerful overseer type of race. How do I feel about this change?
The books and the movie had different objectives. The books (or novelized pulp stories) wanted to keep you reading, keep you turning the pages, and weave in some of the author’s ideas about humanity, governments, religion, and honor. The movie needed to create a coherent plot that could be wrapped up in two hours. In the name of accomplishing this second goal, the vile Therns were re-written completely. In modern storytelling we now rarely create antagonists with no redeeming qualities. The new Therns are a new enemy for a new generation of readers.
Overall, did I like it? Yes, very much. The pacing was pretty good (if a little slow in the beginning) and the action scenes were a ton of fun. The tribute paid to the books will raise the spirits of any geek.
I did feel like a viewer new to Barsoom might be very confused, especially in the beginning, but my friend had not read the books and she found it quite clear. The world of Barsoom is very appealing because it smacks of something “different,” even though many modern space adventure stories were inspired by the tales of John Carter.
Did you see the movie? Have you read the books or not? Let me know YOUR thoughts in the comments!