For an author who has been an enormous influence on science fiction, fantasy and adventure fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs' batting record when it comes to big screen adaptations of his work has been spotty at best. That might be a surprise to those who would think that with Tarzan being the subject of countless films and TV shows that Burroughs' record would be if not spotless at least good compared to most authors.
But looking at the novels and comparing them to most of the movies derived from them shows a vast divide between the printed page and the moving image. Tarzan first swung onto film screens in the silent era in various films and serials, most of which are probably lost to the ages. By the time the sound era started Tarzan would make his biggest splash with MGM's series of films starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. But just a glimpse at the first film Tarzan the Ape Man reveals vast differences. The biggest is of course its lead character. In Burroughs' first novel, Tarzan is an illiterate creature who teaches himself to read and write but does not possess the ability to talk. By the novel's end the French officer D'Arnot has taught him to speak and the character becomes a learned, intelligent man who chooses after having his heart broken to return to the wilds. Weissmuller for better or worse never gets past the infamous "Me Tarzan, You Jane" dialogue that more or less now defines the character in most people's eyes. Another change came later around the time that Boy, Tarzan's adopted son showed up. Instead of allowing Tarzan and Jane to marry as in the novels, the studio, maybe fearing censorship problems had Boy discovered the same way Tarzan was. I guess suggesting any kind of sexual relationship was a big no-no at the time.
After MGM the character swung through various series, with differing actors like Rex Barker and Gordon Scott. The last few years have seen various movies that range from the literary-minded Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes with Christopher Lambert, to the soft core porn romp Tarzan The Ape Man with Bo Derek, Tarzan and the Lost City which did keep the Greystoke lineage but attempted to turn the character into Indiana Jones and Disney's animated version, with talking monkeys and Phil Collins songs. Except for the Disney version, none of them caught on with viewers or critics and even the Disney version wasn't the big blockbuster that the studio hoped would keep their traditional animation studio going.
Outside of Tarzan though, Burroughs' has had very few films made. The first non-Tarzan film I could find was the 1941 Republic Pictures serial Jungle Girl. A quick comparison though to the plot described on Amazon for the novel makes it clear the studio bought the book for the title and kept nothing else. Beyond that Burroughs wouldn't make it to the big screen again until the 1970s when the British film company Amicus acquired the rights to three of Burroughs's novels and turned out The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth's Core and The People That Time Forgot, all starring former TV heartthrob Doug McClure (who you might remember from such films as Humanoids from the Deep and Warlords of Atlantis). All three films were made as mid-level B-movies, usually shown on double bills with other B flicks of the period. They do have their fans, mostly because of the campiness of them but as serious attempts at Burroughs, they fall short.
In some cases it might seem silly or foolish to compare the Amicus films or even the Weissmuller films, despite their lavish (for the 1930s) production values to the upcoming John Carter of Mars film. Its director Andrew Stanton is a respected director of films like Finding Nemo and Wall-E, not a director like John Derek or Kevin Conner (who helmed the Amicus trilogy). Disney is footing the bill to the tune of 150 million, providing the resources for top notch visual effects. But the history of ERB on film is a daunting one to overcome. And in some cases Stanton is following in the same footsteps that led to films like At the Earth's Core or Tarzan and the Lost City. First is the already published statement that the film will follow the formula of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. What they means hasn't been made clear. Does it mean that John Carter will be like Captain Jack Sparrow, a comedic fop or more along the lines of Will Turner, a bland straight man to the more outrageous characters. Or does it mean that the film will imitate the comic tone of the Pirates trilogy? At this point it is unclear but the attempts to turn Tarzan into Indiana Jones didn't work.
Another issue is the casting of the film. Cast as John Carter, the 19th century Confederate soldier turned future Warlord of Mars is Taylor Kitsch, best known for his role on the TV series Friday Night Lights and a slew of less than perfect films like Snakes on a Plane and the recent Wolverine. While Mr. Kitsch does have his fanbase, the major question is can he carry the lead in a movie? Or does he even have the talent to carry off the role? After all Weissmuller wasn't hired because he was a talented actor-it was because he could swim and looked good in a loincloth. Also Mr. Kitsch may have wanted to consider the career of Doug McClure. Mr. McClure also gained attention for a popular TV show (The Virginian) and spent most of his career after the Amicus films in other b-films and guest spots on television. Or even Tarzan Casper Van Dien, whose own shot at big screen stardom, Starship Troopers, failed at the box office. Since then he's been appearing in shoddy direct to DVD films and low budget TV movies.
The third and probably most important issue is whether or not the film will remain faithful to its source. Again the film has already been announced as PG-13. While I don't mind the rating, some have seen it as a sign the movie is already screwed up, cutting the perceived gore and sex out of the story. It is true the movie does have graphic (for the 1910s) action scenes and both John Carter and Dejah Thoris spend much of the novel wearing next to nothing but the major issue is whether or not Stanton and his two co-writers, Mark Andrews (best known for co-writing the excellent The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) and Michael Chabon (the novelist behind the brilliant The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the dreadful The Yiddish Policemen's Union) will stick if not to the letter than at least the tone and spirit of Burroughs' novel. It's hard to tell in this day and age of multiple rewrites, studio notes, actors' input (even though I doubt Mr. Kitsch or his co-star Lynn Collins have that clout), marketing concerns about appealing to the widest audience possible and test audience reactions and reshoots how much will survive. Obviously the attempt to make it resemble another popular hit like Pirates or Star Wars is something most studios would gladly attempt and my fear is that Disney won't care how it turns out as long as it makes money. The same approach MGM had towards their Tarzan films, Amicus had towards their movies and the Mouse House had towards the animated Tarzan.
In the end will Burroughs' vision ever make onscreen intact? Hopefully if Stanton can remain faithful and prove he is the right person for the job, not just doing it avoid Wall-E 2. Then again history shows don't get your hopes up too much.