Taking Stock of Barsoom: Strengths and Weaknesses by Abraham Sherman

A Princess of Mars, Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs, ERBDOM, John Carter of Mars

Any prospective “A Princess of Mars” adaptation must fully take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the novel and make honesty a guiding principle.

There is no doubt that the flaws or “warts” in the Barsoom books were part of the reason that so many filmmaking attempts failed over the last eighty years. An expert in comic books and pulp adaptations told me that more than forty writers have tried their hand at the adaptation.

Specific issues, whether real or imagined, that have proven challenging to screenwriters include:

(1) Is the story too strange for audiences to accept?

(2) Confusion about its genre – science fiction or fantasy?  Pulp or epic?

(3) Our knowledge of Mars as a dead world

(4) No scientific explanation for John Carter’s transit to Mars

(5) No follow-up on the idea of John Carter being ageless

(6) ERB’s overdependence on coincidence to propel the narrative

(7) Rushed events after John Carter leaves the Tharks

(8) The brutality of the Thark invasion of Zodanga

(9) Thin characterization

(10) Stilted dialogue with old-fashioned diction and syntax

(11) Originally written as a stand-alone, yet ended up being the first story in a sub-trilogy within the series of eleven books – how to integrate it more with the two stories that follow?

(12) The sequels venturing across the minefields of gender, race and religion

What other issues have fans and would-be filmmakers encountered?

Some of these supposed weaknesses have more merit than others.  None of them is a deal-breaker.  Everything of substance here can be “fixed” by patching ERB with ERB.  For every weakness that can be noted, there are many more strengths (perhaps a subject for a different post).  The strengths define the work, not the debatable weaknesses, as its century of influence and inspiration has demonstrated.

The books have a tremendous cinematic quality, but the narratives require extraordinary patience and elbow grease to tune up without sabotaging the core appeal. Barsoom is a grand, exciting, intricate place to work. The machinery of ERB’s stories includes very few parts that are interchangeable with outside creations. Thankfully, ERB created enough material that the needs of one Barsoom adaptation can be addressed by borrowing gears from elsewhere in the eleven-book series.

Bringing virtually anything in from outside the series risks creating an impression of it being derivative, since this story has influenced so many others. Using a copy of something that copied Barsoom to try to patch Barsoom doesn’t work. Only ERB can patch ERB.

ERB’s “A Princess of Mars,” no matter how lumpy or “clunky” it may be at times, cries out for a careful, polished, faithful film adaptation. ERB, the master “campfire storyteller,” may have written fast to feed his family and to prove that he could write better rot than the next guy (according to his classic self-effacing attitude), but in the process he laid the groundwork for an incomparable cinematic experience.

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