I was dubious when I walked into the theater that was showing John Carter. I feared that Disney would render the original story unrecognizable. My fears, however, were unfounded.
John Carter is a respectable sci-fi action flick that draws heavily from its source material. Taylor Kitsch (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) plays disillusioned Civil War veteran John Carter, who wants nothing more than to strike gold and retire in luxury. Much to his dismay, Carter is transported to Mars and entangled in a war between the cities of Helium and Zodanga. Princess of Helium Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) further complicates matters. If she marries prince of Zodanga Sab Than (Dominic West, Johnny English Reborn) the war will end. She is, to no one’s surprise, established as John Carter’s love interest early on.
While Collins and Kitsch play the “spirited princess” and “apathetic savior” roles very well, the romance between them is forced. The lack of depth in their relationship is forgivable—this is an action movie—but the lack of tension is not. It makes the two of them uninteresting outside of action scenes, a stark contrast to West. Sab Than is an utter scumbag, and West is clearly having a blast playing him.
It is good then, that the movie has a large number of action scenes. Of particular note is one scene midway through the film. John Carter is engaged in battle against an alien horde and, as he fights, the scene jumps between the growing pile of bodies and a flashback of him burying his family. It is a powerful and unexpected juxtaposition in what looked to be simply a massive fight scene.
In sum, John Carter is both exciting and amusing. Maybe it does fall prey to some well-known action movie conventions, but that does not automatically make it bad. Even if it did, there is enough out-of-the-ordinary in the plot and setting to keep you interested anyway.
Edgar Rice Burroughs worked as a clerk in a stationery company in 1912 when his first novel, A Princess of Mars, was published. Little did he know that the book and its sequels would make him one of the grandfathers of science fiction.
A Princess of Mars did not simply help invent science fiction; it single-handedly introduced audiences of the time to the subset of sci-fi known as planetary romance. Planetary romance typically takes place on one non-earth planet and prominently features swashbuckling adventure. Because what Burroughs wrote was completely new, he assumed that the reader would take nothing for granted. This caused him to painstakingly describe the alien society, the way Mars was slowly dying and everything else bizarre about the setting.
Does Disney’s movie adaptation of A Princess of Mars—named John Carter after the titular character—do justice to such a revolutionary novel? Well no, not entirely. But that is all right. Disney has an advantage that Burroughs did not.
Disney’s advantage and the reason it could successfully compress this complex narrative into two hours is the growth of viewers’ familiarity with science fiction. When one of the antagonists says “Mars is dying,” the viewers do not need a multi-page explanation of the phenomenon. They accept it as a convention of the sci-fi genre and move on.
This effect allowed the screenwriters to cherry-pick most of the interesting, emotional and awesome scenes from the novel and string them together in order with a more linearized and driving plot.
The result is very entertaining indeed. Would I still recommend reading the book? Yes, it is a completely different experience. Does the movie need to be a carbon copy of the book to be good? After a 100-year wait, the answer is no.