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Abraham Sherman: The Modernization of John Carter

A1, ERBDOM, John Carter of Mars

Guest post by Abraham Sherman | Both the Asylum’s “Princess of Mars” film and Disney’s “John Carter” film modernized the character of John Carter, in different ways. I respect Antonio Sabato Jr. for being the first onscreen John Carter. He did a good job with the character as written. Taylor Kitsch likewise did well with the version of the character he was given.

But due to those modernizations, we have yet to see ERB’s John Carter, or ERB’s Barsoom. Modernizing John Carter puts a whole different spin on the world he encounters. Either the planet must be changed into something divorced from ERB to suit the arc of the modern main character, or a modern man takes too long to “get” the chivalry and culture of Barsoom, putting him out of touch with the central conflicts of the planet for too much of the story. The main character should have some questions, some issues to resolve, but he should engage in the world at hand as quickly as possible, so we can go along with him in exploring that world and caring about it as soon as possible.

The refusing-the-call phase of the hero’s journey needs a non-traditional rendering in a setting like Barsoom, where to be there is to be in the midst of the conflict. There are no caves of refuge on Barsoom – nowhere to escape to think things over. Even the fortified atmosphere plant has an air of fragility. At the beginning of the stories, practically everyone is in a kill-or-be-killed situation. John Carter’s character arc should be something other than a struggle to engage in the world. A Barsoom film is at least as much about the planet as it is about John Carter, and a modernized hero creates unnecessary complications for the connection between the planet and the man.

Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter was a Civil War veteran, same as ERB’s character, but modernization was nonetheless introduced via his cynical, disengaged perspective toward war. This seemed designed to resonate with modern anti-war sentiments. The John Carter of the books would recognize the bad guys from the good guys quickly, and jump into the fight with everything he has in order to end the conflict as quickly as possible. He would view reluctance to fight as something which would only prolong the conflict and multiply its horrors.

The John Carter of the books would consider the differences between the Tharks and Warhoons, and Helium and Zodanga, and fight for Thark and Helium even if he never met Dejah Thoris. Of course, the romance is primary in the books, but he never would have pursued Dejah Thoris if he had found her to have dishonorable character. His “old-fashioned” moral judgements get the veto over his passions; in the case of Dejah Thoris his morals and his passions lined up, which is why he is so devoted to her.

Barsoom isn’t about today, nor should it be. It’s about the aspects of humanity which were the same yesterday, and will be the same tomorrow. Too much of “today,” and the mirror will be too flatteringly distorted to show us our true reflections.

J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of The Lord of the Rings, wrote to create a myth for the Anglo-Saxon race, structured around his love of languages. He did it well enough that people of all races can enjoy his work.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, wrote to feed his family and to entertain. With Barsoom, he gave his uniquely brilliant imagination free reign, and ended up inspiring scientists, science fiction, and the modern age of mythic heroism. We owe the 80-years-and-going-strong fervor surrounding superheroes to ERB – if Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman, is to be believed.

Just as no amount of excellent fantasy writing has diminished Tolkien’s works in the least, neither have decades of science fiction and superheroes diminished ERB’s works. We will never get enough of the men and women of yesterday and tomorrow, the heroes who would demonstrate the same character on Mount Olympus as on an alien planet.

Why Barsoom? Why go back to the beginning of science fiction and superheroes as we know them? Because today’s fire, no matter how aggressive and how hot it has burned, has not shone brighter than the lightning which ignited it. John Carter remains an ageless man, and Barsoom a world apart.

3 comments

  • Excellent points by Sherman. He gets right to the nub with the “a modern man takes too long to “get” the chivalry and culture of Barsoom, putting him out of touch with the central conflicts of the planet for too much of the story” focus. The chivalry/culture angle is why I enjoy reading ERB’s Barsoom tales even now. The first 5 are so good. Revisit Ghek’s criticisms of the less cerebral Barsoomians and you find some wonderful comments on modern man, too.

  • I thoroughly agree with the base sentiment, but I place the blame elsewhere: not allowing the audience access to both the man and the place as ERB presented them is a mistrust of the audience on the part of – directors? screenwriters? studio producers? test marketers?

    There are ways to present Carter’s “old fashioned” ideas of manhood, courage, chivalry, honour, that would resonate with a modern audience. Modern audiences don’t have to have everything spoon fed to them, and they are perfectly capable of saying to themselves – “oh, an alternate universe Mars. I expect things will be different there than they are here in my suburban haven”.

    The audience can and will give that much. It is then up to the film itself to reward that trust.

  • Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing. One thought I have is that is that if you follow Burroughs’ formulation of making John Carter inexplicably ageless, then without needing to change anything, you create someone who is, by nature, displaced and alone, separated from the rest of us by his unusual nature, prevented from having normal relationships and so on. With a little effort, there is an inherent poignancy about it.

    Then, following that thread, he has a near death or actual death experience (he isn’t sure which) and goes to Barsoom, where he finds himself in the role of explorer who just may be there for a reason . . . .he’s not sure. When the initial transport happens, he’s not sure — maybe he died, and this is what is next. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, it is “what’s next” for him. There is no going back to Earth.

    Robert McKee, in his screenwriting seminars, emphasizes that “conflict” encompasses things like a need that has to be filled, a yearning, an emptiness, an insufficiency. Carter as written by Burroughs has these things even if Burroughs doesn’t dwell on them. And I think these things, if developed, obviate the need for “modernization”.

    The other thought I have — read the opening chapters of John Carter with the attitude of a psychologist looking for clues as to JC’s psyche. Remember that a narrator is inherently “unreliable” in the sense that he is presenting the story to you as he wants to, and presenting himself as he wants to — rather than in any sort of unfiltered way. Try reading “between the lines” of the account with an eye toward looking for possible character issues, conflict, things that can flesh out the character. It’s all there. Carter is controlling the flow of information to the reader, but if you look, it’s there. ….

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