In Theaters: John Carter
by Stuart Moore
Disney Editions, 2012
Since director Andrew Stanton’s movie John Carter opens in U.S. theaters tomorrow sporting a good cast (the wonderfully talented Lynn Collins, “The Wire” star Dominic West, the great Ciaran Hinds, and “Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch in the title role), a $300 million special effects budget, and no competition, it will almost certainly emerge from the weekend as the #1 movie in the country and hold that title for at least a little while (it has two weeks to bask in the sunlight before the Hollywood adaptation of Hunger Games stomps all over it). In addition to the latest CGI effects money can buy, the movie also boasts a literary pedigree of oddly mixed provenance: it’s based on the hundred-year-old fantasy novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and its screenplay by Stanton and Mark Andrews features an assist by no less than bestselling author (and critical darling) Michael Chabon.
Disney Editions is doing the thing right, and this merits credit: not only are they issuing the requisite companion novel, they’re also coming out with attractively-packaged reprints of all eleven ERB novels set on Mars, the world its inhabitants call Barsoom – taking a page from the beloved old Doubleday Book Club editions by grouping the novels together in omnibus volumes rather than putting out eleven stand-alone books. Readers of a certain age will remember the spectacular productions that were those old Doubleday hardcovers – the minimal cover copy, the line-drawings throughout, and most of all those exquisite covers featuring Frank Frazetta’s iconic realizations of our sword-wielding hero John Carter, the ex-Confederate Virginia man mysteriously transported to Mars, where his Earth-born muscles give him fantastic physical strength and speed. Readers of those volumes – or the wonderful set of eleven paperbacks put out by Del Rey in the 1970s and featuring some almost equally beautiful covers by Michael Whelan – may long have dreamt of tomorrow’s event: a lavish movie adaptation of their cherished stories. Movie critics will have their say (their early notices have not been kind to poor gravel-voiced Taylor Kitsch – one critic quipped that he shows so little vitality he might as well be watching the movie rather than starring in it), but it’s those long-time fans who constitute the show’s truest judges. They are the ones who’ve spent countless hours daydreaming of adventures on ERB’s exotic faraway world, with its red men and green men and ferocious white apes and flashing sabers and flying ships.
Maybe the movie will fail to capture the free-wheeling, swashbuckling atmosphere of the John Carter novels, and for that readers will always have the books – which makes Disney Editions’ decision to reprint the John Carter novels only sensible (it seems like every major publishing house in the States is putting out its own reprints, including a lovely little set of hardcovers from the Library of America). What makes less sense is their decision to package that reprint the way they have: past the rather drab cover, there are two books in one: first up, readers get the novelization of the movie, written by cheerfully talented comics-and-sci fi hack Stuart Moore, and then immediately after that, they get … A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Since you can’t make high art out of the sword-and-sandals action-adventure ERB doled out like a master, there doesn’t seem to be any way for Moore to avoid suffering in such a cheek-to-cheek comparison.
He tells his story in the third person, and in fairness to the concept, it’s a slightly different story than the one ERB tells. His John Carter is an embittered ex-Army man reliving memories of his lost family, he’s teleported to Mars as part of an intentional plot, and his introduction to Martian society is … well, let’s just say they meet cute. He still has the same incredible physical abilities, of course, and he still employs them in the service of those in need:
Carter arced down toward a rooftop, almost missing it; the chain’s weight was throwing him off. As he landed, he heard the woman’s cry, clearer this time. He glanced up at her thrashing figure, then around at the various buildings. Only a few roofs stood higher than his current position. Gathering up his chain, he jumped again, gaining a few more feet. If the ship kept drifting … and if he could just get a little bit closer to it … For the first time since the Apache cave, Carter felt a sense of purpose – maybe, he realized with a shock, for the first time since the war.
I won’t fail you, he thought. And leaped again, ever closer to the strange red woman with the flowing hair.
That strange red woman is Dejah Thoris, the beautiful princess whose kidnapping by the fierce green warriors of Barsoom – the tharks – is the keystone of both Moore’s novelization and ERB’s novel. Readers curious to know the details of the movie they’re presumably intending to see shortly might linger over Moore’s efficient, workmanlike pages (the whole book is lavishly bordered with script from the Martian ‘language’ Stanton & co. invented for the movie), but all others will turn past the inset of color photos from the movie (several of which feature the gym-toned Kitsch with flowing hair of his own) and savor again the baroque exuberances of Burroughs’ original prose – and his original Dejah Thoris in all her sharp-tongued glory, here letting her thark captors have it:
“Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows, must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may still do more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?”
And lest you think ERB reserved that kind of gaudy rhetorical fire only for his heroine, think again! The bad guy speaks the same language:
“Princess of Helium, I might wring a mighty ransom from your people would I but return you to them unharmed, but a thousand times rather would I watch that beautiful face writhe in the agony of torture; it shall be long drawn out, that I promise you: ten days of pleasure were all too short to show the love I harbor for your race. The terrors of your death shall haunt the slumbers of the red men through all the ages yet to come; they will shudder in the shadows of the night as their fathers tell them of the awful vengeance of the green men; of the power and might and hate and cruelty of Tal Hajus. But before the torture you shall be mine for one short hour, and word of that too shall go forth to Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, your grandfather, that he may grovel upon the ground in the agony of his sorrow. Tomorrow the torture will commence; tonight thou art Tal Hajus'; come!”
I’ve never met Stuart Moore, but I’m assuming he’ll concede defeat in the face of such a magnificent onslaught of ham. It sweeps you along with the sheer adolescent ardor of its conviction – a dated ardor, perhaps, but a great one all the same.
And then there’s the crucial difference between the screenplay Moore is adapting and the book the screenplay is adapting: John Carter himself. In the movie, he’s a wounded, cynical fighter unknowingly in search of his scarred humanity. In the ERB original, even that humanity is in question:
I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty.
As far as I can tell, there’ll be no mention of such peculiarities in the new movie – perhaps Stanton et al decided that in a movie featuring a man leaping tall buildings in a single bound, it was one too many whoppers for the modern theater-going audience to swallow. If so, it’s a comforting irony: that unchanging, never-aging John Carter exists exactly where he should: in books.