Wednesday, March 28, 2012

No apology necessary for 'John Carter'

'John Carter' image from Walt Disney Pictures
BARSOOM — There’s a lot of press this month about “The Hunger Games” film and how it succeeded in adapting its source material to a different medium. The same could (and should) be said for “John Carter” (“of Mars”), which is far from a slavish adaptation but retains the spirit and wonder of the original tales.

The summer I was 12, my mother would take my sister and me to the library in the next town over so we could get books to keep us occupied. (We had only three channels on the TV, no video games or Internet or even VHS. Barbaric conditions.)

Frank Frazetta cover art.
One of the books I picked up was a paperback of the first John Carter novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “A Princess of Mars.” My interest probably had more to do with the tantalizing Frank Frazetta front cover art (shown at left) than the text on the back, though the red planet was on everyone’s mind in the summer of 1976 because of the Viking probes landing and the first release of the infamous “Face on Mars” image taken by Viking 1.

(You can read the original FIRST EDITION of the book on the Library of Congress website for free. If you set it for 2-page view, the reader allows you to turn the pages of actual scanned pages of the edition.)

Burroughs’ Tarzan novels had caught my imagination in fifth grade, thanks to the abridged and illustrated versions put out by Whitman Publishing. Later, in middle school, the Mars stories of Ray Bradbury enthralled me.

These “Carter” books were like a combination of the two: A man from Earth somehow finds himself on the dying planet Mars, where lower gravity means his Earth-born muscles and bones make him a virtual superman, and where he fights for his freedom and the survival of his new friends.

Thirty-five summers later, “John Carter” (“of Mars”) is on the big screen and pronounced one of the biggest commercial flops in motion picture history. It may never recoup the cost of production and marketing, although whoever got paid for the marketing owes Disney their money back.

Airship landing in 'John Carter.'
I say that because “John Carter” is a good summer adventure flick, which I think the marketing failed to illustrate. (I saw it last week and want to see it again.) It isn’t going to win any of the actors an award, nor is it deep and meaningful — though there are plenty of lessons within and moments that will mean something to the longtime fans (i.e., “Leave to a Thark his head and one hand and he may yet conquer.”) But it’s a good way to spend a couple of hours, and it makes for interesting conversation afterward.

Carter’s is a classic “hero’s journey,” and although the film might go to dark places, it is light-hearted and carries a positive message.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) of Mars
When we meet him, Carter is a broken man, bitter about the death of his wife and child while he was off fighting for a “cause.” He has no cause now but his own survival. Through the trials of his new existence on a distant planet, he begins to relate to people again — granted, some of them don’t look like “people” at all — and at long last, he regains his compassion and passion alike, willing to lay down his life to save others.

The sequence in which he makes this decision and stands alone against a barbarian horde is simultaneously beautiful and horrific; we see him killing desert warriors in a brutal fight while his mind’s eye replays the agony of finding his family dead and burying them in a driving rain.

The film has been criticized as “derivative,” but only if you would consider a film of “Le Morte d’Arthur” derivative of “Star Wars.” Carter rode flyers before a Skywalker ever jumped on a speeder bike; went native long before the hero of “Avatar” did so; leaped tall buildings at a single bound decades before Superman’s debut.

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) Princess of Helium
And Carter’s true love, Dejah Thoris, courtesy of Frazetta and Marvel Comics adaptations, taught Princess Leia all she knows about metal bikinis.

(This is my 'Undercurrents' column for The News Herald this week. A couple of notes for the uninitiated: 1) "Barsoom" is the native word for the planet we call "Mars"; 2) "Kaor!" is the native word for "Hello" or "Welcome" and is used here in place of my usual sign-off as a punchline to the metal bikini remark. My feeble attempt at a joke. Thanks for reading.)

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