When I heard that Disney Studios was pouring $250 million into the production of the movie, John Carter of Mars, I eagerly awaited its debut in theaters back in March 2012. I plunked down my money for the full-blown 3D version that first weekend it arrived only to find that Hollywood had once again run amuck with a film adaptation of a book. The computer-generated special effects, the impressive wide-screen cinematography, and the recreation of the original story’s alien creatures were successfully done. The results of those efforts were wonderfully pleasing. And at the start of the movie, I was delightfully intrigued by the unfolding story, with plenty of anticipation for what was to come. However, I was sorely disappointed with the runaway scripting of what had been a perfectly good book, a book that I had read and enjoyed as a child and read again as an adult, Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars.
When I was a kid, my dad always drove us to our vacation destinations and there was nothing more to do than to sit in the back seat of the car with my little brother. We had no electronic games, no MP3 players, no entertainment center, not even air conditioning. To keep us occupied, my mom brought along paperback books, and that is how I first became acquainted with the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a prolific writer whose many works of fiction were first published in serial form for such magazines as Amazing Stories, Argosy Weekly, and All-Story Weekly. While he is best known as the creator of Tarzan, Burroughs wrote dozens of published novels, the first being Tarzan of the Apes, written in 1911 and published as a novel in 1914. A Princess of Mars, the first in his Mars series, was also written in 1911 and introduced in novel form in 1916. Burroughs published more than 20 titles featuring Tarzan as his protagonist, and more than 10 titles comprised his Mars series. Although Burroughs died in 1950, his most popular novels were reintroduced in paperback form in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which featured cover art by Frank Frazetta and by Jeff Jones; the art alone lured me to pick up a book and read it. I was hooked, and have since read and reread more than 50 of Burroughs’s works, including those centered on the planet Venus, staged in the Earth’s hollow Pellucidar, and on the lost island of Caspak. Burroughs also produced a number of action-packed singular works with and without a science-fiction twist.
The key to good writing applies to good movies: keep the audience thrilled and involve them in the characters. Burroughs creates heroes you care about and villains you hate. He places them in fantastic, yet credible environments and sweeps you from page to page. He constantly challenges his heroes en route to their singular goal, blocking them by obstacles and villains at every turn. He puts his characters in harm’s way only to thwart death at the last possible moment. His villains are despicable and easy to hate. His heroes are the embodiment of all that is good and honorable in humanity and easy to cheer for. Simple yet satisfying storylines are behind the tremendous success of such blockbusters as George Lucas’s Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, and at the heart of Steven Spielberg’s box office draws, Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park. The movie adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular Harry Potter books were successful because Warner Brothers stuck to the story—the only way Rowling would allow it—and brought the characters to life, intact, to the delight of audiences everywhere.
Beyond the difficulty of recouping a profit from the enormous cost Disney Studios spent to produce John Carter of Mars, the movie flopped because it failed to stick to the simple, successful formula to be found in the original book upon which is was so loosely based, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Now Disney Studios has lured former Warner Brothers executive Alan Horn, under whom the Harry Potter movies were such a success. The future looks bright for Disney, but for true fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it’s a little too late.
Disney’s John Carter of Mars is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray Disk. I'd really rate John Carter at 3 1/2 stars rather than the 4 stars shown here, and I wouldn't give it 3 stars either because the I was so impressed with the visual renderings of the landscapes, the Martian inhabitatants, the airships, and the first half of the film.