Saturday, March 10, 2012

Return to Mars

Santa Maria Crater, Mars, by the Opportunity Rover. Image credit: NASA
Sometime after my eighth birthday, a friend and I discovered a shelf of amazing old books in the back of our small-town library. They were fat, well-worn hardcovers, most bound in red but some in green, with old-fashioned lettering and eye-popping illustrations: scantily clad women, men fighting monsters, distant views of crumbling cities, even a dinosaur or two.

Some of the books were about Tarzan, whom we already knew well. Others were about journeys to the center of Earth, which we’d certainly heard of. Still others were about Mars – but not any version we’d ever dreamed of. Instead of little green men with bald heads zipping around in flying saucers, we saw beautiful ladies dressed like harem girls with feathers in their hair – sinewy bare-chested men waving long swords at freakish adversaries – and stone palaces with tapestries hanging from intricately carven walls.

All those amazing books were written by one man – Edgar Rice Burroughs – and most of them were illustrated by another – J. Allen St. John. The combination of the two was irresistible. After careful consideration of the pictures, I took a volume titled Thuvia, Maid of Mars to the librarian’s desk. (As it happened, the very first book of the Martian series, A Princess of Mars, was missing from the collection.) I believe my friend chose one of the stories about the Earth’s Core.

To our surprise, the librarian wasn’t pleased with our interest in Burroughs. She told us that these books were no longer recommended for children, which is why they had been stashed away in back. Nevertheless, considering that my friend and I were regular patrons who had long since graduated from Dr. Seuss, she let us check out our chosen volumes. Over the next several months we worked our way through a great many of those red and green books.

Illustration for Thuvia, Maid of Mars by J. Allen St. John
That was 50 years ago. The library has since burned down, and the books went with it. I haven’t seen that friend since high school. But my love for Burroughs’ Martian tales has never abated. So last night, when Disney’s adaptation of A Princess of Mars premiered at the local IMAX under its focus-group-approved title of John Carter, you can be sure I was sitting in one of the good seats.

Overall I enjoyed the movie. The Disney team wisely decided against updating the source material and kept the action embedded in its late 19th century context. They did an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of Frank Schoonover’s original illustrations (Princess was one of the few stories that St. John didn’t do). As a result, the visual impact of the film is very strong. The six-limbed green Martians have been brought to life as only CGI can do it, and the vast, swirling battle scenes look like they leaped from the pages of the book, with John Carter hurtling over his enemies like Douglas Fairbanks on wires. I especially liked the glimpses of Helium and Zodanga, the battling cities of the red Martians; these are thoroughly exotic and otherworldly places, with an ancient/future look that is central to Burroughs’ vision. At times I even had the impression that director Andrew Stanton took some cues from Aelita, Queen of Mars, a Soviet science fiction film of 1924 that, while owing a large debt to Burroughs, also showcased the latest in Futurist design with its costumes and sets.

To my surprise, I was perfectly content with Taylor Kitsch in the title role. I might have picked somebody more obviously Southern and more convincingly military to play John Carter, Captain in the Army of the Confederacy (Josh Holloway and Ben Browder spring to mind), whereas Kitsch used to model for Abercrombie & Fitch. But in fact he brings a wry sense of humor to the part, and I liked his chemistry with Lynn Collins, who plays Dejah Thoris, the actual Princess of Mars. Physically Kitsch is perfect, with a lean, lithe body that resembles those of the men in St. John’s illustrations from the 1920s, rather than a Schwarzenegger-type steroid overdose. His athleticism is apparent even through the wires and big software.

Lynn Collins has a more thankless role as the perennial damsel in distress, but at least she gets to wield a sword with the best of them, and in keeping with her characterization in the original novel, we are constantly reminded that Dejah Thoris is a trained scientist. This new Dejah does depart from the original in one key area: she’s the one who first puts the moves on Carter, rather than the reverse. Mars has become much less puritanical since Burroughs’ day! I thoroughly approve.

Now for what I didn’t like. As I hinted before, I was already well-acquainted with Barsoom (as Burroughs called it) and various members of the family of Dejah Thoris before I ever got to read A Princess of Mars. So when I finally did read the book (I still have my crumbling paperback from Ballantine Books, printed in 1963), I was delighted by the way it took me step-by-step from Earth to Mars, filling in details about Carter’s early days on Barsoom among the green men of Thark that had been mentioned only in passing in the later books of the series.

Disney and Stanton chose a very different approach. They begin the movie in the midst of some wild Barsoomian action involving the men of Zodanga, and only later introduce John Carter. (Bad idea!) They also added an absurdly complex back story to explain how John Carter traveled to Mars and why Helium and Zodanga are at war. (Burroughs was content with Apache magic in the first case and plain old aggression in the second.) In so doing they took two minor characters from the original series – Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga, who is Dejah’s unsuccessful suitor and a complete nonentity; and Matai Shang, Holy Hekkador of the Holy Therns, who doesn’t even appear in Princess but fills a small supporting role in the next two novels – and goosed them into major villains. I would have been far, far happier with a movie in which Matai Shang did not appear at all, and certainly not in a bald, shape-shifting incarnation that bears no resemblance to anything Burroughs wrote.

Just as unfortunate is the excessively choppy way in which they handle John Carter’s days among the Tharks at the beginning of the story. Burroughs built a careful narrative of Carter’s rise through the ranks of the Tharkian chieftains, which was paralleled by the rise of his Martian friend, Tars Tarkas. Every time Carter killed a Thark, he took the dead warrior’s name, possessions, and rank, thus winning the right to live among the green barbarians as “a prisoner with power.” Similarly, Tars Tarkas begins simply as a chieftain of the Tharks, and only slowly rises to Jed (big chief) and finally Jeddak (emperor) at the end of the novel.

Martian flyers, from JOHN CARTER
But in the film, Tarkas is already Jeddak when the story begins, and we never learn why exactly the green Martians call our hero Dotar Sojat instead of John Carter (it’s because he killed two guys named Dotar and Sojat). Still worse, we get only the most garbled version of what for me was the most memorable part of the Tharkian chapters: the strange history of Sola, the only green Martian capable of love and compassion, and Sola’s forbidden relationship with Tars Tarkas. Although Sola is a character in the movie, and we do learn that she is Tarkas’ daughter, her story unfolds in a puzzling, disjointed way that is bound to confuse anybody who doesn’t know the book. Thus Stanton squandered an opportunity to tell an alien but highly moving story, and failed to flesh out two interesting characters who are so central to his plot.

I could continue listing all the ways in which Disney departs from Burroughs, but I’d sound even more like a geeky old curmudgeon than I already do. I’ll be content to make two final complaints. First, Disney was stupid to introduce Dejah Thoris to the audience before John Carter gets to meet her, so that we lose the opportunity to see her through his eyes. Second, a key scene in this version violates everything Burroughs tells us about Martian mores. Stanton shows us Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, telling Dejah that she must marry a villain she hates in order to bring peace and save her city. I had to stifle a groan as I watched that happen.
Illustration for A Princess of Mars by Frank Schoonover
To quote from the novel: “Tardos Mors . . . has sent word that he and his people would rather look upon the dead face of their princess than see her wed to any than her own choice, and that personally he would prefer being engulfed in the ashes of a lost and burning Helium to joining the metal of his house with that of Than Kosis.” (Than Kosis = Jeddak of Zodanga, another detail Stanton jettisoned.)

Bottom line: I enjoyed the movie, but with mixed feelings. It’s very gratifying to see these beloved old visions of Mars brought to life, but Disney and Stanton undercut their own success by treating their source material in such a cavalier manner. In the 50 years since I first visited Barsoom, I’ve been present on opening weekend for all the intervening landmarks of science fiction cinema: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner, Matrix, and Avatar – not to mention the be-all and end-all of epic fantasy, Lord of the Rings. This retelling of A Princess of Mars could have had an impact similar to those classic films, but the creative team decided instead to concoct an unnecessarily contrived and chaotic story that is unlikely to translate into an enthusiastic market share.

Peter Jackson understood that you need to stick to the book and pay attention to the hardcore fans. In the end, Andrew Stanton did not. I’m grateful to him for bringing us this gorgeous piece of cinema, but I strongly doubt that we’ll be seeing a sequel in my lifetime.

Still, I’d love to be wrong.

Taylor Kitsch & Lynn Collins as John Carter & Dejah Thoris