by Gareth Negus
2012 will see the release of a film I’ve been anticipating for over a quarter of a century. Directed by Pixar regular Andrew Stanton, and with a screenplay by Michael Chabon, John Carter of Mars is not the first attempt to film Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian novels – it’s not even the first to make it into production – but it does stand a chance of being the first to fully realise Burroughs’ world the way it looked in my head when I was 12.
Burroughs has always been best known for the creation of Tarzan, partly due to that character’s popularity in other media. However, few of the many films to have featured the Lord of the Jungle are particularly faithful to the tone or detail of the novels. Tarzan’s Africa is a land packed with mysterious lost cities, tribes of great apes previously unknown to science (one group of which, the Mangani, are the creatures who raise Tarzan); it bears about as much resemblance to the real Africa as it does to Wigan.
The Tarzan films generally preferred to stick to a mix of hostile natives, evil hunters and the occasional bit of alligator wrestling. (The version closest to the books was actually the cheaply animated Filmation cartoon series of the 70s.) Hugh Hudson’s 1984 Greystoke also changes things but goes to a different extreme, treating the source novel with the kind of respect usually retained for great literature. Burroughs could certainly spin a yarn, but great literature he wasn’t, nor would he claim to be.
Though I read some of the Tarzan novels as a boy, it was the adventures of John Carter, the Virginian gentleman and adventurer transported to an alien world, that really hooked me. When I was 12, the books were available in editions with colourful, exciting cover paintings by Michael Whelan that accurately reflected the contents – the Whelan cover for the first novel, “Princess of Mars” heads up this piece. That novel, originally called “Under the Moons of Mars” and published in 1912, tells of how the former Civil War soldier turned gold prospector John Carter (presented as a great uncle of Burroughs) is transported to Mars (known to its inhabitants as Barsoom). Hiding in a cave from a group of murderous Apaches who have already killed his prospecting partner, Carter is incapacitated by a strange smoke. He undergoes an out of body experience that transports him to a world he instinctively recognises as Mars, a world that ‘for [him], the fighting man, had always held the power of irresistible enchantment’.