For Edgar Rice Burroughs enthusiasts, few issues in the screen depiction of Barsoom bear more scrutiny than the choice of how to portray “the incomparable Dejah Thoris”, Princess of Helium. Disney has released an image of Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris that further illuminates the quest that Andrew Stanton and Lynn Collins have undertaken in updating the Martian Princess for an intended audience whose point of reference may be closer to Xena than Dejah Thoris as imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, both Stanton and Collins have acknowledged in interviews that one of the main reasons for the extensive re-shoots was to re-calibrate and soften the depiction of Dejah Thoris. Says Collins: “The process with Dejah is very tricky because we were trying to see how masculine can we make her, how much of a warrior could she be without it coming off as too much, as putting off. And the reshoots, they took the time to show compassionate moments in her. And take out some of the punches. There were a lot of punches.”
The image is released as part of a five page interview in Movie Magic (print edition only):
It’s interesting to compare the image above with John Carter’s first person account of his first look at Dejah Thoris in A Princess of Mars:
And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.
She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.
As her gaze rested on me her eyes opened wide in astonishment, and she made a little sign with her free hand; a sign which I did not, of course, understand. Just a moment we gazed upon each other, and then the look of hope and renewed courage which had glorified her face as she discovered me, faded into one of utter dejection, mingled with loathing and contempt. I realized I had not answered her signal, and ignorant as I was of Martian customs, I intuitively felt that she had made an appeal for succor and protection which my unfortunate ignorance had prevented me from answering. And then she was dragged out of my sight into the depths of the deserted edifice.
Now … clearly the Dejah Thoris that John Carter first encounters is a captive, and hence the Disney marketing line “a princess in need of saving” is technically correct, and the initial description certainly highlights Dejah’s Beauty and femininity — but the next time John Carter encounters her, as she is being questioned by her captors, her strength of character is on display:
As Lorquas Ptomel raised his eyes to address the prisoner they fell on me and he turned to Tars Tarkas with a word, and gesture of impatience. Tars Tarkas made some reply which I could not catch, but which caused Lorquas Ptomel to smile; after which they paid no further attention to me.
“What is your name?” asked Lorquas Ptomel, addressing the prisoner.
“Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium.”
“And the nature of your expedition?” he continued.
“It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father’s father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests,” replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice.
“We were unprepared for battle,” she continued, “as we were on a peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted. The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life. For ages we have maintained the air and water supply at practically the same point without an appreciable loss, and we have done this in the face of the brutal and ignorant interference of your green men.
“Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows, must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may do still more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?”
And so with deft strokes, in two quick scenes, Burroughs on the one hand presents the Martian Princess as an alluring damsel in distress; yet almost immediately balances that by showing her to be a woman of substance, in command of a scientific expedition whose object is nothing less than the preservation of life on the dying plant; and who even though a prisoner is capable of speaking articulately and forcefully to her captors, virtually turning the tables on them.
In his excellent essay Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Masculine Narrative (which I only recently discovered and am still digesting) Thomas F. Bertonneau addresses Burroughs’ treatment of women with an observation that tracks well with the Dejah Thoris on display in her two scenes in “A Princess of Mars”
This same masculine narrative entails, finally, a conception of the feminine that elevates the woman to the same level as the man and that – in such characters as Dian of the Pellucidar novels or Dejah Thoris of the Barsoom novels – figures forth a female type who corresponds neither to desperate housewife, full-lipped prom-date, middle-level careerist office-manager, nor frowning ideological feminist-professor, but who exceeds all these by bounds in her realized humanity and in so doing suggests their insipidity.
The Dejah Thoris of Collins and Stanton, aside from the technicality that she is quite a bit more covered up than Burroughs describes, seems to definitely skew toward depicting the strength of the character, and what is unclear thus far is whether the depiction has a achieved a balance betweeen strength and beauty that will resonate with audiences.
And what of the nakedness, or lack thereof?
It’s interesting that over the years–at least since the era of Frank Frazetta– illustrators depictions of Dejah Thoris have emphasized the nakedness or near-nakedness, and with it a sensuality that seems more attuned to the testosterone levels of adolescent readers than the concept of nakedness as Burroughs seems to have regarded it. For Burroughs, was less a play for sensuality than it was an integral part of his overall and ongoing theme that saw Earthly civilization as having departed from first principles in a way that he contrasted with Barsoom — where a more noble and natural state existed. Witness John Carter’s observation that on Barsoom, “men do not kill women and women do not kill men”, or his oft-quoted: “There are no lawyers on Barsoom”, or the chivalric code as it pertains to the rights of one who has fought for another. For Burroughs, it seemed that the absence of clothing bespoke the more evolved state of Martian culture in comparison to Earthly humanity, something which Burroughs clearly yearned for — a yearning which clearly resonated for his audience.
Dejah herself voices a strong opinion as to Earthly clothing, in the passage of A Princess of Mars where she describes the technology that allows “every schoolchild” of Barsoom to view the history unfolding on Earth and other inhabited planets, then responds to a query from John Carter as to why she cannot recognize him as an Earthman if indeed Barsoomians have such ability to view events on Earth: ”
Earth men, almost without exception, cover their bodies with strange, unsightly pieces of cloth, and their heads with hideous contraptions the purpose of which we have been unable to conceive; while you, when found by the Tharkian warriors, were entirely undisfigured and unadorned.
“The fact that you wore no ornaments is a strong proof of your un-Barsoomian origin, while the absence of grotesque coverings might cause a doubt as to your earthliness.”
Early illustrators dispensed with the nakedness, just as Stanton has done, but rather than depict Dejah Thoris as warrior, the trend was toward a classical princess in the chivalric tradition.
Franklin Schoonover’s dust jacket for the first edition of A Princess of Mars seems to have dealt with the nakedness issue by showing Dejah Thoris swaddled in silks (sleeping silks?) — a reasonable tactic for not depicting the nakedness while not denying it either.
So it would seem that in terms of the modesty of clothing, Stanton is in good company — but will the more masculine Dejah win the hearts of filmgoers the way that Burroughs’ Dejah won the hearts of John Carter and the readers of the books? The fact that Stanton made the recalibration of Dejah Thoris a centerpiece of the extensive reshoots is both encouraging and disturbing — encouraging in that it shows a commitment on the part of a very talented film-maker, actress, and studio to “get it right” — while at the same time disturbing because it suggests that in the first go-round of filming, the film-makers were attempting to morph the character into something quite far afield from the source material. Did they, in the end, “get it right” by creating a character who will truly resonate with the audiences of the movie (and never mind the hard core Erbophiles – we are just a tiny sliver of the enormous audience that must be wowed by the movie in order for it to be judged a success.
In closing, I can’t end this without offering up a short video clip which I’ve published elsewhere, but bears revisiting here — 100 years of John Carter as depicted by artists from Schoonover to Stanton: