Cameron: The idea with Avatar was for it to be “like John Carter of Mars — a soldier goes to Mars”

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As the countdown continues to the March 9 release of Disney’s John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton, an issue that won’t seem to go away is that of casual observers popping up on movie message boards and elsewhere saying that John Carter is a “ripoff of Avatar”, based on what they’ve seen in the trailers. Fortunately there are a number of “defenders of Edgar Rice Burroughs” who rise to the defense of the storytelling grandmaster whenever this happens. Still, the record needs to be set straight, and kept straight, on this issue and fortunately Cameron himself provides the best answers because Cameron — like all of the great sci-fi storytellers of his era — knows and acknowledges that the Burroughs John Carter of Mars series, first published a hundred years ago and kept very much alive in the 60’s and 70’s in paperback reprints that boomer boys consumed in great quantity — was nothing less than the Rosetta Stone of modern science fiction.

Listen to what Cameron himself has to say on the inspiration for Avatar:

Listen to what Cameron has to say:

“With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, Forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars—a soldier goes to Mars,”

That wasn’t the only time he said it:

James Cameron: “It’s a double-edged sword. Obviously, he’s able to go into his avatar through a futuristic technology, but on the other hand he’s living this very primitive and ultimately somewhat spiritual life. He becomes this warrior on behalf of this disadvantaged culture. Not disadvantaged – they’re sort of being bullied or dominated by the highly technological earth forces. So it’s definitely a love/hate. And it’s the same thing with movies, but you’ve got to learn to balance the two. As a film director, you can embrace the technology and go crazy and have a big mad love affair with the technology, but you still have to tell the story that’s about people, emotions, and all that. The big irony of this film is, you know we’re doing this story that takes place out in the rain forest, a very simple story, almost classic in a sense, almost an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure, and yet it’s being done with the most advanced technology in the history of film. So there’s this weird juxtaposition. I take the actors to Hawaii and we’re out on some muddy trail someplace learning how to shoot a bow in the woods and not get bitten by mosquitos so that they’ll have enough of a sense memory of what it’s like to move through a rain forest so that when they come back to this very sterile stage environment, they can recreate that.”

And Cameron in another interview:

This story could’ve been written in the ’30s. It could have been an Edgar Rice Burroughs type story or a Rudyard Kipling story or a western, absolutely. But it’s an adventure story of a guy from one culture dropped into another culture.

And finally:

Q: How did you come up with this story?
A: Well, my inspiration is every single science fiction book I read as a kid. And a few that weren’t science fiction. The Edgar Rice Burroughs books, H. Rider Haggard — the manly, jungle adventure writers. I wanted to do an old fashioned jungle adventure, just set it on another planet, and play by those rules.Q: Your premise reminded me a lot of the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter, Warlord of Mars series.
A: It’s definitely got that feeling, and I wanted to capture that feeling, but updated. To be certain, I wanted a film that could encompass all my interests, from biology, technology, the environment — a whole host of passions. But I’ve always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference. Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.

The thing is, when Avatar came out, all the ERB fans didn’t go running around with their hair on fire saying “Cameron ripped off Edgar Rice Burroughs”. We just smiled, appreciated the homage, and kept our fingers crossed that when John Carter does come out, it will do justice to the imagination of the grandmaster ERB.

Here is what I wrote at the time, in an article for ERBZINE that compared and contrasted the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Avatar:

One of the great pleasures of my adolescence was reading, and re-reading, all of the great adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs–Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, all of them. I first started reading them as an 11 year old Army Brat living in Stuttgart, Germany — where I would order them four or five books at a time from ACE and Ballantine Books, both of whom were putting out the Burroughs novels in those days. In recent years I was lucky enough to get to know Danton Burroughs, the grandson of Edgar Rice and the keeper of the kingdom of Edgar Rice Burroughs treasures at the family homestead in Tarzana, the town in Southern California that has risen on the site of Burroughs ranch, which he called Tarzana. Bill and Sue-on Hillman maintain a fantastic group of fan and tribute websites, and Bill noticed a few weeks ago that I had written about the Avatar-Burroughs connection. We emailed back and forth about it — and the result is an article I’ve written for ERBzine on the Avatar-Burroughs connection. You can click here to read it — and even if you don’t read it, check out the wonderful illustrations that Bill has added to the article–illustrations which probably say more about the Avatar-Burroughs connection than anything I can write.

Read the whole article at Erbzine: Heady Times For Edgar Rice Burroughs Fans: Avatar, Burroughs, and John Carter of Mars.


  • there are ALOT of options to explore, personally I think that andrew stanton picked the lowest on the list of good options!

    I wouldnt have picked it, but I can see the reasons he did . . . and I think while it detracts from burroughs story, I think he is going to do the story well

    and I think that will be enough to put a smile on my face, so long as what he changes is done well

  • He doesn’t think he’s actually immortal though…..” 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.” But I agree that he could have had no family on Earth for precisely the reasons you point out — and then Mars, with its 1000 year lifespan “feels like home” and he can take the risk. That would have worked without the dead wife.

  • of course, I think this change would be worth it if they have one scene in gods of mars . . .

    Carthoris seas a picture that Carter is holding

    “Who is that”

    he answers

    “this is your sister”

    he hands carthoris the picture, there is a long silent moment

    you best damn believe I would cry

    and I also think that perhaps carter having a family before isnt entirely bad, but I would have gone the route “his immortality makes any attempt at having a family pointless and inevitably end with tragedy”

  • This really makes me think of Kerry Conran’s John Carter of Mars pitch video to Paramount that you shared a few days ago. Conran was right on the money when he prefaced it with “From the Creator of Tarzan”. Very Smart. I haven’t seen that on any of Disney’s John Carter Trailers or TV spots, and consequently the reaction out there in the world continues to be that this movie is a ripoff of Avatar. I don’t think its too late to fix this! It shouldn’t be difficult for that statement, or something similar like “Based on the novel series beloved for a century” to be included – at least before airing the trailer on Super Bowl. Would be a great move for the New Marketing Chief, a very small thing that I am positive will yield great results. You also stated in a different article “Has Cameron warmed up the audience for JCM? Or has he spoiled them with something that is so good that JCM will inevitably fall short?” I keep worrying about this. Not that it will fall short, but considering the fact that John Carter will be coming out AFTER Cameron’s Avatar, and there is no clarifying statement on the trailers vouching for John Carter’s real history and authenticity, too many people will erroneously jump to the conclusion that John Carter is only a wannabe knockoff or copycat of Avatar. Sure it would be great if Avatar warmed up the audience, but if people are thinking that this is “Disney’s Reponse to Avatar” as stated in the Washington University newspaper and I’m sure elsewhere, people may not care to give John Carter the time of day anymore. And in that sense, it would have spoiled the audience for John Carter. Come on, I cringe to think that this movie that we have all so anxiously been waiting for years to come to fruition, is coming out just 3 years too late… 3 years after Avatar, instead of perhaps 3 years before.

    Wish i can whip out my bull horn **”This story was written a century ago by the infamous Edgar Rice Burroughs and for decades the wheels have been in motion to turn it into an epic saga!!!”***

    The record definitely needs to be straight! Please, Mr. Stanton? Mr. Strauss? Someone out there, help?

  • I agree. There are lots of choices other than the dead wife…. that’s a good one.

  • I think personally a better storyarch would have beeeeeeen

    If he was greedy, not necessariyl contradictory to Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter

    Imagine a gold hungry confederate soldier, looking to strike it big . . . and by the end of the story . . . . all the riches in the world mean nothing to him without his love

    that might have worked a bit better!

  • Well, I agree that ERB’s John Carter wasn’t war weary — but I don’t think Jake Sully was “war-weary” so I dont’ think this makes JC seem derivative of Avatar. Jake Sully was phyiscally damaged, yes. but he was pretty feisty from the start. I get the frustration at what Stanton has done, but the sad reality is that if he didn’t create a character arc and overarching theme for his character — the critics would absolutely murder him. That’s one of the checkboxes that has to get checked off, even in a superhero movie–“character is transformed, has an arc”. Stanton and Disney can’t blow off the critics ….they are counting on getting favorable reviews to drive the kind of extended run that will be necessary. On the other hand — it didn’t take a dead wife to give him an arc. Dance with Wolves provides a perfectly good model for the type of transformation that Carter could undergo — and he wasn’t war-weary. We’ll see.

  • Very true, but from the official synopsis and every Stanton interview, Disney John Carter has been rewritten as ‘damaged goods’ – A war-weary, ‘reluctant’ hero who is lost on Earth but ‘rediscovers his humanity’ on a new world.

    That sounds a lot more like Jake Sully than John Carter to me.

    As we all know, ‘reluctant’ is the antithesis of who ERB’s John Carter of Mars is.

    So while A Princess of Mars is certainly the foundation of Avatar, Disney John Carter will much more closely resemble Cameron’s film than the book did.

    Ironically, this gives the uninformed ‘Avatar rip-off’ cry some credence.

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