Font to Film: “A Princess of Mars” / “John Carter”

Sometimes an author creates a world which is so richly detailed and epic in scope that readers can’t believe that any adaptation could do justice to what they’ve constructed in their own imaginations. These days the limits of what is possible to put on the screen are being continuously stretched, and fans are finding themselves admitting to being impressed with the results of some very ambitious productions. However, Hollywood didn’t always have access to the techniques and technologies that are commonplace today, and there was a time when filmmakers were forced to throw up their hands and admit that they simply couldn’t do an adaptation the way they wished they could.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story that would become A Princess of Mars as a serial in 1912; it was first published as a standalone novel in 1917. Often held up as a prime example of the pulp fiction of the period, the novel has a fairly standard sci-fi adventure plot that revolves around a traditionally masculine hero showing off his martial prowess by fighting to save a damsel in distress—in this case, the titular princess. The first-person narration is straightforward and matter-of-fact, reinforcing the idea that Captain John Carter is a simple man who is only doing what he believes is right under the (admittedly fantastic) circumstances in which he finds himself. Carter fights for his life, his honor, and his princess in a very uncomplicated manner, and a large part of what saves this novel from unremarkability is the fact that it was published back when the genre was young, and as a result Burroughs has served as inspiration to many of the sci-fi authors who followed him. While the plot may be too bland for some readers, the world that Burroughs creates is rich and vibrant, fleshed out with unique creatures, cultures, and environments that secure its place as a sci-fi staple.
There were rumblings about adapting A Princess of Mars as early as the 1930s, with the idea that it would be animated due to the difficulty of creating a live-action representation of Burroughs’ Barsoom. The project ultimately fell through, as did subsequent attempts in the 1950s and 1980s. Work began on John Carter in 2009, and while it wasn’t released until 2012 critics agreed that the film was—visually at least—a general success. John Carter features some impressive effects, including its CGI representations of Barsoom’s Tharks and other native creatures, and has a somewhat altered story which presents Carter’s heroics in a more complex—and at times hilarious—light. It also gives a greater role and increased agency to Dejah Thoris, who is no longer a simple damsel but a scientist and warrior of great skill. The film’s plot can be difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with Burroughs' works; having read at least A Princess of Mars definitely gives the viewer a leg up on following the action. Still, one gets the feeling that the film isn’t taking itself too seriously, instead embracing its pulpy roots and inviting the audience to appreciate it for what it is: a fun, somewhat silly, visually impressive sci-fi adventure.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is available as part of E.P. Foster Library’s adult science fiction collection. In addition, you can download an eBook version of the novel from our eLibrary through Project Gutenberg. John Carter is available within the Ventura County Library system as well; if the film or novel is not on the shelf, you can request for a copy to be sent to your preferred branch in person, over the phone, or online through our catalog.

 

Penned by Ronald Martin.