One hundred years after A Princess of Mars was first published, this classic adventure is still exciting, still beguiling.
It is the story of an Earthman, John Carter, who was transported to Mars and swashbuckled his way to win the heart of a beautiful woman, Dejah Thoris.
Many of the elements of A Princess of Mars will sound familiar if you are reading it for the first time. That is because it is the seminal masterpiece which inspired George Lucas’s Star Wars, James Cameron’s Avatar, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and many more pop culture sci-fi favorites.
Despite the advancement of technology, the lead characters are sword fighters. The action takes the hero from one scrape to another, and he survives each one by the skin of his teeth. He encounters a variety of alien life forms, and some of them become loyal allies. He offends the object of his love–a Princess, but wins her in the end. This is the story of both A Princess of Mars and Star Wars. Even some of the terms from the novel have similarities, such as jeddak, padwar and sith.
And how about that Princess Leia outfit and the cover illustration of Dejah Thoris? There is no denying George Lucas’s homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs. He does not deny it either.
The earthman assimilates into an alien culture, helps them fight their enemies, falls in love with one of them–a Princess, becomes their hero, and chooses to live amongst them. Now I am referring to the similarities between the novel and Avatar. James Cameron himself acknowledges drawing inspiration from this, and other science fiction novels.
It is an old-fashioned good versus bad story where the characters are somewhat stereotypical, and the gender roles are outdated. A lot of the scenes are melodramatic. But after initially wincing at these anachronisms, I made allowances for the fact that this is over a hundred years old. It was then that I could dig in and enjoy John Carter’s adventures. I even shed a tear or two at some of the touching scenes, like his reunion with his faithful Woola (a creature hideous by our standards, but the equivalent of a dog).
I was so delighted with this Martian world, and wanted to know more of John Carter’s adventures, that I purchased the rest of the series–eleven books in all.
While reading them, it occurred to me that they have all the elements of a big screen production: handsome hero, beautiful princess, sword fights, various forms of gigantic aliens both hostile and friendly, armies of thousands engaged in battle, and a strange new landscape. Plus, the story is so wholesome that it felt like a family-friendly epic for Disney.
Apparently, Disney felt the same way, too. They released its movie version, John Carter, on the 100th-year anniversary of A Princess of Mars. (The story was serialized in The All-Story magazine in 1912 with the title Under the Moons of Mars under the pseudonym Norman Bean, and published as a novel in 1917 under its current title and the author’s real name).
I don’t know why they decided to incorporate the first two books into the movie. They used a character from the second book to be the manipulator of events. The tampering was seamless, though unnecessary. The first book could stand alone.
They also added a dead wife of John Carter, causing Dejah Thoris to have to win his love. He just wanted to go back home the whole time. John Carter only fell in love with her in the end. This tampering weakened the plot somewhat. In the book, he was was unattached, and committed to both Dejah and Barsoom early on. This lent strength and credibility to his desire to return to Mars in the end.
It must have been due to some writer who thought he was better than Edgar Rice Burroughs; and better than a one-hundred-year-old classic. However, to be fair to this writer, he updated Dejah Thoris to become both a scientist and a warrior. In the book, she was just your typical princess whose only role was to look beautiful and get captured by the enemy.
But aside from those two major flies in the ointment of my enjoyment, I thought the movie was good. Taylor Kitsch and Lyn Collins lived up to their characters (though Lyn’s acting needs a bit of improvement), and Willem Dafoe as the voice of the Martian Tars Tarkas was shiveringly effective. Of course, it’s Willem Dafoe. All his performances permeate into the spinal column. The same goes for Mark Strong, who played the Thern–the manipulator of events.
Unfortunately, the movie was harshly critiqued. A lot of the flak had to do with the movie’s production cost of $250 million, the director’s resume of having done only animation movies so far, and the bad marketing (trailer and posters did not sell the movie well)–which has nothing to do with the movie itself. Other criticisms concerned the fact that the story was a rehashed plot of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Avatar. Well… one click on the internet and these critics would have realized that they made uninformed opinions.
But the movie also has its defenders, most of who caution the reader not to believe the negative reviews. One of the best-written is from Rolling Stones’s Peter Travers. There is even a petition for Disney to make the sequel, which I signed.
Disney and Andrew Stanton did not botch up the movie. It grossed over $280 million worldwide in cinemas, and more in DVD sales. There are just too many critics out there who want to present themselves as uber sophisticated such that classic old-fashioned hero movies are too juvenile for them. But if this is the kind of adventure that’s up your alley, then both the books and the movie will give you hours of enjoyment.
If you are interested in reading the book, here is a free eBook copy from Project Gutenberg, which you can read online, or download. For those with iBooks, the iBookstore also offers these books for free, as they are already considered public domain (expired copyright).
I give both the books and the movie four hearts out of five: ♥♥♥♥