On Revisiting the Enigmatic Barsoom

In a week and a half, Disney’s John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Barsoom novel, A Princess of Mars, reaches theaters.

I’ve not decided if I’m going to see the film; I know what the film is, because I know what Barsoom is, but the marketing for John Carter has been nothing short of atrocious (the trailers, to say nothing of the film’s title itself, have done nothing to explain to audiences exactly what this film is), and Disney seems to be bracing for a box office bomb of epic epicness.

However, the film did prompt me to reread A Princess of Mars for the first time in a fair few years.

When I was six, my dad and I watched Carl Sagan’s COSMOS, and for Christmas when I was seven my parents gave me Sagan’s book, and I have treasured that book for thirty years. I remember flipping through its pages and seeing Michael Whelan’s cover to A Princess of Mars. Sagan, who was himself inspired by Burroughs, inspired me to read the Barsoom novels. I can’t say for certain how far into the series I read, five or six novels I think, but even so, it’s been a quarter century since my last visit to Barsoom.

Yet, I have some of the books on my shelf. I just hadn’t looked at them. I even have some of the comics published by Dynamite Entertainment (yes, the ones that they’re being sued over), but I’ve never gotten around to reading them. :)

Last night I closed A Princess of Mars after two days of reading the book on my morning and evening train commutes.

It was fun, exciting, and occasionally frustrating. I have the feeling that I nodded off and fell asleep for about ten pages, because there were some things that I felt I should have noticed (like the introduction of a villain, for instance) and somehow didn’t. I found the writing generally evocative, I found the science generally annoying, and the last page was positively moving.

I know I approached the book differently than I did nearly thirty years ago. The episodicness of the book wouldn’t have bothered me at the age of eight or nine. The plot, which is both random and coincidental, also wouldn’t have bothered me. I won’t say that these things bothered me now, but I do tend to prefer stories where B happens because of A and not B simply happens after A for unrelated reasons. All in all, I’m not at all disappointed that I reread the book. There needs to be more science fiction like this. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed it. :)

Essentially, I saw in A Princess of Mars the potential for a good story, even if it doesn’t quite get there. The narrative style, which is a memoir by Carter, compresses the story down to a bare minimum and eliminates a great deal of dialogue. Another writer could have (and would have) taken this book and written a whole series of novels, which each group of two or three chapters having enough narrative for a single book.

In many ways, it’s the same issue that Disney had with the Narnia films. (And it’s suddenly occurred to me that the stories of A Princess of Mars and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe really aren’t that far apart.) C.S. Lewis’ books have a wealth of incident, but not much in the way of developing plot.

So I can see how a screenwriter would have a field day with A Princess of Mars — not only does the story need to be pared back in places, but it also needs more development in other places to build story and character arcs, and the lack of dialogue in large parts of the book affords a great deal of freedom to the screenwriter to craft the script.

I mentioned a few days ago on Twitter that I was baffled by the decision to novelize John Carter, since there’s a perfectly good book by Burroughs that needs only a movie-inspired cover. But when I finished A Princess of Mars I realized why that wouldn’t have been effective. There are things in the film, like the Therns, which simply don’t appear in A Princess of Mars. The movie, to judge by the trailers, starts in the same place as Burroughs’ book, but it will apparently go in some different directions. I don’t know that I care enough about Barsoom to read the novelization of John Carter, but I have picked up John Joseph Adams’ new Barsoom anthology Under the Moons of Mars.

Does rereading A Princess of Mars make me any more likely to go see John Carter next weekend? Erm, ahh, ehh…

Okay, I think the movie cannot possibly be that bad. I think that Disney has marketed it horrifically; it’s like The Rocketeer in a way, a movie that’s so far outside of Disney’s wheelhouse that they have no idea how to market it, let alone any idea of whom to market it to. (And to show how little they know how to market John Carter, they don’t even have toy licenses for it, and Barsoom is made for toys.) However, is it a movie that I feel worthy of spending more than ten dollars to see once, when I can wait a few months, spend a little more than twice that, and then watch whenever I like, for as many times as I like? It’s going to come down to the reviews and the word-of-mouth, basically. If the reviews and the buzz are good, then maybe I’ll go see John Carter. If the reviews are mixed and the buzz is soft, John Carter can wait for the DVD.

But that doesn’t mean I’m done with Barsoom. I may toss Gods of Mars, the second book in the Barsoom series, in my bag tomorrow and read it on the train.

Mars awaits!

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