Book Vs. Movie: Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1917

John Carter
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon
Disney Pictures, 2012

I went to see John Carter last weekend, and I really enjoyed it. For the occasion, I also re-read A Princess of Mars.

The Book:

Premise: John Carter is a life-long soldier, a veteran of many wars. While prospecting for gold during a time of peace, he is driven into a cave full of a deadly gas. He dies. Yet his greatest adventure lies ahead of him, for he then goes miraculously to Mars. He has to learn to live among the violent warring Thark tribes, especially once he decides to rescue Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium. Adventures ensue!

I liked this book a lot more than I remembered. It does have a good deal of telling-rather-than-showing at times, and especially early on there are some dated attitudes that are pretty awkward to read. Before too long, though, it settles into a good pulpy science-fantasy adventure.

The writing is nice, except when things are being explained awkwardly. The phrases and descriptions give shading to Carter's character as the narrator, often showing his intelligence and humor.
“ is difficult to aim anything but imprecations by moonlight...”
There is plenty of action as Carter meets the different tribes of Mars and learns their warlike ways. It is a little ironic that he thinks early on that his soldier's life has given him an affinity for the god of war, but then spends a lot of the book judging the Tharks for being too violent. Carter often claims that the Tharks have bred out all compassion and caring in their race, but he never completely acknowledges that they prove him wrong by the end.

The 'science' in this work of early science fiction is fairly ridiculous. I kind of liked just how ridiculous is was, though. I like that John Carter astral projects his fully physical soul-self to Mars (or something). I like that the 'eighth ray' that “propels the light of the sun” is what provides the lift for the red Martians' crazy airships.

The main characters after Carter are Princess Dejah Thoris and Sola, a young Thark woman who cares for Carter and Dejah against the wishes of her tribe. Sola has a pretty great, complicated character arc, and Dejah has her moments, even though she spends most of the book playing damsel-in-distress or prize-to-be-won.

The Movie:

95% of the problems with John Carter come down to some terrible marketing, including the surface resemblance to the terrible Prince of Persia movie from a couple years back, and the fact that “John Carter” is a really boring name for a movie. The other 5% is Taylor Kitsch. He's poorly cast as Civil War vet and fearless interplanetary badass John Carter. It's frankly a miracle that he carries it off as much as he does, but a more suitable actor could have propelled this movie to great heights.

(I mean, basically all the hot young action stars are a little busy with Avengers or Star Trek, but I still think they could have looked harder.)

The rest of the cast, though, is really fun. The beginning of the story spends a little too long on Earth, but it quickly segues into a humor-fantasy-adventure that should have been advertised as the new Pirates of the Caribbean or Star Wars. It's fun and a bit pulpy, with larger than life characters, creepy villains and gorgeous CG. The matting between the live characters and the CG aliens is imperceptible. Michael Giacchino can always be counted on for a fabulous score (with hilarious song names, like "Thark Side of Barsoom).

I loved Dejah Thoris, I thought she pulled off a nice balance of sensuality, royal bearing, and a bit of inhumanity here and there. Her super-blue contacts were gorgeous.

Here's a couple shots that show more of the movie than the poster:

I loved the costumes, the technology, even the corny parts. Sometimes especially the corny parts. There's a lot of heart and charm to be had here, plus a fantastic ending that had me catching my breath in wonder.

I really hope we get more Barsoom movies, but given the box office returns, it seems unlikely.

A few more thoughts about the adaptation:

Overall I think this is a really strong adaptation. It updates the social mores (Carter isn't directly scornful of Native Americans, Dejah Thoris is much more than arm candy) to good effect. It abandons some of the needless details of the book, like digressions about Martian fauna or 'science' that made no sense, or that everyone is naked on Mars.

John Carter took aspects of the story of Princess of Mars and bits of its sequels and hammers them into a coherent plot. That is pretty impressive in itself, and the result is really fun.

Book: 3 Stars – A Good Book
Film: 4 Stars – Super Fun, Not Perfect

A few more detailed comments follow: Spoilers for BOTH film and book below, but necessary for in-depth discussion.

Some of the attempts to give Carter more of a character arc in the film backfire. I don't need him to whine about how he's done committing to causes when we know that he'll come around. It just makes him look petty. The flashbacks to a wife and daughter are surprisingly effective in the moment, but I think I prefer the books' more straightforward sense of true love at first sight plus a sense of chivalrous purpose.

Sola's story is much more moving and detailed in the book, although since they dropped that plot in favor of giving the Helium/Zodanga conflict a plot, I can't complain too much.

The movie touches on several father-child relationships as central to the plot: Dejah Thoris and her father the Jeddak of Helium, Sola and Tars Tarkas, and Carter's attachment to his deceased child (daughter?). This is why I think it's funny that it stops short of alluding to Carter's son with Dejah, who is born before he returns to Barsoom.

I loved that the movie used the foreword as frame story and twist ending. They totally didn't have to frame the narrative in the context of Burrough's reading his Uncle's memoirs, but I love that they did.


  1. I am curious about the villains, specifically the Therns. Was that plot even remotely similar? That seemed very modern to me.

  2. The therns (aka white Martians) are introduced as villains in book two: The Gods of Mars. I'm not quite done reading that one, but to my knowledge, they have neither planet hopping powers or nanotech doom-weapons. Mostly they're just brutal, arrogant, evil people who are horribly exploiting and manipulating the rest of Barsoom through propagating their 'religion'. They are responsible for the fact that the river Iss doesn't, uh, lead to Heaven, but what's there is pretty different than the movie (again, this is in book two).

    I personally think the reworking of the plot really worked: having the therns involved gave Carter and Dejah a common goal on top of 'let's get married', it gave more reason for Zodanga and Helium to be at war (and for Helium to be the side of 'good', rather than 'the side my space girlfriend comes from'), and it gave a more science-ish/technical reason for planet hopping, rather than it being crazy magic-astral travel.

    So, yes, it was reworked to be a bit more modern, but I like it.


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