February, 1912. All-Story magazine, a fiction publication of the sort commonly known as “the Pulps.” In such a humble beginning, a story appeared, initially serialized under the title “Under the Moons of Mars,” by an author listed as “Norman Bean.” “Norman Bean” was in fact Edgar Rice Burroughs, who would later become famous for his creation of Tarzan of the Apes. But it is under the moons of Mars that Burroughs penned his first steely-thewed indomitable hero. Reprinted in novel format in 1917 under the title A Princess of Mars, Burroughs told the story of John Carter, a seemingly ageless Civil War veteran from Virginia. Trapped in an Arizona cave by Apaches while prospecting in the post-war years, John Carter “died” — and his soul went on an astral migration to the Red Planet.
Here, Carter found not the dead, desert world expected, by a barbaric world of dying civilizations, where powerful rifles and pistols existed but where most duels were fought with swords, where airships were used less frequently than eight-legged “horses” and twelve foot tall, four-armed “Green Men” roamed the dry, dusty sea beds in nomadic raiding parties. Here, Carter found himself a prisoner of the Tharks, one of the tribes of Green Men, where only a display of strength — his earthly muscles significantly more powerful in the lower gravity of Mars — saved him from a savage end. Remaining a prisoner but being named a chief for the killing blow he laid barehanded on the chin of an attacker, Carter earned the respect of the chieftain of the tribe — Tars Tarkas, a somewhat atavistic individual in that the capacity for compassion had not been drained from him utterly by the merciless existence he led.
Here Carter also found other races of Martian — or Barsoomian, as they called themselves, their name for their world being Barsoom — and Dejah Thoris, a Princess of the Red Men, identical to earthly humans save their coppery-red skin, telepathic abilities and oviparous reproduction. Finding love with Dejah Thoris, they escape the Tharks and return to her home city of Helium — just in time to face down an attack by the neighboring city-state of Zodanga and the threat posed by the failure of the Atmosphere Plant — the only thing keeping a breathable atmosphere clinging to the planet.
Burroughs followed the novel with many sequels over the years, with Gods of Mars seeing publication in 1918, and the final tale, John Carter of Mars, seeing print in 1964, more than a decade after Burroughs’ passing. Many later science-fiction authors, including Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, were inspired to write and publish by reading Burroughs’ Mars novels, and many scientists in the fields of astronomy were likewise influenced — chief among them Carl Sagan, who kept a map of Barsoom pinned up outside his office at Cornell University.
In 1931, Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett approached Burroughs about the possibility of adapting A Princess of Mars into a full-length animated feature. Burroughs was enthusiastic, and Clampett began the initial design work and created some test footage in 1936, which studio heads at MGM responded well to, but ultimately passed on, feeling that the adventures of an American on Mars would not appeal to a Midwestern audience. Ironically, Flash Gordon was released the same year to wild acclaim. The Princess of Mars film adaptation was shelved.
In the 1950s, Ray Harryhausen expressed an interest in filming the series, and in the 1980s John McTiernan was brought in to helm an adaptation for Disney, who wanted something to compete with the popularity of STAR WARS and CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Tom Cruise was slated to star as John Carter, but the project ultimately fell through, with McTiernan believing that visual effects technology at the time was not up to the challenge of realizing Burroughs’ vision.
In 2003, at the behest of Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News and producer James Jack, Paramount began pre-production on a John Carter film, to be directed by Robert Rodriguez. When Rodriguez split from the Director’s Guild of America over his decision to credit Frank Miller as co-director for SIN CITY, he was replaced on the project by Kerry Conran, who had made SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. Conran left the project for reasons unknown, and was replaced by Jon IRON MAN Favreau. In 2006, Paramount decided to shelve the project in order to focus on J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK.
In 2009, Asylum Studios released a direct-to-DVD “mockbuster” entitled PRINCESS OF MARS, with a grossly re-written story involving a modern American soldier and a government teleportation experiment, starring Antonio Sabato, Jr. as John Carter, and everyone’s favorite former-underage pornstar, Traci Lords, as Dejah Thoris. Let me just say, straight up, Lords can’t do the stately elegance the role should have called for. Hell, she can barely do the Xena-esque role they butchered it into.
In January 2007, Disney regained the rights, putting director Andrew Stanton at the helm with writer Mark Andrews handling the script. Principal photography began soon in London and Utah, and was completed in July 2010. The film, now simply titled JOHN CARTER, is scheduled to reach theaters March 9th, 2012 — one hundred years, one month after Barsoom first appeared in print.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much this means to me. In fifth grade, I picked up A Princess of Mars for the first time, and I was hooked. I’ll be honest, I’ve idolized John Carter ever since, wanted to be him, wanted to live up to the ideals of honor, fairness, and nobility not of blood or birth, but of self-carriage that he embodied. To this day, I can’t hold a sword in my hand without giving it a few test swishes and imagining leaping over a wall, sword at the ready, in pursuit of a Green scoundrel.
While in some ways the books are deeply dated (Dejah Thoris is a damsel in distress more often than not, while the various races of Martian are divided up by the color of their skin — though the dominant race is Red, while the Black Men of Mars are largely honorable warriors and the White Men of Mars are a race of stomach-turning villains) in other ways they’re beyond timeless. These are stories of high adventure and higher ideals — honor, loyalty, discipline, fairness, compassion, and love. For the love of Dejah Thoris John Carter crosses and recrosses the Barsoomian landscape, time and again, and woe betide the black-hearted poltroons that stand between him and his princess, because very soon the sands will be stained a deeper red. For her he overturns a cruel religion tens of thousands of years old, saves the entire planet over and over from warlords, mad scientists, and ravaging monsters, and ultimately is crowned Warlord of Mars — a title he never sought, but nevertheless earned.
Plus, and I hope I don’t TMI you, readers, but I discovered Barsoom at the same time I was starting to discover girls, and Dejah Thoris is the standard I’ve always measured potential girlfriends against. While oftentimes a damsel in distress, she is nevertheless a fairly early strong heroine figure, capable of keeping her head held high in the face of enslavement, torture, and the ever-threatened “fate worse then death,” and more than once she is responsible for saving John Carter from a grisly demise. She is elegant, stately, strong, proud, delicate, girlish, emotional, cunning, a brilliant scientist, a capable duelist, a compassionate leader, a devoted mother, wife and daughter. In a fit of pique when John Carter accidentally insults her, she declares him unfit to polish the teeth of her grandmother’s cat, but barely two days later risks her own life to try and save his.
Lynn Collins is taking up the jeweled mantle of Dejah Thoris in the new film, and from the trailer I have no doubt she’ll handle it better than Traci Lords did. Regardless, she has very, very big sandals to fill.
It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to a film on opening night, but I’m going to be there, arms outstretched towards the planet Mars, and hoping, as I have so often before, to slip the surly bonds of Earth, even for a paltry two hours, and ride across the scrubby, dry seabeds of a lost world alongside the heroes I never let go of.
Tags: Aint It Cool News, Andrew Stanton, Barsoom, Dejah Thoris, Harry Knowles, John Carter, John Carter of Mars, Kerry Conran, Lynn Collins, Mars, Robert Rodriguez, sword-and-planet, Tars Tarkas, traci lords