JOHN CARTER OF MARS (or: Barsoom, Anyone?)

JOHN CARTER OF MARS (or: Barsoom, Anyone?)

A great painting by Joe Jusko featuring a convergence of Barsoom's most memorable elements. That's John Carter and Dejah Thoris in the midst of all the savage beasties. The setting is one of Mars' ancient ruined cities, home to the savage green Tharks.

It’s a sublimely gorgeous rainy day here in Napa. I’m listening to the ancient, pattering rhythm of the rainsong and thinking about Mars.

No, not the red dustball of our modern age, where tiny robots scour the dunes for microscopic life. I’m thinking of BARSOOM, the title the red planet bore a long, long time ago.

I’m thinking of ancient cities crumbling across dead sea-bottoms, tusked green warriors standing ten feet tall, snake-haired plant-men, four-armed white apes, ten-legged lions, flashing swords, and blasting radium pistols. I’m thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his most original creation John Carter of Mars.

In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs published A Princess of Mars, his first novel. John Carter, his rugged hero, was a Civil War veteran who stumbled into a mystical cave and was transported through space and time to an ancient version of Mars (Barsoom) where various races of Martians (some obviously descended from Native American stock, some wholly alien in design) battled constantly for survival among the remains of a fallen civilization.

Here was swordplay, swashbuckling, and adventure in the grandest style. From 1912 to 1964, Burroughs wrote a total of 11 novels set on Barsoom (most of which featured John Carter).

These books, not to mention the author’s Tarzan, Venus, Pellucidar, Westerns, and various other works, make ERB one of pulp fiction’s towering giants.

Artist Boris Vallejo's take on John Carter and Dejah Thoris. I love the misty atmosphere here; it reeks of 70s a good way. A very realistic take on these immortal characters.

I read most of the Barsoom books when I was a youngster, somewhere in the 10-13 range and thoroughly enjoyed them. The fantastic Michael Whelan cover art on those particular editions remain unrivalled for stunning paperback design. 

So why do I find myself dwelling on John Carter and his ancient, savage version of Mars today?

Well, after staying in print for nearly 100 years, Barsoom is finally coming to celluloid. Disney and Pixar are currently in the midst of filming a live-action/CGI hybrid called, simply enough, JOHN CARTER OF MARS.

If done right, this movie could be as eye-popping and culturally galvanizing as James Cameron’s Avatar, or Lucas’ Star Wars.

But those of us who recall the original books fondly are hoping it will have a dash of John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian to provide the proper amount of barbaric grandeur.

If Disney attempts to turn John Carter into a kid-friendly icon, look out… this film could be one giant dud. Consider how Disney effectively removed Tarzan from the adult market with its cartoon musical version featuring Phil Collins. Phil Collins? REALLY? Tell me that didn’t happen.

Will Disney be afraid of spilling a little blood in the course of John Carter’s adventures? If so, they will compeltely miss the boat.

Burroughs’ Mars books are full of savage battles, bloody swords, gnashing teeth and claws, cruel torutures, arena deaths, and one narrow escape after another. The fact that Mars has lighter gravity makes Carter a superhuman warrior in terms of strength and speed. As a survivor of the horribly brutal American Civil War, he’s used to bloodshed and mayhem.

This is why he has no problem slashing his way through hundreds of 10-foot-tall Tharks and becomes the obvious choice for Warlord of Mars (which is the title of the third book in the series).

Carter is an unbeatable warrior, and he prefers the sword to the radium pistol he carries. Although ERB did not feature the blood-and-guts graphic details of say Robert E. Howard’s fiction, he did deliver constant action and primitive warfare on a  massive (and personal) scale. Violence is the wine upon which Barsoom grows strong.

One of the great Frank Frazetta's many Barsoom paintings. It don't get much better. I hope Pixar is studying Frank's work.

These tales of John Carter are so packed full of amazing visuals, strange creatures, and breakneck action, they are tailor-made for someone like Pixar to work some CGI magic on.

The more fantastic elements of the novels will no doubt be brought to life in stunning quality, and the casting sounds good: Taylor Kitsch  (John Carter); Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris); Willem Defoe (Tars Tarkas); Bryan Cranston; James Purefoy; Samantha Morton; Thomas Hayden Church; these are just a few of the cast.

It’s obvious that many of these actors will be doing only voice-work, since CGI will be required for the Tharks, the plant-men, and many of ERB’s other outlandish creations. However, this cast is an all-star assemblage of talent that bodes well for the production.

The question is: Can Disney faithfully translate this jewel in the King of Pulp’s crown into a successful film without losing its teeth? This doggy needs to BITE.

Without blood and bullets and a whole lotta dyin’, this won’t be ERB’s John Carter of Mars. It’ll be a Phil Collins song.

One of Michael Whelan's eleven legendary Barsoom cover paintings, this one from "A Fighting Man of Mars." For me, Whelan was the definitive source on all things Barsoom. I really hope Pixar is using Whelan's work to their advantage.

While we’re all breathlessly awaiting the JOHN CARTER OF MARS movie to hit theatres in 2012, we can always thrill ourselves by going back and reading the classic books. Most of them are available for free online reading at Project Gutenberg.

However, I recommend finding either a copy with one of those amazing Michael Whelan covers, or going even farther back to the exquisite Frank Frazetta covers. These were two artists who really GOT the world of Barsoom.

Let’s hope Disney/Pixar joins those ranks soon…

Another amazing Whelan painting, this one used as the cover to "Thuvia, Maid of Mars", the fourth book in the series. If Disney/Pixar's Barsoom looks anything like the Whelan/Frazetta Barsoom, that's half the battle. The other half, of course, is the violence factor. A bloodless Barsoom simply won't fly.
Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

although I haven’t read none of them compare this saga with Kim Stanley Robinson Mars series, based on the terraformation of the planet…
the cover if Thuvia,maid of Mars is absolutely great it shows inmensity, desolation, power and strangeness and weird beauty in one illustration, the use of that colours, ocres in spanish I don’t know the word in english is amazing…

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x