The Elephant in the Screening Room

A Princess of Mars, Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Film Industry, Future of John Carter Film Franchise, John Carter of Mars

Virtually every writer has, either consciously or unconsciously, borrowed from writers who came before him.  Edgar Rice Burroughs was almost certainly inspired by Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.R. Haggard, General Charles King, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Edwin Lester Arnold, and definitely by the scientist Percival Lowell.  Having been born in 1875, ERB more likely than not read their stories of mad scientists, inner-Earth explorations, African adventures, the American West, feral children, interplanetary civilizations, mythic journeys, and Martian canals.

For all intents and purposes, whether from direct inspiration, or in the spirit of the exciting times of the frontier and the Industrial Revolution, he distilled the elements of what he read into his own unique stories, and ignited them with his own signature spark, as storytellers have done for millennia. But the great imaginative minds and breathtaking technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th century were not ERB’s most ingenious source of inspiration. The strongest air current which caught ERB’s sails came from much further back.

Burroughs, especially, brought forward the demigods of Greek myth into his adventurous and heroic “modern” stories. He used the term “demigod” (half god, half man) to describe Tarzan, and evoked the mythic dreamscape of the Greeks and Homer’s epics in Tarzan’s jungle and John Carter’s imaginative world of Barsoom – complete with ancient cities, fantastic beasts (ha ha), a River of Death, and superhuman warriors.

(Theseus and the Minotaur – by Kolokas

It makes sense that those stories which have continued to fascinate readers and listeners for thousands of years flourished in ERB’s fertile imagination and thrived in the limitless lands and skies of science fiction. By taking mythic elements and placing them beyond the horizon in the present and the future, Burroughs was perhaps the original science-fantasy writer. He popularized the genre to the point that it continues to dominate the collective imagination more than a century later – see Superman, Marvel, Dune, Star Wars, Avatar, etc., all of which point back to ERB more than to any other source, according to their creators. (

It is a wonder to contemplate the influence ERB continues to exert. If he knew, he would be surprised and perhaps embarrassed, thinking everyone was taking him perhaps a bit too seriously – in a de facto sense, if not de jure. He would get a quiet satisfaction knowing he inspired so many others, and would be content to remain out of the spotlight, letting his proteges (so to speak) get the attention. (

In terms of imaginative popular storytelling in the world of today, Edgar Rice Burroughs is the elephant in the room. Those who love science-fantasy, lost civilizations, far-flung adventures, and superheroes, are loving ERB moreso than any other individual creative mind in history.

(Barsoom – by Joe Jusko –

As an ERB fan, I want everyone to be consciously aware of the gift they have received from ERB. I realize they don’t need to be aware in order to benefit from that gift. (Ultimately, “need” is a more powerful but less interesting motivator than “want”.) ERB wouldn’t insist that they be made aware. But I nevertheless long for an “ah ha!” moment for ERB like the one that Tolkien got when the “Fellowship of the Ring” film was released in December of 2001. People who weren’t already familiar with Tolkien’s books and their influence on the fantasy genre loved discovering the awesome “Lord of the Rings” film series, and subsequently the books, and realizing the incredibly strong source the other fantasy stories they loved had come from. The LOTR films enriched people’s awareness and appreciation for things they had come to love, and gave them a new wonderful object for that love, with a side of perspective. Those films, and the global reconnection with Tolkien, inspired countless more creative minds to pursue their craft. A similar epiphany waits to happen with ERB’s Barsoom the day a passionate and worthy adaptation of it is released to the world.

(My Shelf of Drafts – by Abraham Sherman)

As a writer of my own independent feature screenplay adaptation of “A Princess of Mars”, the potential “ah ha” moment raises the bar on me first. If the project ends up being less than ground-breaking, the “ah ha” will instead be a “meh”. The LOTR films worked magnificently not just because they were largely faithful to Tolkien, but also because they were excellent films in their own right. Thankfully, despite its challenges, the Barsoom source material is some of the richest ever created, as evidenced by its influences and its heritage. The task of translating it for the screen is one I have gladly accepted since I undertook the project in 1996. I fell in love with it and lost a good portion of my rational mind about it. After dozens of drafts, decades of industry-level critiques, and a handful of screenplay competition awards, I can only hope to have opened the door a crack. Flinging that door open and releasing its accompanying cultural illumination is yet to be done by ambitious and visionary filmmakers. The world’s filmmaking talent, technology, and resources make it possible. The will of a few can make it actual.

One thought on “The Elephant in the Screening Room

  • From a few years in the future, here’s at least one who has just recently had that ‘aha!’ moment.

    For years I’d had a generally positive impression of the ‘John Carter’ from a few years back movie but for myriad reasons never took it seriously or paid it much mind. However pleasant of an impression it may have left, I mostly dismissed it as pulp or as Disney or as cliche etc. (an impression in no way assisted by the campy comic artwork I’d associated with it by way of cultural osmosis). Only recently did I decide to revisit it, after much of the production of the recent ‘Kenobi’ series had me very perturbed, until the very end of the series felt like such a breath of fresh air that I had to check the credits to see what changed. Finding the name Andrew Stanton, I found he had done JC. So back I went. But now I was undoubtedly in the right mindset. Everything clicked. Long story short, the cliffhanger of that first in what would have been a series left me so desperate for more of the guilelessly romantic, innocently earnest, winsomely adventurous story of John Carter that I dove into the novels and have burned through them in the month since that finale. It’s a feeling hard to describe, like the ‘golden wood’ Shakespeare invokes in ‘As You Like It’ — nostalgic and charming and endearing, yet somehow still more. It really hits the FEELING of ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,’ like it transcends time, belonging to both the far-off future of space travel nor the far-flung past of dinosaurs and cavemen but at the same time contained by neither.

    Anyway, from a few years in the future, cheers.

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