A little over a month ago, I mentioned how much I was both dreading and looking forward to the release of John Carter, the live action film adaptation of the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom stories, A Princess of Mars. I had been looking forward to it because the original series is easily one of the best and brightest examples of early 20th century pulp fiction and it’s so beloved that Robert A. Fucking Heinlein essentially wrote a full-length Barsoom fanfic about it; at the same time I was dreading it because, well, who hasn’t seen the G.I. Joe movie and wondered, “who the fuck green-lit this piece of shit?”
I’m pleased to report that the movie is not utter garbage. At the same time, major liberties are taken with the source material – sometimes to excellent effect, and sometimes not so much – but a lot of the major themes of the original work are still present.
For anyone who’s keeping score, the John Carter of Burroughs’ stories is a steely, seemingly immortal and implacable force of nature; possessing boundless determination and fearlessness in the face of adversity, the former Confederate cavalryman is always ready for a fight, ruthless to his enemies, bound by a strict code of honor and possessing a brilliant tactical mind, and loyal to those he deems worthy of friendship, while at the same time being a suave motherfucker with the ladies – pretty much a loincloth-garbed fusion of Captain Kirk and the Dread Pirate Roberts. He is Grade-A American Man Meat whose motivation includes kicking four-armed green Martian asses, rescuing hot red Martian chicks, and leading massive armies into battle on the back of a six-legged bantha-looking thing after punching mountains in space. He’s kind of a one-note guy, but it’s the same note you’d hear if you kicked a unicorn in the mommy-daddy button hard enough to make it vomit rainbows or Neil Patrick Harris collectible merchandise.
The movie version of John Carter is a lot more nuanced. This may seem like a condemnation of the character, but it’s not meant to be so; while the source material’s protagonist is like an antebellum version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, he’s got two settings: FUCKING WICKED AWESOME and TOTALLY FUCKING BATSHIT CRAZY AMAZEBALLS. Burroughs’ John Carter rarely displays any sort of internal struggle – there’s no room for namby-pamby emotional bullshit motivations besides 1) survive, 2) conquer, 3) run out of bubblegum, or 4) get your ass to Mars. This makes for great escapist literature that reminds you that, yes, there was a time that men were expected to be men instead of the kind of walking vaginas that talk about their feelings and refer to themselves as “male-bodied persons.”
Of course, Burroughs lived in a time that predated the Nineteenth Amendment – considering how A Princess of Mars was published in 1912, literally a century ago – and the societal norms he encountered included a world where gender roles were set in stone. Women couldn’t even vote, let alone be seen as anything besides walking wombs, and this is reflected in the way these roles are played out in the Barsoom narratives. It’s adolescent male fantasy wish fulfillment at its finest, and while it won’t be winning any Lambda Awards, it’s satisfying and fun to read as long as you don’t get all Andrea Dworkin about it.
In comparison, the film adaptation is much more postmodern in its portrayal of the titular character, expanding him from a masculine caricature into a more full-fleshed and well-rounded figure than he appears in the Burroughs novels. The core of who he is remains the same – the man’s prowess in battle is undiminished, as is his loyalty and sense of honor – but he has motivations and complexities instead of just two modes of conduct (those being Sleeping Peacefully and Gleefully Slaughtering Thousands). The movie’s take on the character is a man haunted by the aftermath of the Civil War, mourning for the dead left in the wake of that great conflict that is only compounded by his failure to protect his home and family from the depredations of a victorious and vindictive Northern army; even in the face of his nearly unmatched physical abilities, he has the failures of the past holding him back, preventing him from committing to a cause besides self-preservation. It’s only after the film’s protagonist confronts these demons of his past and overcomes them that he unlocks his true potential and becomes the unstoppable mountain of man meat that he is throughout the totality of the novels.
This may sound like blasphemy to Barsoom purists, but I kind of like this John Carter’s character arc more than Burroughs’ original take on the character. His development from broken man that has given up on everything but survival to one that has regained his internal driving passion and fire is powerful, as you can watch the character fulfill his destiny in the film and become the invincible, relentless, driven juggernaut of masculinity that he is throughout the entirety of Burroughs’ prose. It’s much more satisfying to a viewer this way, even if it may offend those who feel the sanctity of the artist’s artistic vision was compromised; in the end, the John Carter of the novels is indistinguishable from the character as he appears at the end of the film: enigmatic and puissant, and with a brooding intensity that speaks volumes and is matched only by King Conan on his throne, John Carter of Mars is quintessentially badass.
It’s a shame he’s played by some dude named Taylor Kitsch. And yeah, that’s his real name.