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John Carter. On the Red Wave to Barsoom – Part 1

Posted by in Books for Sale on March 9, 2012

Today (March 9th) sees the release of Andrew Stanton’s movie ” John Carter “, a film that has been highly promoted and received much media attention. It has already been equated with StarWars and Avatar, with some claiming that it plagiarised ideas from both movies. But if anything, the reverse is true because the film is based on a series of stories written 100 years ago, and which have been an inspiration to both authors and movie makers who came afterwards.

A Princess of Mars Book CoverThe logo for the movie comprises the 3 letters,” J”, “C” and “M” for its original title – “John Carter of Mars”. The stories from which the movie derives were written by Tarzan Author Edgar Rice Burroughs, starting with “Under the Moons of Mars”, originally serialised in “All Story” magazine in 1912, until collected in hardback in 1917 under the title “A Princess of Mars”. The movie’s release has now been timed to coincide with the centenary of the original series publication, and is loosely based on that first book “A Princess of Mars”.

 “A Princess of Mars” tells the story of Confederate Civil War veteran John Carter, who after the war goes to Arizona with a former war comrade to prospect for gold. After finding a rich vein, he and his partner fall afoul of the Apaches. His partner is killed, and John Carter flees into a cave which, which with a combination of eerie noises and strange gases, is somehow responsible for transporting him to Mars. Other reviews of the movie mention that John Carter was “accidently transported to Mars”, and so it will interesting to see how the movie deals with this.

The Mars on which John Carter finds himself is the Mars of the early 20th century astronomer Percival Lowell, with its canals (incorrectly translated from the “canali” meaning channels, from Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli), ochre vegetation and dead sea bottoms; a dying world in which the seas had receded, with deserted ancient cities, and most of whose inhabitants live in and around the remaining cities along the canal network. This Mars has a breathable atmosphere, reasonable temperatures, and is home to five intelligent races who call their world “Barsoom”. There are the red, yellow, white and black humans, and the fiercely independent green Martians who live as nomads in the deserts, camping out in the dead cities and who are generally as intolerant of other communities of their own race as they are of the other races.

On his arrival on Mars, John Carter almost immediately encounters a patrol of Green Martians from the community of Thark, including Tars Tarkas, who would become his friend and ally. The only reason John Carter is not immediately killed is because of his ability to “sak” (jump) high in the low Martian gravity, and so they take him back to their encampment in the nearby deserted city to entertain them with his ability. Although still a prisoner, John Carter’s fighting skills and Earthly origin make him equal to the Green Martians, and he soon acquires status, possessions and even authority as a sub-chieftain within the community. Everything is further complicated with the capture of Princess Dejah Thoris, granddaughter of the Jeddak (Emperor) of Helium, one of the most powerful nations on Barsoom. John Carter then has to wrestle with internal Thark politics, war with the rival Green Martian Warhoons, to return Dejah Thoris to Helium which was being threatened by the neighbouring nation Zodanga.

From the trailers I have seen, Andrew Stanton’s movie is faithful to “A Princess of Mars” in many ways. It features all the major characters, including a refreshing take of Dejah Thoris as a fierce fighter rather than somebody John Carter has to keep rescuing. The Green Martians, the enormous fearsome White Apes, the “Thoats” (mounts for the Green Martians), the “Calot” Woola (the multi-legged lizard-like creature which became John Carter’s faithful protector, a sort of Martian dog) are very much as they were described by Edgar Rice Burroughs. On his arrival on Barsoom, John Carter meets Tars Tarkas as in the original Princess of Mars and his jumping ability is noticed. Tars Tarkas greets John Carter with “Kaor”, meaning “Hello”, that and the other snippets of Martian language as penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs appear in the film. There are going to be differences of course, and it looks like the plot has been modernised and follows the trend of the original story rather than being anything like and exact match.

This view of the physical characteristics of Mars persisted until the 1960s, when the first space probes sent photos back from Mars, followed by the Viking Landers of the ‘70s and the rovers of the ‘90s. Now we know Mars is very different. It is a world of craters, tall mountains and rocky deserts, very little atmosphere and extremely cold. Even if the planet could be given a thicker breathable atmosphere, there would be a significant proportion of the planet, especially in the southern hemisphere, whose altitude would be too great for the air to be breathable – on Earth, this would like having a significant proportion of the land surface as high as Mount Everest.

So how do we reconcile John Carter’s exotic Barsoom with the real Mars of the late 20th and 21st century? The Edgar Rice Burroughs stories are now classed as “Science Fantasy” in order to distance them from the real Mars. Other theories suggest that the Mars which John Carter visited was a Mars in the distant past, or in a parallel universe, but often cite the fact that it coexisted with John Carter’s Earth. In “A Princess of Mars”, Dejah Thoris mentions she know Earth’s history as well as Barsoom’s. In “The Master Mind of Mars”, Ulysses Paxton, the second person from Earth to be magically transported to Mars, this time after being mortally wounded in the battlefields of the First World War, gets an opportunity to view Earth from Mars through a very high resolution telescope. There he sees that the First World War is now over and that his side won. But that does not necessarily mean that this is the Earth from which they came. Robert Heinlein was evidently inspired by the Barsoom Stories. In the “Number of the Beast”, he tells the story of a family of explorers who travel to parallel universes in an interdimensional transport. Not only is one of his major characters called Deety (D.T.) Burroughs, short for Dejah Thoris (and married to Zeb Carter), but also, their first adventures are on a parallel Mars with physical characteristics very similar to Barsoom (although this version was home to rival imperial British and imperial Russian colonies). Later, they start falling into other stories, including John Carter’s Barsoom. So Barsoom could be a parallel Mars which is very different from ours, but in which the corresponding Earth is similar enough to have the same major historical events as witnessed by Dejah Thoris and Ulysses Paxton. In the novels, John Carter does temporarily return to his Earth, but that would be back through the same interdimensional gateway that took him to Barsoom in the first place. Works for me.

The movie is screening now. Watch this space for further comment after I have seen it. For those who wish to explore the literary works, the full Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series is listed below:-

  1. A Princess of Mars (1917)
  2. The Gods of Mars (1918)
  3. The Warlord of Mars (1919)
  4. Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1920)
  5. The Chessmen of Mars (1922)
  6. The Master Mind of Mars (1928)
  7. A Fighting Man of Mars (1931)
  8. Swords of Mars (1936)
  9. Synthetic Men of Mars (1940)
  10. Llana of Gathol (1948)
  11. John Carter of Mars (1964 – collection published after Edgar Rice Burroughs died in 1950)

Note that the movie is loosely based on “A Princess of Mars” (and borrows at least one character from The Gods of Mars), and not based on the final “John Carter of Mars” collection in spite of the same title.

The first three books “A Princess of Mars”, “The Gods of Mars” and “The “Warlord of Mars” are considered to be a trilogy in their own right and which have also been published under the title “John Carter of Mars”. Actually, it is the “Gods of Mars” and the “Warlord of Mars” which are connected in that “The Warlord of Mars” which resolves what was left unresolved in “The Gods of Mars”.

The first five books are now in the public domain which means that several publications of each exist, and ebook versions can be downloaded for free.

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