John Carter: Where it all began? Damn right!

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From By now you may have heard about Disney’s JOHN CARTER movie and how it’s likely to be considered a massive $250,000,000 flop (the actual budgetary figure varies depending on the source). The pre-release buzz tarred the film as looking uninvolving and dull, and upon release it was largely savaged by critics who deemed it, among other pejoratives, “unoriginal” and “derivative” of flicks like STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES and AVATAR. Well lemme tell ya, Bunkie, it’s actually the other way around, so here’s a wee divergence for a short history lesson.

The first of the John Carter pulp stories, originally issued as UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS and later re-titled A PRINCESS OF MARS when published in book form, appeared in the February 1912 issue of THE ALL-STORY pulp magazine and was the inaugural work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man who less than a year later would earn great wealth, fame and literary/pop culture immortality as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes. Over the course of eleven pulp novels, Burroughs spun fanciful tales of John Carter, a former Confederate officer and master swordsman who through rather weird means finds himself terrestrially displaced to the planet Mars — known to its native inhabitants as Barsoom — where he encounters a number of warlike races, all manner of strange creatures and a cornucopia of advanced-yet-quaint ordnance and sci-fi vehicles. He also wins the hand of a local princess whose beauty is described as “unequaled,” and from there the adventures cover a hell of a lot of old school ground, pretty much inventing many of the tropes that are now part of the DNA of science-fiction/fantasy adventures. If one does even a cursory overview of such stories over the past century, many of the common elements of the genre that we now take for granted or find rote can be traced directly back to the Rosetta Stone of Burroughs imagination. For the most recent example of what I’m talking about, look no further than James Cameron’s “revolutionary” AVATAR (2009), the monster box office hit that I was not alone in considering it to owe a sizable debt to much of what Burroughs came up with in the John Carter tales. The exotic alien world and culture, multi-legged beasties, an Earthman hero who goes native in a big way and marries the locals’ princess… All found in AVATAR and all cribbed from the first John Carter story written a hundred years ago, so don’t come crying to me about JOHN CARTER the movie being “derivative.”

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