John Carter
Produced and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon


When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Under the Moons of Mars in 1911, introducing the character John Carter, he did so in a mood of desperation.  At 35, with a wife and two children, he had failed miserably in several business ventures and was in the process of going broke trying to sell pencil sharpeners.  So, logically, he turned to writing science-fiction fantasy.  Years later he explained it this way.  He had become addicted to adventure tales published in the pulp magazines of the day.  Noting the poor quality of most of the yarns he was devouring, he reasoned that

if people were paid for writing rot . . . I could write stories just as rotten. . . . Although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so.

His first publisher, All-Story magazine, agreed in the amount of $400, far from a fortune but still a not inconsiderable sum in 1911.

Burroughs left unsaid that, with Under the Moons of Mars, he did more than begin to make decent money.  He reinvented himself.  When we meet Carter in the story’s opening chapters, it’s 1880, and he, like Burroughs, is a failure.  As he explains to his nephew, Burroughs himself, when he was decommissioned from his post as Confederate captain after the Civil War, his Confederate money was useless, and he found his military training wouldn’t serve to replenish his fortunes.  So he goes to Arizona to prospect for gold, a gambit almost as unpromising as writing schoolboy fantasies.  Nevertheless, he makes a likely strike in a vein of quartz.  After an Apache ambush, however, he must take refuge in a cave filled with a strange vapor that paralyzes him.  As he struggles to break free from the vapor’s influence, he feels his body make a snapping sound and finds himself naked, uncannily standing over his still clothed and seemingly sleeping self.  His new self is not a spirit.  He’s the corporeal Carter in duplicate.  At this point in the narrative, Burroughs doesn’t explain how this could be.  Much later, when he does explain, it still remains essentially unexplained.  Which is as it should be in a just-so story like this that functions—wittingly or not—as the author’s death-and-rebirth wish fulfillment.

As you would expect, Carter leaves the cave after a few minutes, having occasion for some fresh air.  Once outside, he takes the opportunity to scan the night sky.

My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon.  As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination—it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment.  As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron.  My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.  There was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness.  I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape.  I knew that I was on Mars.

And then Carter’s fortunes begin to change, as would Burroughs’.  On the red planet, there’s even a building “constructed of gleaming white marble inlaid with gold and brilliant stone,” a treasure hunter’s dream if ever there was one.

Carter’s dream was Burroughs’ also, and like his hero he became a new man, baptized into earthly capitalism.  The following year he published Tarzan of the Apes, which was the beginning of a series of 24 novels.  Movies, radio dramas, comic books and strips, and television series followed, all managed closely and profitably by the indefatigable Burroughs and his sons.  He wrote nine more John Carter space operas along with tales in every conceivable popular moneymaking genre.  Seventy-four books in all, and all quite innocent of literary distinction.  While Tarzan was a marked improvement on the first John Carter, Burroughs’ prose remained florid, his dialogue inert, his plots repetitive, and his themes intellectually half-baked, mere pretensions to insights into human nature and current events.  And yet his stuff sold, especially the Tarzan stories: 100 million copies of his novels in 56 languages, according to his official website.  What this translates into in lifetime earnings no one quite says, least of all his estate, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., but we have some indication.  In 1928, residents of the precinct neighboring his 550 acres in the San Fernando Valley adopted Burroughs’ name for his ranch, Tarzana, as their village’s.  In America, that spells real money.

Under the Moons of Mars was published as a novel bearing the title A Princess of Mars in 1917.  Although the novel was as rotten as Burroughs had predicted it would be, it attracted filmmakers through the years, probably because of the success of the Tarzan movies.  Producers lined up, scripts were written, but nothing was ever launched—until now.  In 2009 Walt Disney Pictures decided to give it a try with Pixar director and animator Andrew Stanton, who had made the pleasant Finding Nemo and the extraordinary WALL-E.  On a $250 million budget, he’s turned Burroughs’ tale of self-renewal into a stupendous, colossal 3-D IMAX extravaganza, the kind of entertainment that would have wowed me at 12 but now impresses me more as an endearing example of America’s penchant for heady economic excess.  Looked at objectively, John Carter is what used to be known as a Saturday-afternoon serial, an honorable if often cheesy genre among Hollywood’s offerings in its tireless efforts to turn a buck.  Had it been made with the budget (adjusted for inflation, of course) that had been granted, say, the Flash Gordon serials made in the 1930’s, one wouldn’t question its virtue.  But then one might not be as bedazzled and benumbed.

Well, how was the money spent?  Not badly, all in all.  For all its Saturday afternoon silliness, the film is gorgeous and fun.  As I suppose is necessary in movies, Carter’s transition to Mars is given a material cause.  It’s effected by the medallion he finds on the Thern he kills in the Arizonan cave, an artifact not to be found in the novel.  A Thern, as you doubtless know, belongs to a priestly class of semidivine immortals who live on Mars and elsewhere, meddling in mortal affairs, as gods are wont to do.  This is an early instance of many departures from the text.  I wish Stanton had introduced more.  He is faithful enough to Burroughs’ crowded, if not deliberately padded, text that the film’s plot becomes as irksome with unresolved sequences and non sequiturs as does the novel.  Therns, who we’re first told are immortal, turn out to be disappointingly vulnerable to gunfire.  Then consider Tal Hajus, a nine-foot, four-armed green Thark.  You can’t miss him.  He comes with ram-like tusks.  When first introduced, Tal’s tusks are fully in place; then, in the last scenes, one of them appears to have been broken off.  How this dental misfortune came about seems not to have made the final cut (unless I nodded off during the third act).  Stanton would have done better to curb Burroughs’ disorderly flights of fancy and given his storyline a more deliberate shaping.  Instead, we get Carter bounced about the Martian deserts from one tribe and species to another, and after a while we’re not always sure who is who or why we should care.  When Carter enlists the Tharks on a rescue mission, he leads them to the wrong city, and they have to turn around and return from whence they came, a needless plot complication, it seems.  The mistake, however, does serve as the occasion for one of the film’s few—very few—humorous moments.  Exasperated by the earthling lunkhead, the Thark leader leans over from his mount on a hornless rhinoceros-like creature and slaps the unsuspecting Carter on the back of his head, as though he were a particularly feckless fifth grader.

As this first novel in the Carter series came to be entitled A Princess of Mars, so in the film Taylor Kitsch as Carter has a royal damsel in distress to save from marriage to a devious warlord.  She’s played with admirable intensity and a smidgen of humor by Lynn Collins, an unconventionally pretty young woman of Irish and Cherokee ancestry.  This being a Disney film, she turns out not to need all that much saving.  She wields a sword as formidably as Carter.  (Yes, as custom dictates, swords are the weapons of choice among ray-gun-packing warriors.)  With startling blue eyes and Cherokee cheekbones, Miss Collins completes her romantic arsenal by cutting quite a figure in her midriff-baring cutaway gowns.  Mr. Kitsch, on the other hand, brings little more than a scowl and a bare chest to his portrayal.

Even before the film’s opening night, Stanton and company confirmed that a sequel, John Carter: The Gods of Mars, was in the works.  One week after its debut, a desperate Disney announced that, thanks to a disastrous box-office performance, John Carter would likely net an “operating loss of approximately $200 million during our second fiscal quarter.”  Don’t expect to see more Therns and Tharks on the silver screen any time soon.