The single biggest hot button issue in Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” is the handling of the character of title character John Carter. In both the book and the movie, John Carter is a former Virginia cavalryman who is searching for gold in Arizona when he is inexplicably transported to Mars. In both cases he is a talented swordsman; accomplished fighting mannd principled human being operating under a “code” that is grounded in a sense of what is honorable and what is not. And in both cases he ends up identifying with Barsoom and adopting it as his home planet. But his path in getting there is vastly different in the two treatments. With the movie winding down its theatrical run, the time is right to drill down into this issue and see what we find. (See also: In Defense of Dejah Thoris: “Heroic Daughter of a Heroic World”.)
The Character of John Carter in “A Princess of Mars” – the 1912 Novel
I have found that when ERB fans debate these kinds of things — some have a very fresh recollection of the details of the book in mind; others are relying on memories of something they read decades ago. With that in mind, let’s take a few minutes and read some key passages that reveal the character of John Carter as depicted by the old grandmaster, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
In the novel, our first glimpse of John Carter is in the frame story, through the eyes of the narrator Edgar Rice Burroughs, who describes John Carter before the civil war thusly (even though the real Burroughs wasn’t born until 1875, but that’s a quibble):
He seemed always to be laughing; and he entered into the sports of the children with the same hearty good fellowship he displayed toward those pastimes in which the men and women of his own age indulged; or he would sit for an hour at a time entertaining my old grandmother with stories of his strange, wild life in all parts of the world. We all loved him, and our slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.
He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.
His horsemanship, especially after hounds, was a marvel and delight even in that country of magnificent horsemen. I have often heard my father caution him against his wild recklessness, but he would only laugh, and say that the tumble that killed him would be from the back of a horse yet unfoaled.
Next, as John Carter takes one the narrative and begins to tell his story, we hear John Carter describe himself:
I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.
This unexplained lack of aging injects a note of implied spiritualism into the character, for even if Carter doesn’t understand why he is different — he knows he is not like others, and while he never addresses the poignancy of watching others grow old around him, it is the natural state for John Carter to feel his “other-ness”, and this sense of John Carter as a man apart from others clings to his narrative, and helps define our impression of him.
In the book, John Carter is propelled to Barsoom in a way that adds to the of spiritualism, taking place as it does in a manner that suggests death, and rebirth. At night, alone in a cave in Arizona, he is overcome by something….he thinks a poisonous gas…. and lies immobilized as if under anesthesia. He hears a moaning sound from the cave behind him,and the fear of this (yes – he acknowledges the fear) terrorizes him to the point that in his wild effort to move his immobilized body something inexplicable happens — he breaks free of his body. He looks down, his body is as if dead; standing above it, he is naked but corporeal (he pinches himself to confirm) and he knows that rejoining his former body is not an option. He steps outside the cave, filled not with fear but with wonder, unsure what he is experiencing, and in this condition his gaze alights on Mars:
As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination—it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron…..My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness.
On Mars, John Carter awakes and has no doubt where he is.
“I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I.”
And so it is that Carter in the 1912 novel is “reborn” naked on Mars, a new arrival in a world to which he feels a special connection. His “newborn” nature is echoed by where he has arrived — adjacent to a Thark incubator, and his first encounter with Tars Tarkas and the Tharks results in him arriving at the encampment of the green martians in the company of the hatchlings who, like him, are newly arrived upon Barsoom.
His jumping ability having gained him a reprieve from instant execution, he is taken by Tars Tarkas and his warriors to the Thark encampment. On his arrival there he is harassed by a young warrior and, benefitting from increased strength and agility due to the lower gravity of Mars, fells his fifteen foot high tormentor with a single blow — winning respect from the warlike Tharks. He is given the stature of an honored prisoner — not allowed to leave the dead city where the Tharks are encamped, but not restricted in his movements within the city, with Woola acting as guard and companion. Sola is assigned to train him and for thirty days he learns the language and culture of the Tharks, a task he undertakes with enthusiasm; he is curious about his surroundings, about Thark culture, about the ancient dead city they inhabit; he learns the language; he asks questions; he does not seem to regret where fate has brought him. He does not yearn for Earth; he accepts his lot and begins to make his way among the Tharks.
He tries to elude Woola and ends up in a fight with a white ape (a powerful but lesser greater than the Kong-like denizen depicted in the movie) ; defeats the ape and keeps Tharks, who observe the fight, from mercy-killing Woola who is injured. He now has respect of Tars Tarkas, and Sola. By his actions he demonstrates to the reader strength, fearlessness, and compassion.
After Woola recovers, and thinking of the day when he will have to strike out on his own, he tests where the calot’s loyalty lies by intentionally going beyond the bounds of the city, and in so doing confirms that Woola is now loyal to him, and not his captors.
My morning’s walk had been large with importance to me for it had resulted in a perfect understanding with Woola, upon whom Tars Tarkas relied for my safe keeping. I now knew that while theoretically a prisoner I was virtually free, and I hastened to regain the city limits before the defection of Woola could be discovered by his erstwhile masters.
He first learns that there are humans on Mars 30 days after his arrival when he sees Dejah Thoris taken captive. (He does not participate in any warfare associated with her capture.) Later, when she is taken before Lorquas Ptomel, he watches Dejah Thoris implore Lorquas Ptomel in an articulate and impassioned speech to “live in amity” with red men; she is a vision of intelligence, courage, and beauty, and when a young Thark strikes Dejah, John Carter immediately defends her, killing the Thark. Tars Tarkas tells him he will be treated now as a Thark Chieftain, but must not attempt to escape until Tal Hajus has a chance to decide his fate after they reach Korad. Carter replies:
As you know I am not of Barsoom; your ways are not my ways, and I can only act in the future as I have in the past, in accordance with the dictates of my conscience and guided by the standards of mine own people. If you will leave me alone I will go in peace, but if not, let the individual Barsoomians with whom I must deal either respect my rights as a stranger among you, or take whatever consequences may befall. Of one thing let us be sure, whatever may be your ultimate intentions toward this unfortunate young woman, whoever would offer her injury or insult in the future must figure on making a full accounting to me. I understand that you belittle all sentiments of generosity and kindliness, but I do not, and I can convince your most doughty warrior that these characteristics are not incompatible with an ability to fight.
In this speech, Carter is established as a “cosmic knight errant” who has found in Dejah Thoris an object of honorable service — and it is this concept of knight-like service that is central to Carter’s self image, and to the emerging character as the reader gets to know him. Alone with Dejah Thoris and responsible for her, he tells Dejah Thoris he is from Earth; when she doubts it, implying he could be dissembling, he says: “in my own Virginia a gentleman does not lie to save himself;” Then, he says:
I am of another world, the great planet Earth, which revolves about our common sun and next within the orbit of your Barsoom, which we know as Mars. How I came here I cannot tell you, for I do not know; but here I am, and since my presence has permitted me to serve Dejah Thoris I am glad that I am here
Again, Carter is one with Barsoom and a sense of spiritual inevitability pervades not only his presence on Barsoom, but his connection to Dejah Thoris. He soon realizes he is in love with Dejah Thoris and muses about it to himself:
So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women and urging opportunity; in spite of a half-desire for love and a constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world, of a species similar possibly, yet not identical with mine. A woman who was hatched from an egg, and whose span of life might cover a thousand years; whose people had strange customs and ideas; a woman whose hopes, whose pleasures, whose standards of virtue and of right and wrong might vary as greatly from mine as did those of the green Martians……
To me, Dejah Thoris was all that was perfect; all that was virtuous and beautiful and noble and good. I believed that from the bottom of my heart, from the depth of my soul on that night in Korad as I sat cross-legged upon my silks while the nearer moon of Barsoom raced through the western sky toward the horizon, and lighted up the gold and marble, and jeweled mosaics of my world-old chamber, and I believe it today as I sit at my desk in the little study overlooking the Hudson. Twenty years have intervened; for ten of them I lived and fought for Dejah Thoris and her people, and for ten I have lived upon her memory.
Aside from professing love, this passage reveal much about Carter: an admitted “half desire” for love and a “constant search for my ideal”……and then, at the end, a testament to his loyalty — a loyalty that meant ten years of living and fighting for Dejah Thoris, and ten years living “upon her memory”. Carter’s virtue and steadfastness is apparent; his decisiveness; his self-knowledge; and his ability to recognize his “ideal” when confronted with it even though she is “a creature from another world, of a species similar possibly, yet not identical with mine: — a compelling decision indeed, from a Confederate cavalryman.
Carter as drawn by Burroughs is, for the male reader, a heroic avatar — the person we would like to be, or to become when we arrive at manhood. He bears all the characteristics we, the male readers, aspire to, or which the female reader imagines in the “man of dreams” — grace, civility, fighting prowess, intelligence, a sense of humor, loyalty, honor, and steadfastness. His fighting prowess is enhanced on Mars due to the lesser gravity — making him arguably the first “super-hero”. His flaws? An impetuousness born of his confidence in his own powers, and a vaguely endearing obtuseness when it comes to reading and understanding the attentions and intentions of women.
His miss-steps stem from lack of knowledge of the culture in which he has been thrust, and and his fighting man’s earnest lack of guile when it comes to women. He blunders in his first moment with Dejah Thoris when she makes a hand signal that he fails to grasp, causing her to initially reject him as unfit, but when he subsequently fights for her honor matters are rights. His next miss-step is also cultural — he refers to Dejah Thoris as “my princess”. Dejah Thoris reacts:
“What a child! A great warrior and yet a stumbling little child.”
“What have I done now?” I asked, in sore perplexity.
“Some day you shall know, John Carter, if we live; but I may not tell you. And I, the daughter of Mors Kajak, son of Tardos Mors, have listened without anger,” she soliloquized in conclusion.
Then she broke out again into one of her gay, happy, laughing moods; joking with me on my prowess as a Thark warrior as contrasted with my soft heart and natural kindliness.
“I presume that should you accidentally wound an enemy you would take him home and nurse him back to health,” she laughed.
“That is precisely what we do on Earth,” I answered. “At least among civilized men.”
This made her laugh again. She could not understand it, for, with all her tenderness and womanly sweetness, she was still a Martian, and to a Martian the only good enemy is a dead enemy; for every dead foeman means so much more to divide between those who live.
He comes to realize:
I loved Dejah Thoris. The touch of my arm upon her naked shoulder had spoken to me in words I would not mistake, and I knew that I had loved her since the first moment that my eyes had met hers that first time in the plaza of the dead city of Korad.” He contemplates telling her of his love, but decides not to: “My first impulse was to tell her of my love, and then I thought of the helplessness of her position wherein I alone could lighten the burdens of her captivity, and protect her in my poor way against the thousands of hereditary enemies she must face upon our arrival at Thark. I could not chance causing her additional pain or sorrow by declaring a love which, in all probability she did not return. Should I be so indiscreet, her position would be even more unbearable than now, and the thought that she might feel that I was taking advantage of her helplessness, to influence her decision was the final argument which sealed my lips.
Again, the knightliness of Carter is at the forefont — honorable to a fault, overtly focused on the welfare of his lady more than his own, although to the discerning reader there is the possibility of subtext–is Carter unsure of himself, unable or unwilling to admit it even to himself? Either way, his actions are honorable; we can only hope that in similar circumstances we could display such honor.When he unintentionally offends Dejah Thoris and she says he is “not fit to polish the teeth of teeth of my grandmother’s soak”, he sinks into dismay and, for the only time in the book, longs intently for the comfort of home:
I longed for them as I had never longed for any mortals before. By nature a wanderer, I had never known the true meaning of the word home, but the great hall of the Carters had always stood for all that the word did mean to me, and now my heart turned toward it from the cold and unfriendly peoples I had been thrown amongst. For did not even Dejah Thoris despise me! I was a low creature, so low in fact that I was not even fit to polish the teeth of her grandmother’s cat; and then my saving sense of humor came to my rescue, and laughing I turned into my silks and furs and slept upon the moon-haunted ground the sleep of a tired and healthy fighting man.
His solution to the problem of Dejah Thoris’ rejection of him is, once again, that of the self-effacing chivalric knight who places the welfare of his charge above his own. No Achilles demanding his Briseus — Carter’s solution displays the character of Galahad, the “Perfect Knight” of Arthurian tradition– “perfect” in courage, gentleness, courtesy, and chivalry.
Dejah Thoris, I do not know how I have angered you. It was furtherest from my desire to hurt or offend you, whom I had hoped to protect and comfort. Have none of me if it is your will, but that you must aid me in effecting your escape, if such a thing be possible, is not my request, but my command. When you are safe once more at your father’s court you may do with me as you please, but from now on until that day I am your master, and you must obey and aid me.”
She looked at me long and earnestly and I thought that she was softening toward me.
“I understand your words, Dotar Sojat,” she replied, “but you I do not understand. You are a queer mixture of child and man, of brute and noble. I only wish that I might read your heart.”
“Look down at your feet, Dejah Thoris; it lies there now where it has lain since that other night at Korad, and where it will ever lie beating alone for you until death stills it forever.”
She took a little step toward me, her beautiful hands outstretched in a strange, groping gesture.
“What do you mean, John Carter?” she whispered. “What are you saying to me?”
“I am saying what I had promised myself that I would not say to you, at least until you were no longer a captive among the green men; what from your attitude toward me for the past twenty days I had thought never to say to you; I am saying, Dejah Thoris, that I am yours, body and soul, to serve you, to fight for you, and to die for you. Only one thing I ask of you in return, and that is that you make no sign, either of condemnation or of approbation of my words until you are safe among your own people, and that whatever sentiments you harbor toward me they be not influenced or colored by gratitude; whatever I may do to serve you will be prompted solely from selfish motives, since it gives me more pleasure to serve you than not.”
“I will respect your wishes, John Carter, because I understand the motives which prompt them, and I accept your service no more willingly than I bow to your authority; your word shall be my law. I have twice wronged you in my thoughts and again I ask your forgiveness.”
If Burroughs’ characterization works as intended, the reader’s reaction is: “What a man!”, with the reader wishing to ether be such a man, if male, or to find such a man, if female.
And so John Carter of the novel A Princess of Mars is a spiritually whole fighting man who is drawn to Mars in a moment of profound personal transition; who accepts that he is on Mars as a matter of destiny; who relishes his new life and new world, learning the culture and winning respect and allies from among the culture where fate has cast him, living by his own code of honor at all times; who knows his own heart and knows his “ideal” woman when fate brings him together with her, even though she was “hatched from an egg” and is not even of his own species. He impulsively and effectively defends first himself, then Woola, then Dejah Thoris’ honor and places himself in her service, making sure that she is safe and properly cared for, repeatedly displaying self-denial in favor of her well being. Though never referred to as a “knight” — Carter is everything that the chivalric code demands: courageous, honorable, gentle, courteous, and spiritually aware. He treats Dejah Thoris in a manner consistent with courtly love, placing his service to her above his personal desires, inwardly committing himself to her in a deep and spiritual fashion without demanding that she love him in return.
That is the John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is a character that captured the imagination of readers in its day, evoking the “want to be like him” emotion in a deeply archetypal way. For countless male readers who came upon Burroughs’ creation in adolescence, John Carter was the embodiment of the “better self”, the “masculine man” who was everything one could hope to be. For women readers, he was the elusive man of dreams – the reason to not “settle”, because out there somewhere is a John Carter.
Stanton’s Perspective on Burroughs’ John Carter
In 2006, Andrew Stanton thought enough of Burroughs and John Carter that, when Paramount dropped the property after 6 years of development, he reached out to studio head Dick Cook and expressed his keen desire to take on the project as his next movie after Wall-E, which was then in its final year of production. Stanton professed to having loved the material since childhood, and having followed the on-again, off-again development as a fan hoping to see the Burroughs material realized on the screen. Cook and Disney acquired the rights, and a few months after first bringing up the project to Cook, Stanton found himself at the helm of the development of a film adaptation of Burroughs novel.
A core question confronted Stanton: Would a 2012 audience, 98% of whom had never been exposed to the books and who were unaccustomed to the “perfect knight” model of hero that Burroughs’ Carter embodied, respond to such a full on, knightly classic hero? Was such a character compatible with 2012 society? Would it be viewed as an anachronism, difficult to “root for”?
Ironically, in this case the bold choice would have been to say “yes” — and go about working with Carter as Burroughs had drawn him. The more conservative choice would be to say “no” — audiences have evolved, there needs to be a dark side to the character, a flawed nature that will produce the all important and indispensable “arc”.
Had Stanton himself, in his experience of the Burroughs novels, “bought into” the Carter character the way that earlier generations of readers did, perhaps he would have felt that fidelity to the Burroughs’ conception of Carter was a risk worth taking. ERB’s Carter was clearly was not what audiences of 2012 think they want — but Steve Jobs, whom Stanton knew well from Pixar and to whom he dedicated the film, liked to say: People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Perhaps the same was true here. Perhaps, a retro classic hero was just what cinema audiences of 2012 need as an antidote to the reluctant hero, the anti-hero, and every other variation on the modern hero that comes with obligatory character deficiencies.
But by all accounts, even without taking into consideration the tastes of 2012 audiences, Stanton himself, in his own reading of the books, had connected with Barsoom and Carter’s situation — but had felt himself not quite able to fully buy into the ‘perfect knight’ version of Carter that Burroughs had drawn. To hear Stanton describe it, he found the knightly, chivalrous Carter a tad difficult to relate to as a teen, and he carried that reaction into the production of John Carter:
“…the thing that has got to work first and foremost is that the story overall works. And that I invest in the character. To be honest, I never actually invested in Carter 100%. He was always a kind of Prince Valiant, did-it-right-from-the-get-go kind of bland, vanilla guy. I think it was his situation that was more fascinating to me. It was a stranger in a strange land, guy thrown out to circumstances. Also, there’s the oddity of the time period. I really love that somebody from the Civil War gets thrown into what we would consider the antiquated past of Mars. That’s been something that I’ve really tried to embrace on this and give it its special thumbprint.”(http://collider.com/andrew-stanton-john-carter-interview/143238/)
Again, not to diss anything, but it was almost in spite of John Carter that I liked the books. That was where we put a lot of our work in. How to make him somebody to root for, not that I wouldn’t. But it’s not that unique to just this story. It’s often that the hero is the least interesting person and that the interesting characters are the people around him. I felt like I’d rather watch damaged goods than somebody who has their act together. I went for someone who pretty much resigned himself to the fact that his purpose in life was over and sort of went with the thinking that it’s not for us to say what our purpose in life is. You may think it’s done or finished or ended or been missed, but life’s not done with you sometimes. It may take awhile to figure out what your other purpose is or what your greater purpose always was. That’s sort of the tact I took with Carter and it’s really what made Carter perfect to play the role. He’s the bad boy/wrong side of the tracks and that really worked a lot better. (Slashfilm Interview)
And so it was that Stanton would be guided by his own, more “modern” sense of a hero that one could root for as he molded the 1912 Carter into a 2012 hero that he, the director, could more easily relate to. Stanton’s approach would set him on a collision course with a small but intense group of Edgar Rice Burroughs enthusiasts who found in Burroughs’ simple formulation a true hero — someone to look up to, to aspire to be like. “We still live!” was the literary Carter’s mantra, embodying a ‘never say die’ fighting spirit and centered spirit.
Stanton clearly saw it otherwise.
Andrew Stanton’s 2012 version of John Carter
In the movie, Stanton retains Burroughs’ basic setup: John Carter is a Virginia cavalryman, an accomplished swordsman and fighting man who in 1881 is searching for gold in Arizona just as in the book. But unlike the perfect knight of the novels — Stanton’s Carter is “damaged goods”. He is haunted by something — the past, we assume — but we don’t know exactly what, or why. He is engaged in a quest for gold that doesn’t seem to bring him passion or purpose — just diversion and a quest. There is an intense, brooding quality to him. When Powell attempts to press him into service for the Union Cavalry, he resists with a sullen demeanor and the reckless fearlessness of someone who has nothing to lose. He makes is clear that no external cause has meaning for him; “whatever you think I owe……I have already paid.” Carter’s message: Leave me alone! Instead of Burroughs Carter as a classic “knight errant”, Stanton’s brigns forth a modern “knight erring”, an ex-cavalaryman who possesses the skills of Burroughs’ original, but whose soul is scarred and who reminds the viewer at every opportunity that he feels no loyalty to any cause and is not looking for one, nor is even open to the possibility of one. He is a man whose purpose in life has evaporated, and who is going about his quest for gold with an almost zombie-like sense of leaden persistence.
This external package of John Carter the damaged loner is a jolt to viewers familiar with the original — yet is comfortingly familiar to the 98% of viewers whose frame of reference is not the Burroughs books, but rather the accumulation of expectations gleaned from movie heroes of the last several decades. Reluctant, self-absorbed, resisting the call to action, yet skilled and capable, it could be argued (and would be, by Stanton and his creative team) that Stanton’s John Carter of 2012 is as familiar and easy to root for to modern audiences as Burroughs more classic rendering was to audiences in 1912.
But although Stanton radically changed Carter’s exterior, what of the core character?
What of his character-revealing choices made by Stanton’s Carter, what of his actions, over the course of the movie — were they the actions of a completely different John Carter? Or was the underlying Burroughs character there, embedded in the unconscious self of Stanton’s John Carter?
Setting aside the matter of demeanor and external characteristics — consider the underlying “true character” of Stanton’s John Carter as revealed through key choices and actions he takes.
The Impact of the Medallion
In the book, Carter is transported inexplicably to Mars in a manner that conveys to him a sense that he has experienced a spiritual rebirth on Barsoom, is destined to be there — and that there is no possibility of return to Earth. This has a profound impact on Carter’s relationship to Barsoom from the start.
In the movie, it is more as if Carter is kidnapped from Earth via a technological device — the Thern medallion — that leaves open the possibility of a return to Earth, and it is this — the return to Earth and his cave of gold — that becomes Carter’s overt objective. Thus the existence of the Thern medallion that truly “muddies the waters” of John Carter’s character because, by providing a mechanism to get him back to Earth, it dramatically changes the nature of Carter’s manner of experiencing Barsoom. One wonders what would have been the reaction of John Carter in the book, had he been “kidnapped” to Barsoom and had the means to return to Earth. Would he have looked back to Earth and yearned for it, as he does at one point later in the book when Dejah Thoris has rejected him? Would he have been as attentive to the details of Thark culture?”
In any event — a look at the series of character defining choices that Stanton’s Carter makes, reveals that beneath the sullen exterior is a man who is very much like Burroughs’ John Carter — honorable, noble even, with compassion, a sense of fair play, courage, and steadfastness:
The Rescue of Powell
In Arizona, after refusing to cooperate with Powell and stealing his horse, Carter finds himself in a moment where Powell has been shot by Apaches. He has not allegiance to Powell; in fact Powell is his antagonist at that point in the story. But at great personal risk, Carter returns and saves Powell — an act worthy of ERB’s John Carter and a character moment which Stanton clearly expects the audience to register.
The Defense of Woola
In the movie, as in the book, Carter attempts to elude Woola. As in the book, Woola is injured, although in the movie it is the Tharks, not white apes, who injure the Calot. Carter defends the calot, in the process showing compassion. (This moment is almost lost in the way the scene is mounted, as Carter has barely finished protecting the wounded Woola when Tars says “You killed him with one blow”, and Carter responds with “I understand you!” – and so the impact of Carter’s defense of Woola is somewhat lost. But Stanton expects — demands, even — that the audience pay attention, and this is another clue to the fact that Stanton’s Carter in spite of his refusal to acknowledge any loyalty or allegiance, is nonetheless operating from a code of honor very similar, if not identical to, to that of the novel’s John Carter.
Rescuing Dejah Thoris and Fighting for Underdog Helium
Next comes the arrival of the warring Zodangan and Heliumite warships. Carter: “That don’t look like a fair fight,” another evidence of his sense of a code of honor. Then he sees Dejah Thoris, realizes there are humans, and intervenes in the conflict, first to save Dejah Thoris (chivalrous behavior), and then to conclude the conflict in favor of Helium — the party who was on the receiving end of the “not a fair fight” comment. He attempts to place Dejah Thoris in a position of safety behind him as he fights (something John Carter does in a variety of circumstances in the books), then acknowledges her prowess with rueful humor when she demonstrates her mettle (perhaps I should stand behind you).
Acceptance of a Thark Chieftainship in Spite of Desire to be Left Alone
Next he is awarded Dejah Thoris, as in the book, and then is given the name Dotar Sojat with Tars Tarkas exulting, “he will fight for us!”. As in the case with Powell, Carter immediately rejects fighting for anyone, and says no, he does not fight for the Tharks. But when he is told that unless he does so and becomes a Thark chieftain, the safety of “your red girl” (Dejah Thoris) cannot be guaranteed–he does the chivalrous thing and accepts appointment as a Thark chieftain, for no reason other than to protect Dejah Thoris. Again, in spite of “I don’t fight for anyone” words — John Carter’s choices and actions are largely consistent with the book.
Allegiance to the Woman he Loves–it’s just not Dejah Thoris (yet)
Up until this point — Carter has displayed courage by trying to escape power; displayed honor by saving Powell; courage and chivalry by saving Dejah Thoris and taking on Sab Than’s airpower; and chivalry by accepting a Thark chieftainship purely to protect Dejah Thoris. His protestations that he doesn’t want to take up a cause are meant to be read not as true expressions of Carter’s character — rather that are the overt expression, while his actions those of a chivalrous warrior, same as John Carter of the novel. We are given clues as to why he is reluctant to serve –in the jail he says “I’ve already paid” and Stanton cuts to a closeup of the two wedding bands on his ring finger, and the dream of his wife and child lets us know that there was a wife and family — we don’t know what happened to them but we should understand that his current rejection of cause is related to them, that’s why he dreams of them, and is separated from them.
But now, having met Dejah Thoris, Stanton introduces a dynamic that is very different from the book. Stanton pits Dejah Thoris against Carter; she wants him as a weapon in the war against Zodanga, and he–with Dejah evidently not in need of his protection–reverts to “return to earth” as a mission. It’s interesting — when Dejah Thoris needed his protection (Tars Tarkas: “I can’t guarantee your red girl’s safety if you refuse this honor”), Carter compromised his unwillingness to join a cause in order to protect her. But once she no longer needs his basic protection and begins to pursue her own agenda – she gets the same response that Powell and Tars Tarkas both got — no thanks.
But as Carter spends more time with Dejah, he is drawn to her. There is a spark when he leaps with her to the hieroglyphs in the temple; then more undeniable sparks as she volunteers to taking him to the gates of Iss, and he knows she may be playing him – with each understanding the other’s agenda (hence the “matter of trust” gag at the end). There is a moment at the watering hole where she catches him staring at her in the glint of her knife blade, and is pleased; and another “electric moment” after he leaps with her to the Thern pyramid, and finally the kiss in the Thern pyramid which immediately evokes in Carter the image of his wife and a flood of guilt.
Although the dead wife and child have been cited by many Burroughs fans as a change they abhor — in this moment, the John Carter of the movie reacts as one would expect the John Carter of the book to react — he is a “one-man-woman” and now, in Stanton’s rendering, we have the beginnings of the information we need to understand the conflict between Carter’s attitude (which has not been chivalrous), and his actions, which have been honorable and chivalrous.
After the pyramid scene, Carter and Dejah are immediately pursued by the Warhoons and in the movie as in the book, Carter realizes that to protect Dejah Thoris, he must send her away with Sola while he remains behind to face the Warhoon horde. In the book it is an act of simple chivalry, toss away with a gallant statement to the effect that Carter has been in tough spots before, and survived, and he will find her. In the movie, the moment is bigger. It is on the thoats, riding away from the Warhoons, that Carter looks down, sees Dejah’s hand clutching his, and comes to his moment of commitment. When he sends her away he says, “I was too late once before, I won’t let it happen again” – and the audience knows he has made his choice, arriving at his moment of choice later than the Carter of the book – but never deviating from the kind of chivalrous actions and choices that the book Carter displays.
(Comment: Before I am called out on this, I will acknowledge that there is a confusing beat in the movie because, after Carter says ‘I was late once, I won’t be again”, the audience reads that he has made the commitment to Dejah Thoris — but then in the next scene between the two of them, the scene in Zodanga, where Carter discovers that Dejah is about to go forward with the wedding, she asks him to “give me a reason not to marry”, and Carter, in what appears to be a “backsliding moment”, is unable dot make the commitment, and almost returns to Jasoon until, at the last possible moment, he does finally, once and for all, commit to Dejah. I have to confess that this last scene perplexed me — he had made his choice before facing the Warhoons, why was he not staying true to that choice? While the scene must stand as it appears in the final film — I was intrigued to learn that this is a scene that was rewritten for the reshoots. In the original screenplay and as originally filmed, Carter called upon Dejah to escape with him rather than marry Sab Than, to which Dejah replied that she could not, that her duty demanded that she marry Sab Than and save Helium in the process. From a character point of view – this makes more sense than what we have in the final edit of the movie. But even this bit of raggedness does not change the fact that by his actions as opposed to his words and demeanor, Stanton’s John Carter at his core is closer to Burroughs’ John Carter than his outward attitude suggests.)
In Stanton’s formulation we, the viewers, are supposed to understand even when Carter himself doesn’t consciously understand it, that there is a hero within him who has lost his connection to a cause, but who needs to connect with a cause to be complete–and we are supposed to be drawn along his journey unconscious chivalry to self-awareness, conscious commitment to a cause.
To those who grew up with Burroughs’ “perfect knight” John Carter, it doesn’t “feel” quite like John Carter. Yet when it is finally revealed what the source of the “damaged goods” nature is — it turns out that it precisely the honor and loyalty that defined Burroughs’ Carter that is devastating the conscious portion of Stanton’s Carter. It is his loyalty and love of his wife and family that has left Carter damaged–and it is loyalty and love of the wife and child that impedes his ability to connect with his new circumstances.
What Does it All Mean — Is John Carter John Carter? Or Not?
Stanton’s “John Carter” is, at its core, what has come to become known as an “origins story” — a story that tells the backstory of a super-hero before he became that super-hero. Because of the flawed, taciturn rendering of the character that prevails throughout much of the film, Burroughs’ purists will have difficulty accepting Stanton’s John Carter — but the good news for all is that by the end, after his journey and transformation is complete — his conscious and unconscious selves are at last in synch and he becomes a John Carter who is in all key respects, the John Carter of the books.
Now that the backstory has been told — what is missing are the tales themselves — tales that will only come to life on screen if the franchise, like Carter himself, defies the odds and with a “We still live!” invincibility is able to continue for a second and third installment. The odds are against it happening — but then John Carter has a history of beating the odds.