The Strange Convoluted Tale of John Carter

by Gene Turnbow
The original cover art by Frank E. Schoonover for "A Princess of Mars"

The original cover art by Frank E. Schoonover for "A Princess of Mars". Schoonover provided lush illustrations on color plates for the original published version of the book, and was famous for his work.

Tarzan of the Apes is the best known, most enduring character ever created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it was not his first – and without John Carter, a Virginian soldier in the American Civil War who found himself transported to Mars instead of dying on the battlefield, we’d have never known Tarzan at all.  Burrough’s first novel in the “Barsoom” series was written in 1911, with the film adaptation of his novel Princess of Mars”  will be released by Disney/Pixar on March 9, 2012.

This film has taken perhaps more time than any in history to reach the finish line, and has been licensed and relicensed by the Burroughs estate since the 1930’s. As things stand, the film will be called “John Carter”,  and at this writing we don’t have long to wait!

Everyone who has ever read this classic work (if you haven’t yet, you don’t know what you’re missing), or listened to it as an audio book. has dreamed of this romantic faraway place where right and wrong are easy to tell apart, the lands and peoples remarkable and intriguing, weird and strange creatures, beautiful damsels in distress, with the bonus that any ordinary man from Earth would have supernormal powers and strength due to Mars’ lower gravity – it’s the Superman story in reverse, and it would not surprise me at all if Siegel and Schuster hadn’t read the book first before coming up with the Man of Steel. Since its publication it has had a profound and far reaching influence on modern popular fiction and science fiction in particular.  It arguably defined what we have come to expect from our fantasy adventures, and the Barsoom novels delivered in a way few writers have matched.

The book was first written written between the months of July and September in 1911, meaning that Burroughs cranked out the entire novel in an astonishing two months!  He’d taken a big chance doing this, because up to this point he’d never had a book published.  It was originally published under the title “Under the Moons of Mars” in 1912 by All Story Magazine, and wouldn’t be published as a book in hardcover until five years later when A.C. McClurg released it with the title of “A Princess of Mars.  The book was so wildly popular that Burroughs wrote ten more in the series – and it opened the door for his even more popular Tarzan of the Apes.  Burroughs wrote two dozen Tarzan books, and made such an impact that in Southern California where he lived, an entire city was named after his legendary creation (“Tarzana”).

Almost immediately thoughts turned to taking John Carter’s world to the silver screen, but most agreed that the technology available would not possibly do justice to Burroughs’ original vision.  This did not stop people from thinking about it, though, and in 1936, the animator Bob Clampett (yes, this is the same guy who did the popular Beanie and Cecil children’s show in the ’60’s, in case you were wondering), began talking to Burroughs about bringing Mars to life in cinema.

About the only way this could ever happen given the technology of the day was animation, and Clampett worked for a year nights and weekends with Burroughs’ son John Coleman to produce a pitch trailer for it for MGM, but they passed on it.  Had been it would have been the first feature length animated film.  Instead, that note in film history belongs to Disney’s “Snow White”, released in 1937 which beat Max Fleischer’s more technically ambitions “Gulliver’s Travels” to the theaters by two years.

Big Little Book -nn John Carter of Mars (Dell, 1940)

Big Little Book - John Carter of Mars (Dell, 1940)

In the meantime, until the technology for making moving images caught up, John Carter found himself battling evil on Barsoom in the pages of comic books.  There were a number of short-lived comic strips and comic books, as well as in various Big Little Books of the 1930s and 1940s. The most notable John Carter comic strip to appear in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lifetime was written and illustrated by Burroughs’ son John Coleman Burroughs, which debuted on Sunday, December 7, 1941–the very day of the infamous Pearl Harbor Attack. Dell Comics, DC and Marvel have all done limited series involve John Carter, with the latest and most notable version done in 1977, drawn by Gil Kane.

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By the 1950’s Ray Harryhausen, legendary stop motion animator and producer  of the popular film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms  expressed interest in doing the film using the same techniques that had been successfully used on King Kong  – monster movies were wildly popular, and frankly, Harryhausen could have pulled it off.  Unfortunately the rights could not be procured, and it wasn’t until the industry The book was optioned again by Disney in the 1980’s but shelved again because it was judged that technology still hadn’t caught up to Burroughs’ original vision.  Paramount then optioned the book in 2003, and the production went through  one contractual calamity after another, until they too let the option lapse in 2006 (this one was kind of a shame, because famed illustrator Frank Frazetta had been tabbed as the film’s visual designer – Frazetta’s illustrations based on the Barsoom novels was already legendary).

Finally, Disney picked up the rights again in 2007. this time to the producer and writer team of Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews, with Michael Chabon hired to do a  rewrite in 2009.

The John Carter we will see in the new film will not resemble the now-familiar Frank Frazetta lush ornate vision, but instead seems to look a bit more like a gladiator movie – until you start tossing in the giant monsters, the four-armed Tharks and the fabulous Barsoomian cities.  Instead of trying to cover three books at a time, “John Carter” will cover only the first book.  If this works, if the public (meaning you) likes it, we can expect a nice long run of great fantasy films and a lot of half-naked men at conventions wearing a lot of leather straps.  (Guys, please, if you’re going to do this, go to the gym.  No, not just for a weekend or two.  Seriously.)

Carter  will be true to his roots, he speaks like a Virginian, with the manners of a military man, and the new trailer is looking pret-ty … good.


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Okay – now it’s your turn.  What do you think?  It’s easy to write a comment – join the conversation!

Links

  • Princess of Mars on Project Gutenberg
  • Princess of Mars Audio Book
  • SciFi4Me’s article on John Carter, which references this one