Science Fiction’s Underdog: John Carter

SEPT / OCT 2014: BY CAITLIN HORTON

johncarter

Under-rated. The word could easily be replaced with “ignored” or “cult-status” and conjure up images of when The Princess Bride, Legend, and Labyrinth hit theaters and obtained a small but loyal fan base that has slowly grown outward until almost everyone knows where the line “As you wish” comes from. But some under-rated book-to-film adaptations are not given this same support, and in fact the books are so thoroughly ignored that one can find an elegantly bound hard-backed, five-story edition of it in the $7 bargain bin at Barnes and Nobles.

I am, of course, referring to the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series, of which there are twelve stories published. It has also spawned a few movies, with only the most recent adaptation called John Carter being worth anyone’s time to watch. Yes, the books spawned the infamous movie that became synonymous with Disney never getting a proper return for their 200+ million dollar investment. It also angered fans of more popular modern science fiction books and movies like Star Wars and Avatar and works by Ray Bradbury because it appeared to be ripping them off and rehashing their storylines. Talk about a bad rep.

But before you go to another article because I appear to be bashing the story, too, wait a moment longer. What if I told you that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his stories between 1912 and 1948 and it is generally known that he influenced the science fiction genre, not the other way around? What if I told you that Edgar Rice Burroughs created a Barsoom (Mars) world that is as intricate and complex as those thought up by George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien? What if I told you he not only created Martian measurements for time and distance, but also developed distinct back histories of the planet including ruins of ancient cultures, unique flora and fauna, contrasting physical appearances of the intelligent “men” of Barsoom, and a mode of transport that has not even been fully developed on modern day earth, using the sun’s rays for energy?

Not only that, but Mr. Burroughs managed to put into his stories a primary protagonist from Earth (Jasoom) whose arrival on Mars started a cascading series of  historical events arcing through eleven of the twelve books. His name is John Carter, gentleman and fighting man of Virginia, who in 1866 finds himself transported to Mars though he leaves his earthly husk behind in a dusty cave. His Martian “avatar,” if it can even be called that since it is still flesh and blood, is faster and stronger in the thin atmosphere of the red planet. Much of his story on Mars involves the green four armed “men” of the Thark tribe, the red men of Mars who at least appear human, the red princess Dejah Thoris, and numerous other beings, including the Black Men and White Men, Therns of Mars, and his Calot pet Woola. His first two adventures on Mars influence all the following books and characters, including the arrival of Ulysses Paxton, a WWI soldier transported to Mars after being mortally wounded in combat. There is nothing about any of the stories (with perhaps the exception of the poorly written John Carter of Mars, the work of Burroughs’ son) which could be called under-rated. And given their age, the tales can’t be called unoriginal, either, as they predate the stories that they “rip-off.”

But what about the 2012 movie, is it under-rated or simply a bad bit of adaptation? I tend to view it as the best Mars tale Burroughs fans will likely get, and it had a big budget to boot. There are a few flaws, like Dejah Thoris being given a scientifically minded role, John Carter learning the widely used Martian language by drinking some queer substance, and the medallions that the Therns use. So yes, someone who has read all of the Mars series could easily pick apart the new film and leave nothing but the bare bones behind. But… it is faithful to the heart of what Burroughs was building: a new, exciting world where daring, handsome men rescue the maiden, bring together cultural enemies, and represent good in the fight against evil. This theme is what carries the stories and gives them their set of ideals.

So why are the Mars novels/movie still under-rated and largely ignored? This is a perplexing question for which I have no answer. Certainly, you could call him a “pulp-fiction” or “dime-a-dozen” author, but his stories have actually outlived the era of the magazine and newspaper serials in which they were originally published. They have caught the attention of major film studios from the 1910’s onward, and influenced some of the largest and most successful science fiction authors and filmmakers in the last 60 years. They don’t deserve to be put in the bargain bin, that’s for sure.

Perhaps it was because they were ahead of their time when originally published and deemed shocking by Edwardian readers. For example, the typical article of clothing worn on Barsoom is a leather harness about the waist for weapons and strands of jewels, though Burroughs seldom lingers on this aspect of Martian life. Occasionally a Martian scientist will do genetic, monstrous experiments to create new life. And all female Barsoomians, regardless of color, lay eggs that slowly grow larger until they hatch at proper infant size after a set number of years. For the poor Edwardians, shocking probably didn’t cover it. But for modern audiences, all of the above “issues” merely serve as enhancement for the story, showing how different Mars is from Earth and how one man’s imagination can spawn living, breathing, memorable alien societies. Perhaps one day, Burroughs’ Mars will be given proper acknowledgement by the science fiction community and will no longer be considered “under-rated,” but will instead be hailed as the magnum opus that it truly is and how it helped our society to see beyond the current moment and look into a past “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  ♥

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Caitlin Horton is a 20-something reader, seamstress, and history buff. She lives a life blessed in the knowledge that she is God’s child, and her life has a purpose within the scope of His plan. She encourages her readers to remember, every day can be like Bilbo’s “adventure” if you’re willing to take the “ordinary” and add some “extra” in front of it! She also blogs about her crafts!

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