Why Having John Carter Transported to Mars “Scientifically” Greatly Damaged John Carter

Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs

On Facebook, our pal Eric Holland has a poll going — would you rather have John Carter get to Barsoom via a)  Science, b) Fantasy/magic, or c) both.   There are interesting comments, but no one yet has gone on the kind of colossal rant that this topic deserves.  So — I will supply the rant. Not a colossal one — just a modified quasi-polite rant.

This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. Of all the many things that Edgar Rice Burroughs fans find to complain about in Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, I rarely hear anyone complain about the decision to create a scientific explanation for how Carter gets to Mars.  Folks, it’s far more than a practical change. It has a profound impact on the whole story.  Keep in mind — when you make a change at the beginning of a story, it not only affects that scene, but it can also affect how you perceive every scene that comes after it. It’s for that reason that this is such an important change.  It affects how the viewer experiences everything that follows.

Burroughs’ John Carter
Abbett Princess of MarsIn the book,  John Carter enters the Arizona cave and almost immediately feels drowsy, and then is overcome and falls to the floor.  At this point there is a chapter break — and the new chapter is called, significantly, “The Escape of the Dead.”  Carter hears horses approaching and tries to get up — but his muscles won’t respond.  He notices a “slight vapor” in the cave (hinting at a possible practical explanation but not confirming it), then five Apaches creep up to the entrance and look at him. He is lying on his side, facing the entrance, and can’t move. Suddenly there is a low moaning sound behind him and they flee in panic.

He hears sounds of someone or something deep in the cave moving toward him.  He feels deeply threatened.   Then he somehow breaks free of his body

. . .  e. . . .And then the moonlight flooded the cave, and there before me lay my own body as it had been lying all these hours, with the eyes staring toward the open ledge and the hands resting limply upon the ground. I looked first at my lifeless clay there upon the floor . . .

My first thought was, is this then death! Have I indeed passed over forever into that other life! But I could not well believe this, as I could feel my heart pounding against my ribs from the exertion of my efforts to release myself from the anaesthesis which had held me.  . . . Naked and unarmed as I was, I had no desire to face the unseen thing which menaced me.

He goes to the front of the cave and almost convinces himself to go back in and investigate:

. . . . but first I lifted my head to fill my lungs with the pure, invigorating night air of the mountains. ,  . . . As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. 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.

Now, first of all, to all those who say he just looks at Mars and goes there — I would submit that there is a whole lot going on here.  There is mystery, there is fate, there is destiny.  Mars isn’t just any old planet — as a fighting man, it had always held for him the power of “irresistible enchantment” . . . .

And so what does all this mean for the story?

A ton.

It means that when John Carter arrives on Mars he has first of all gotten there on the wings of a sense of utter conviction that this was a place of destiny for him.  When he opens his eyes he knows exactly where he is — he has no doubt whatsoever.  He is meant to be on Mars — it is his fate, his destiny.

His attitude towards it is part pilgrim, part explorer.  He has no regrets. He doesn’t think about Earth and he certainly doesn’t long to go back there.  He has undergone not just a change of venue — he has undergone a transformation and a spiritual pilgrimmage to a place that he seems to know is meant for him as his new home, his next phase of personal evolution.

All of this profoundly affects John Carter attitude toward his surroundings.  He doesn’t understand how he got there, but he doesn’t question it.  He is as spiritually enraptured by Mars as, just to think of one example, John Dunbar is with the mystical frontier in Dances With Wolves.  

And everything that follows has a sense of destiny, or purpose, and spiritual resonance.

Stanton’s John Carter

Screen Shot 2012-05-25 at 10.12.48 PMNow roll the tape back and consider Stanton’s John Carter.

Carter finds his cave of gold–his quest is over.  But then the damned Thern medallion kidnaps him to Barsoom.  He wakes up there — has no idea where he is, has no sense that this is where he is supposed to be, and is immediately focused on getting back to his damned “cave of gold” — so much so that he has no immediate appreciation for anything on Barsoom. Everything is an obstacle to his singleminded desire to get back to Earth and his fortune.

And that’s pretty much the state of mind he maintains for a big portion of the film.   He feels attraction for Dejah and that begins to turn him around, but it’s not until he finally throws the medallion over the balcony that he really buys in to Barsoom and that’s at the end of the movie.

It’s by design that it’s this way.  Stanton has his reasons and he articulates them in various interviews.

But here’s the point — it’s not just a trivial change to give it a scientific explanation. It’s a change that alters the entire trajectory of the story; it alters John Carter’s relationship to Barsoom; and it alters the arc o his own character in ways that make Stanton’s character seem almost unrecognizable for much of the movie.

Do I hate what Stanton did?

At the time I was so determined to like it that I largely accepted it, but on repeated viewings (thirty or more of them) I have become increasingly annoyed by the way Barsoom is robbed of so much of it’s magic through a decision that seems to have been almost casual.  When asked about it, Stanton’s only explanation was along the lines of, we figured we needed to make it scientific or people wouldn’t buy it.   It was as if there was no awareness at all that this casual change could rob the very essence of the magic that had Carl Sagan and the rest of us standing in our front yards with our arms outstretched to Mars — but in a very real way, it did that.  Oh, John Carter does eventually get to that place but that’s at the end of the movie and by having him not want to be there  . . . . .Well, in the books we share John Carter’s sense of destiny, his sense of wonder, his sense that this is where he fits in the universe and must make his way in life. We want to be part of that — to escape our own mundane existence and emerge in a place of beauty, adventure, and destiny.

Instead, in the movie, Barsoom is mostly a prison.

For most of the movie, Carter is like Taylor in Planet of the Apes, he just wants to get the hell out of there.


Carter does finally get there — he does finally become John Carter of Mars, and if we’d had more movies,  think the Carter we would have seen, and the Barsoom we would have experienced, would have been closer to what we experience in the books simply by virtue of the fact that we would have the origins story behind us, and would be into the rest of it.

So I’m not hating on Stanton.

Just pining a bit for what might have been.


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  • All I have to say is that no one is ever going to get the version of a book transferred to the screen to be perfect. It’s never happened and will never be possible. Those who prefer the book, will prefer the book. Those who saw the movie before reading the book, will prefer the movie. And those who just want to be entertained and enjoy both platforms, will accept both the books and the movie. Everyone will find their own balance to enjoy something. Everyone will find issues with things. Advertising has a lot to do with it too. I have found a balance to enjoy both.

  • Excuse me. Did I say “true fan”? NO?

    There you go again . . .

    I just said “Burroughs fan” and I think it’s fine for someone to classify themselves as a Burroughs fan and still not hate Stanton. We all take different things from the things we love — just because I fall in love with Barsoom over certain things (John Carter, knightly culture, tragic yearning, longing, poignant romance, one may flyers, codes of honor) someone else might fall in love with it for different reasons (cool creatures, badass villains, therns, denouncing false gods, whatever) and then along comes a filmmaker who is more aligned with that other guy than he is with me — so I might not like what he does, but the other Burroughs fan does.

    But again, I didn’t say “true fan” . . . . I think I would be careful about saying “true fan” as that implies a deep understanding and appreciation of the actual essence, and a willingness to rise in defense when necessary.

    The true fans would be the . . . ah . . . well, maybe sort of the one percent. They’re the ones that create whole damn blogs about the author, or write books about it. Nut cases, unbalanced, true fans. 😉

  • ” a) I’m a Burroughs fan, and b) I liked John Carter. They argue that those two things are incompatible.”

    Usually because those Burroughs “fans” are like Andrew Stanton, dismissive of Burroughs and convinced of the superiority of Saint Stanton and his masterpiece.

    “Yes I agree with you in part, mistakes were made, especially with the way Walt DISNEY advertised the film or hardly advertised it!! Stanton did his best. At least John Cater is out there to the Public.and many of us want more of him with the same Actors! It was a long time coming after a 100 years.So once again good on Stanton.”

    Yes Stanton did his best to blow 300 million on his ego and trash another man’s creation. Also as argued just because Stanton got his deranged vision of John Carter on screen didn’t mean he should have been the one to do it, especially considering the mess he made. As for “many of us watn more of him with the same Actors!” Yeah the sad losers in the Back to Barsoom movement, not ERB fans who have more respect for what Burroughs accomplished and don’t need more of Stanton’s vision.

    Again you call this a true fan?

  • Thanks Michael — great to hear from you. I wish more of the people who genuinely love the novels and who also managed to love the movie would speak up. I have to admit I have a very “complicated relationship” with the movie . . . .I don’t hate it and heap scorn on it, and I even reached a point, somewhere around the 7th or 8th viewng, where I was able to accept it on its own terms, not constantly comparing it to the movie that was in my head based on the books, and I really enjoyed it that time. But then on more viewings, the old problems of “it could have been better if he’d done this, this , and this” came back and now, after 30 viewings or so, I’ve lost my appetite to watch it. Well, that’s a lot of viewings, to be sure. But I’ve never lost my appetite for the books, and there are a handful of other family favorite movies in our house that every year or so, we watch again (when think of our short list of family favorrites that we watch agan and again, ones that come to mind are Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, ET) — and John Carter didn’t make that cut, and it should have. But I’m very mild in my position compared to those Burroughs fans who are just scornful of Stanton’s effort, and who tend to go on the attack against anyone who says a) I’m a Burroughs fan, and b) I liked John Carter. They argue that those two things are incompatible — and I DON’T agree with that. You didn’t draw fire (yet) but in case you do — I wanted to get this little TY in here first. 😉

  • Yes I agree with you in part, mistakes were made, especially with the way Walt DISNEY advertised the film or hardly advertised it!! Stanton did his best. At least John Cater is out there to the Public.and many of us want more of him with the same Actors! It was a long time coming after a 100 years.So once again good on Stanton.
    I still say it was one of the best films ever made, although I would say that, as I am a John Carter nut! Mind you many of my friends like me have also read all of the books, but also love the film and looking forward to the Gods of Mars. Perhaps in another 100 years!!! I HOPE NOT.

  • Well said, Abe, and I absolutely agree with the article.

    I’d like to add that even though ERBs Barsoom is a timeless ‘unlikely story’, it still worked within the understanding of Mars in his day (for those into Percival Lowell at least) – and somehow remains far more scientifically accurate (not to mention socially progressive) than what Stanton did 100 years later.

    Burroughs’ description of the physics – the moons and the gravity – are still pretty on point, where the film loosely sketched these elements as fantasy without internal logic. I think this strengthens the novel, for John Carter is transported by inexplicable, unexplainable phenomena to a place that seems real, and by making Barsoom recognizable/believable as Mars it somehow becomes a more attainable dream.

    Stanton inverted this – offering an explanation for the transit but bringing him to a more ridiculous place.

  • The big thing is that if you think about it, the “scientific” method Stanton came up with is not only lame but illogical to actual science. A medallion that you can pick up, spout a phrase and BAM! You’re on another planet? There is no scientific logic to that anymore than the ruby slippers Dorothy Gale wore and their ability to return her home.

    Now whether or not those changes were “valid” (as one poster commented here) is a matter of opinion. Mostly they were pointless, disrespectful to the source material and often bogged the film down in useless characters or devices (like useless dead wives, shape shifting super villains and poor comedy relief aliens) and the medallion is one of the most pointless since it does-as Michael point out-shift the focus away from a man exploring a new world to a whiny jerk wanting to go home to his cave of gold since he has a “get out of jail” card in the form of the medallion. It was just further proof how Stanton didn’t understand this story and missed the appeal for fans of the books (Not to be confused with the sad fans of this movie).

  • I ranted on this very subject right when the film came out….it’s not just what was mentioned above; in the book, JC’s “quest” was to find honor on an alien world and make it his home. In the film, his quest was a search for a gold amulet.

    So far as travling to Mars? I think ERB did an absolutely fine job of giving everyone something to hang their hat on – mysterious technology, spiritualism, magic, the pull of heart-strings, whatever.

    Which addresses another major flaw in the film. People reading the book could instantly identify with JC or DT because the things that happened to them could happen to anyone. Don’t need to be in the space program or have a billion bucks.

  • Here’s my addendum to the modified quasi-polite rant. 🙂

    Barsoom is the archetypal immortal warrior’s dream-world. It is Greek myth and Arthurian legend put on an exotic planet. It symbolizes the possibilities inherent in other habitable worlds, and as a symbol, as an archetypal landscape, we should be careful not to limit it to what we deem “believable”. It works better if it isn’t reached by strict adherence to our reality. For its allure to take root, it shouldn’t be reached by the sterile calculations of what we accept as plausible technology. It should remain something “beyond”. Getting there should be something like slipping into a dream, or like ERB’s “life after death” approach. Barsoom on Mars isn’t real, it’s scientifically impossible based on our observations, so having to get there by “realistic” means undercuts the suspension of disbelief and robs it of its symbolic resonance. A medallion or a stargate or any other technological means of getting there only emphasizes its scientific impossibility. Does it make sense to use scientific means to get to what must be a fantasy planet?

    Even ERB didn’t consider Barsoom to be a realistic depiction of Mars, but rather in his letters described it as an “unlikely story” – a subtle way of encouraging his editor Thomas Metcalf not to apply too strict of a plausibility lens and thus ruin the unique allure of the story. Burroughs regarded Tarzan in the same way, as an “unlikely story”, one which still works for readers and viewers 100+ years later – not because it could ever be scientifically accurate, but because it is an archetypal story which integrates universal and timeless elements of the human experience.

    Barsoom embodies what drives mankind to explore space. Barsoom helps teach us to dream. It inspires us to read God’s book of nature, never knowing what wonders we might discover. It encourages us to sub-create, that we might explore the natural realm ever further. Barsoom is a carrot that keeps us racing into the unknown.

    Symbolic fantasy doesn’t mean sloppy make-believe. It should be internally consistent, yes, but need not be consistent to our reality. It should have its own science; the kind that sparks us to think of what isn’t yet possible. Plenty of science-fiction features aliens with super-human abilities – and for good reason. Imagination and the ability to picture “something more” are what enable us to proceed constructively in our immediate reality.

    We can’t get to Barsoom on a spaceship, but only by leaving our smartphones dead on the floor of a cave and allowing ourselves to be drawn to a world that is other – a world that runs both parallel to, and ahead of, our own. When we return, maybe someone will be inspired to investigate how our smartphones might someday be operated by “nine thought waves”. 😉

  • Hey …. some peeps are telling me that they’re having trouble leaving comments. I’m trying to figure it out. I left a fake comment from “Jack Whistle” and it went through okay. Now I’m trying one using the “comment using Facebook” plugin. It seems to be working.

    If by any chance you’re trying to comment and it’s not working, please send me an email to michaeldsellers@gmail.com so I know.


  • Thanks for that piece. The movie took out the mystical/spiritual aspect and thus dumbed down the whole atmosphere surrounding what was happening to JC. Likewise, this dumbing down turned the worship of Isis and the role of the Therns into a kind of joke.

  • I think Stanton’s changes were valid and made the transition palatable to modern audiences. I liked it better than the magical way Burroughs did it.

  • The other thing that robbed Stanton’s movie of the magic of the books was starting the movie on Mars. This not only removed the element of surprise from the movie but preempted that Carter would somehow go there. This was my major disappointment with the movie not the method of his transport. For Stanton’s movie to work he needed the medallions and they were effective in achieving this..

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