Abraham Sherman: Challenging the Hollywood Idea that ERB’s John Carter is “Too Vanilla”


by Abraham Sherman | When I first read my way through the Barsoom novels, I found the world itself to be the main character. John Carter is the reader’s surrogate, and it is through his eyes that we discover Barsoom, but the stories don’t revolve around him going through internal conflicts. He pines for Dejah, but isn’t conflicted about her, at least not after their initially awkward courtship. He knows that he loves her, and the barriers in their relationship are primarily external – Tharks, wilderness, Zodanga, etc. He insists on chivalry, but on Barsoom that actually helps him fit in more often than not, which means his beliefs aren’t challenged internally. There is no point where he questions what he believes.

Contrast that with the Tarzan novels, where the Ape Man is unmistakably the main character, and the central theme is the struggle between his internal wild and civilized identities.

During my first time through the books, I found that I read Barsoom for the world, and I read Tarzan for the character. John Carter is a major character in only half of the Barsoom novels, while Tarzan is central to every book in the Tarzan series.

The way in which the different ideologies fight over the dying planet of Barsoom reminds me of how the angels and demons on our shoulders fight over our minds. The planet itself is the main character, and the factions are vying for control of its will. The good guys, led by John Carter, represent family, virtue, chivalry, sacrifice, etc. The bad guys, led by a succession of villains (an approach common in comic books and superhero movies), represent greed, power, lust, Self, etc. John Carter and the protagonists who share his values are the angels on the shoulder of Barsoom, while Sarkoja, Tal Hajus, Than Kosis, Issus, Thurid, Matai Shang, etc. are the demons on its shoulder.

Some readers might call the Barsoom stories morally simplistic for focusing on straightforward heroes and villains. That very simplicity is a big part of what makes the stories universally accessible. If the planet, with its history and warring factions and uncertain destiny, is viewed as a metaphor for the battlefield of the soul, much deeper dimensions are perceived and the lasting appeal of the books is that much better understood. The same “externalization of the internal” can be observed in many of today’s superhero stories.

In a film adaptation, John Carter could reasonably be given a three-film character arc. Whatever additional internal struggles he experiences could be tied to the external struggles over the identity and destiny of the planet. This will require more definition and development than was provided by ERB, but fleshing things out in a faithful, source-material-consistent way is an approach that can add to a book fan’s enjoyment of a movie, even if things aren’t exactly like the book.

If ERB’s work needs to be patched or built up for the purposes of creating the best possible movie, then the patches and the building materials should come from the cloth and quarries of ERB’s own creation. They should not come from modernization. The answers can be found elsewhere in the books, and integrated organically to create a developed adaptation that feels “all ERB.” This approach takes time, but can pay off wonderfully for the purposes of cinema. The question is, would fans accept an origin story for John Carter grafted from elsewhere in ERB, or would that be too much of a leap from the “mysterious immortal of unknown origins” in the novels?

One thought on “Abraham Sherman: Challenging the Hollywood Idea that ERB’s John Carter is “Too Vanilla”

  • I undestand the concept of Barsoom as the main character, and your ideal film concept that would capture that theme.
    On the other hand, I found the Disney film did a very nice version, capturing the surprise and wonder of an alien world with great energy and enthusiasm. Its modernized hero was designed for modern audiences, with a backgrond that explained and demonstrated his strengths and his humanity. I felt that the focus on the lead character was appropriate, as was the naming of the film for him. It should have had “of Mars” attached wherever the title was mentioned.

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