Does John Carter break the Edgar Rice Burroughs movie curse?

Adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels haven’t fared well in the past, so can Andrew Stanton’s John Carter break the cycle? Terence finds out...

This Friday, one of science fiction and fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most popular characters is finally making his big screen debut. And it’s not that yelling guy in the loin cloth who hangs out with apes. No, the movie is about Burroughs’ other most popular character, John Carter of Mars.

Primarily known as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) wrote an estimated 70 novels featuring a wide array of different characters and their stories. Most of his books are still in print today (there are 539 Burroughs titles available from the Kindle store alone). 62 years after his death, Burroughs continues to be one of the genre’s most venerated old-school pulp adventure writers.

Burroughs, however, has not had a great history when it comes to motion pictures. You could call it the Edgar Rice Burroughs movie curse. While often financially successful, big screen adaptations of his work have largely been B-movie fare, often aimed at younger and less discriminating audiences. Some of the Burroughs’ movies have risen above their lower echelon cinematic status, but not many. The new Disney produced John Carter movie may reverse the trend, but the odds are not in the blockbuster’s favour.

A Princess Of Mars is the first of 11 Carter novels written by Burroughs between 1912 (this year marks the centenary of the debut of both Tarzan and Carter) and 1948.  John Carter is an American Civil War veteran who, while searching for gold in a mysterious cave in Arizona, finds himself ethereally transported to Mars. It’s similar to the out-of-body adventure premises used in The Matrix and Avatar (only Burroughs did it 90 or so years before both of them). Due to the effects of Mars’ gravity, Carter is able to leap long distances and has great physical strength. He quickly becomes a key player in an epic fantasy adventure as different Martian races battle over the fate of the future of Mars (or Barsoom, as it is known to its inhabitants).

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The Carter books contain two of the classic tenants of Burroughs’ work: the rugged, well educated, cultured Anglo Saxon adventurer and the lost alien world in which he is stranded.

According to Burroughs’ IMDb page, there are 68 movies based on his work. Only six of those movies are non-Tarzan adaptations and all but one or two fall into the category of B-movies.

Burroughs himself was initially no stranger to the movies. In 1918, Tarzan Of The Apes, a silent film which Burroughs helped to bring to the screen, opened on Broadway. It became the first movie ever to gross one million dollars.

The movie business, though, would, like it has done to so many others, betray Burroughs. In 1932, Tarzan The Ape Man, the first ‘talkie’ version of Burroughs’ creation, debuted. The film’s producers cast former Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan.

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In the pages of Burroughs’ books, Tarzan is (despite his unique upbringing) well educated, articulate, intelligent, and can speak several languages. In the Weissmuller movies, Tarzan spoke in broken Pidgin English and was a simplistic, childlike being.

Burroughs made two attempts to take the character back. The 1933 serial, Tarzan The Fearless and the 1935 serial The New Adventures Of Tarzan were Burroughs-driven productions that featured an articulate, intelligent Tarzan. Neither production caught on enough to sway the success of the Weissmuller Tarzan films, nor change public perception towards the character.

Over the years, some films and TV shows have attempted more faithful adaptations, to varying degrees of success. Even at their best, though, the movie Tarzans rarely bear more than a passing resemblance to the hero of Burroughs’ 26 Tarzan novels. The movie adaptations of Burroughs’ non-Tarzan novels have fared even worse.

The 1941 serial, Jungle Girl, based on a Burroughs novel of the same name, was just that – a name. Neither the serial nor its sequels (Perils Of Nyoka and Nyoka The Jungle Girl) had anything to do with the novel beyond sharing the same title.

It was not until 1975 that another non-Tarzan Burroughs’ novel would appear on movie screens. The Land That Time Forgot was based on the first novel of the author’s Caspek trilogy, first published in 1918. The book’s setting was a lost island inhabited by dinosaurs, prehistoric creatures and a wide array of other animals, both real and fictional. Caspek, as the island is known to its primitive inhabitants, is discovered by the crew of a lost submarine.

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The screenplay, as adapted by Burroughs aficionado and noted British SF and Fantasy author Michael Moorcock, incorporates elements from all three of the Caspek novels. No stop motion animation (the preferred means of bringing dinosaurs and other big monsters to the screen back in the day) was used. All of the dinosaurs seen on screen are either models or puppets. The overall effect is, well, pretty dated. The acting is classic B-grade action adventure fare all the way, most especially in the case of TV western veteran Doug McClure in the lead role.

Moorcock does a nice job of making Burroughs’ fantastical and arcane concepts succinct, eloquent and easy to grasp, even for a younger audience. The movie has all the earmarks of an old-fashioned Saturday matinee adventure. On that level, The Land That Time Forgot is a very entertaining movie.

The same cannot be said of it sequel, The People That Time Forgot, which came out in 1977. Loosely based on the second Caspek novel of the same name, it is an aimless sequel, both convoluted and a lot less watchable than its predecessor.  Viewing the special effects of the movie’s opening biplane meets pterodactyl scene (inspired by a similar but more interesting scene in the book), it is almost impossible to believe that the movie was released in the same year as the original Star Wars.

In between those two movies, the same studio released another Burroughs adaptation, At The Earth’s Core, in 1976. At The Earth’s Core was the first book in Burroughs’ Pellucidar series, chronicling a lost world at the centre of the Earth. After Tarzan and John Carter, Pellucidar is probably Burroughs’ next best known series.

Once again, the dinosaurs and other monsters that dwell in the Earth’s core are brought to life with models, puppets and even the old Godzilla standby of a guy in a rubber suit.  These effects do not serve the fantastical nature of Burroughs’ creature creations well. The impact of any threatening creature that has the look of a plastic puppet or a guy in a rubber suit is unintentionally comical.

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Some of the other non-Tarzan Burroughs movies belong to a movie studio known as The Asylum. The Asylum is responsible for direct-to-DVD monster fare like Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus and Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus. They are essentially the Netflix era’s version of  the drive-in movies of days gone by. The Asylum has plenty of experience in the limited budget CGI monster department.

In 2009, The Asylum made the second screen adaptation of Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot. This time around the script is a very loose adaptation of Burroughs’ book. The story is updated to the 21st century. The island is now situated in the Bermuda Triangle, on which a group of American tourists and their guide are shipwrecked.

In the true tradition of The Asylum’s notoriously limited production values, our heroes are stranded on an island with what amounts to two tyrannosaurs and a few pterodactyls, only one of which is seen up close. Well, at least that’s a dinosaur population that’s realistic in terms of what the ecosystem of one small island could likely support.

The Asylum’s 2009 version of A Princess Of Mars marks the only previous movie adaptation of a John Carter book. Like their earlier Burroughs movie, the story is also updated to the 21st century. Carter is re-imagined from a Civil War veteran to a hero of the war in Afghanistan. The Carter story, however, is merely a pretext for a low budget rip-off of the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar. This is kind of ironic in light of the fact that Cameron is on record as saying that John Carter was an inspiration for Avatar.

Now, for the first time since the 1930s, Burroughs’ material is the basis of an A-list, big-budget-live action movie in the hands a Hollywood director and studio. However, none of that guarantees that this new John Carter will successfully break the Edgar Rice Burroughs movie curse.

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Director Andrew Stanton is a top notch Pixar animator who directed Wall-E and Finding Nemo. John Carter marks Stanton’s live action directorial debut. Stanton is big, life-long fan of the original Carter books. He read all 11 of them as a child, referring to them as “my Harry Potters”.

Stanton also made the canny move of hiring novelist Michael Chabon to help adapt the screenplay. Chabon is the author of The Amazing Adventures Of Cavalier And Clay, a critically acclaimed and best-selling novel set in the early days of comic book history. Chabon is also a Carter fan, having read the entire series when he was nine.

Still, the issue of the Edgar Rice Burroughs movie curse endures. Did bringing talented Carter fans on board for the movie adaptation actually pay off? The simple answer is yes. John Carter is the Citizen Kane of non-Tarzan Edgar Rice Burroughs movie adaptations.

Stanton and Chabon’s fandom is evident throughout the film. For instance, like in the original novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself appears as a character in the sequences that bookend the movie. Though, in the time period that the film sets those scenes in, the real Burroughs would have been six years old and the not the 20-something he appears to be on screen (and, that, of course, is the only farfetched aspect of inserting Burroughs into the John Carter storyline).

The depiction of Mars in the movie reflects the vision of an alien world as seen through the imagination of the late 19th century. Much of the Martian technology, ships, architecture and weapons have a definite steampunk vibe to them.

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Chabon (one of three screenwriters credited along with Stanton and Mark Andrews)  and Stanton have a strong sense of what made the John Carter books work: chases, aliens, monsters, battles, intrigue and cliff-hangers galore. There’s also some mixing and matching of characters, events and even creatures from some of the later Carter books. On the whole, such alterations serve the movie well.

To be fair, sometimes those elements work for the film and other times they work against it. The steampunk meets Gladiator design of the movie is a bit too over-designed and laboured at times. Some of the dialogue scenes between Carter (Friday Night Lights‘ Taylor Kitsch) and the Martian princess, Deja Thoris (Wolverine‘s Lynn Collins) are somewhat clunky. There are also a few action sequences that are shown in hard-to-follow close-up and constantly shifting angles, cut together with some very quick editing.

Those unfamiliar with the books may find the whole affair a bit too byzantine to follow. Jeddak, Tharks, Barsoom, Zodanga, Therns, Woolas: the film throws a great deal of arcane Burroughsian jargon at the audience in a very short period of time. If you don’t get any of that stuff, all you are left with is a lot of running around and fighting, but it is some mighty good running around and fighting.

The stunts and visual effects (it’s often hard to tell where one ends and the other begins) certainly live up to the Carter legend. Particularly masterfully handled is the sequence in which Carter is forced to battle two giant White Ape creatures in a gladiatorial arena (it’s on all the posters). Stanton visualizes and paces the sequence so as to squeeze every bit of entertainment value the David and Goliath-like spectacle has to offer. It’s a man versus monster battle that represents everything that old-school fantasy pulp adventure should be.

It’s safe to say that John Carter breaks the Edgar Rice Burroughs movie curse.

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For fans of the books and potential fans of the new movie, perhaps the more important question is, will John Carter also be able to achieve major box office success? Is it possible that, like the film’s literary predecessors, we will see many John Carter movies?

Barsoom only knows.

You can read our review of John Carter here.

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