As the countdown continues to the March 9 release of Disney’s John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton, an issue that won’t seem to go away is that of casual observers popping up on movie message boards and elsewhere saying that John Carter is a “ripoff of Avatar”, based on what they’ve seen in the trailers. Fortunately there are a number of “defenders of Edgar Rice Burroughs” who rise to the defense of the storytelling grandmaster whenever this happens. Still, the record needs to be set straight, and kept straight, on this issue and fortunately Cameron himself provides the best answers because Cameron — like all of the great sci-fi storytellers of his era — knows and acknowledges that the Burroughs John Carter of Mars series, first published a hundred years ago and kept very much alive in the 60’s and 70’s in paperback reprints that boomer boys consumed in great quantity — was nothing less than the Rosetta Stone of modern science fiction.
Listen to what Cameron himself has to say on the inspiration for Avatar:
Listen to what Cameron has to say:
“With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, Forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars—a soldier goes to Mars,”
That wasn’t the only time he said it:
James Cameron: “It’s a double-edged sword. Obviously, he’s able to go into his avatar through a futuristic technology, but on the other hand he’s living this very primitive and ultimately somewhat spiritual life. He becomes this warrior on behalf of this disadvantaged culture. Not disadvantaged – they’re sort of being bullied or dominated by the highly technological earth forces. So it’s definitely a love/hate. And it’s the same thing with movies, but you’ve got to learn to balance the two. As a film director, you can embrace the technology and go crazy and have a big mad love affair with the technology, but you still have to tell the story that’s about people, emotions, and all that. The big irony of this film is, you know we’re doing this story that takes place out in the rain forest, a very simple story, almost classic in a sense, almost an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure, and yet it’s being done with the most advanced technology in the history of film. So there’s this weird juxtaposition. I take the actors to Hawaii and we’re out on some muddy trail someplace learning how to shoot a bow in the woods and not get bitten by mosquitos so that they’ll have enough of a sense memory of what it’s like to move through a rain forest so that when they come back to this very sterile stage environment, they can recreate that.”
And Cameron in another interview:
This story could’ve been written in the ’30s. It could have been an Edgar Rice Burroughs type story or a Rudyard Kipling story or a western, absolutely. But it’s an adventure story of a guy from one culture dropped into another culture.
Q: How did you come up with this story?
A: Well, my inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren’t science fiction. The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers. I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.Q: Your premise reminded me a lot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter, Warlord of Mars series.
A: It’s definitely got that feeling, and I wanted to capture that feeling, but updated. To be certain, I wanted a film that could encompass all my interests, from biology, technology, the environment — a whole host of passions. But I’ve always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference. Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.
The thing is, when Avatar came out, all the ERB fans didn’t go running around with their hair on fire saying “Cameron ripped off Edgar Rice Burroughs”. We just smiled, appreciated the homage, and kept our fingers crossed that when John Carter does come out, it will do justice to the imagination of the grandmaster ERB.
Here is what I wrote at the time, in an article for ERBZINE that compared and contrasted the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Avatar:
One of the great pleasures of my adolescence was reading, and re-reading, all of the great adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs–Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, all of them. I first started reading them as an 11 year old Army Brat living in Stuttgart, Germany — where I would order them four or five books at a time from ACE and Ballantine Books, both of whom were putting out the Burroughs novels in those days. In recent years I was lucky enough to get to know Danton Burroughs, the grandson of Edgar Rice and the keeper of the kingdom of Edgar Rice Burroughs treasures at the family homestead in Tarzana, the town in Southern California that has risen on the site of Burroughs ranch, which he called Tarzana. Bill and Sue-on Hillman maintain a fantastic group of fan and tribute websites, and Bill noticed a few weeks ago that I had written about the Avatar-Burroughs connection. We emailed back and forth about it — and the result is an article I’ve written for ERBzine on the Avatar-Burroughs connection. You can click here to read it — and even if you don’t read it, check out the wonderful illustrations that Bill has added to the article–illustrations which probably say more about the Avatar-Burroughs connection than anything I can write.
Read the whole article at Erbzine: Heady Times For Edgar Rice Burroughs Fans: Avatar, Burroughs, and John Carter of Mars.