Right now, as I type this and most likely as you read it, a movie titled John Carter of Mars, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars, is in production. Not in development. Not in pre-production. Not in meetings. It is in front of cameras. Andrew Stanton, director of the brilliant CGI Pixar films Finding Nemo and WALL·E, is shooting John Carter of Mars from a script by Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Mark Andrews, in London this very minute, in this dimension, and it will reach theaters in 2012, in time for the novel’s one hundreth birthday.
Really. Honest and for true. It is actually happening.
This is both the perfect and imperfect (although not the pluperfect or future perfect) time for an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian novels. It is perfect because the level of special effect visualization has finally caught up to the wild genius of Burroughs’s Barsoom, and the current mania for fantasy and and science-fantasy spectacle has climbed to a level where a wide audience will open up its arms to embrace the wonder of John Carter slashing his way across the dreamworld of Mars. And in Andrew Stanton, we may very well have the perfect director to achieve it. (He has never done a live-action film, but I’ll give the person who directed the new science-fiction classic WALL·E the benefit of the doubt any time). It’s the imperfect time because many viewers will believe that a John Carter of Mars project is some kind of Avatar clone. James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster borrows heavily from Edgar Rice Burroughs—to the point that I almost could think of nothing else but ERB while I was watching it—but general audiences probably won’t know that not only does John Carter date back to 1912, but a film project has been going through constant development hell since the 1980s. For years, I’ve had my hopes raised with each announcement in the trades that made it seem that a Barsoomian adventure was finally about to make it to theaters: the close-call with John McTiernan (I own a copy of that Rossio-Elliott script; not bad), the almost with Robert Rodriguez from a Mark Protosevich script, the near-miss with Kerry Conran, and the so-close brush with John Favreau before Iron Man called.
But the story of the development Purgatorio of John Carter goes back even farther into history. Farther even then the discussion of Ray Harryhausen adapting the property in the 1950s. To see what might have been, during the only other time that John Carter could have been properly imagined for theaters, we must look back to the Great Decade of the 1930s.
The history of Hollywood is chock-a-block with regretful tales of dream-projects that came close to realization. Films that sound incredible, astounding in conception and talent, but either never fought past pre-production, or got shut down during production. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon. Orson Welles’s Heart of Darkness. Everything in Willis O’Brien’s file cabinet, especially Warbirds. But for me, one in particular rips my heart out. That it didn’t happen hurts me on primal fan level: Bob Clampett’s animated John Carter of Mars.
The year is 1931. Edgar Rice Burroughs has entered into the sunset years of his career, treading over old ground with his novels, but working hard at selling his properties in other media. Some Tarzan movies have appeared, and the first of the Johann Weißmüller Tarzan hits will come out the following year, but Burroughs doesn’t think his more fantastical novels will make it to screens except maybe in cheap serials.
Then a young animator steps up to Burroughs’s ranch in Tarzana, CA. His name is Bob Clampett. He will one day help make the Warner Bros. cartoons into the maniacal zaniness enshrined in pop culture. But right now he has a proposition for Mr. Burroughs: “John Carter of Mars—The Feature Animated Motion Picture.”
To Clampett’s surprise, Burroughs loves the idea. The author knows little about animation, which is still a growing field confined to short subjects, but it presents a possibility for realizing the wild science-fantasy of Barsoom that live-action film of the time can’t match. Burroughs not only gives Clampett the rights, he advises the animator to craft an original story for the movie instead of following the plot of one of the published Barsoom novels. Burroughs’s son, artist John Coleman, comes in to work with Clampett on developing the movie.
If John Carter of Mars, or whatever the final title might have been, had made it to theaters, it would have been the first feature animated movie in history, beating out Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. What a landmark for both the medium and the genre!
And . . . it never happens. The production footage shown in 1936 does not excite U.S. exhibitors, who see a money-loser in the more adult-fare of the concept. Animation is for children’s short films, not mature evening fare. The proposed MGM feature (or possible series of shorts) never advances past the planning stage.
Some of the test footage survives, showing a project that—if it had gone to term—would have resulted in a radically different history for U.S. animation. It might have even pushed live-action more toward imaginative A-picture versions of fantasy and science-fiction classics. The genre movie as we know it would be a radically different beast—probably with six legs.
That I will finally get to see a John Carter of Mars movie, made by people I respect, still doesn’t make the hurt go away that Clampett’s version was stillborn. It would have been a thing of wonder and joy to behold for a lover of animation and cinema of the fantastic.
Imagine . . .
- Michaelangelo abandons those plans for that ceiling painting.
- Pharaoh Cheops decides to go for a traditional tomb, and shelves his nutty pyramid concept.
- The Globe Theater tells Shakespeare they would rather have a comedy for the season, so he only leaves behind notes for that “Danish thing.”
Ah, enough mopey regret. Onward!
To Andrew Stanton, I just want to say: “Good luck. We’re all counting on you.”