Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Barsoom Saga Revisited Part 1


A warning: This one might be a long one, with some rambling thoughts, opinions that might not be popular and some admissions that I got it wrong before.

If there was one side bonus of the movie John Carter it was my decision to reread the entire 11 book Mars series, from John Carter's first arrival on Barsoom to his going to Sassoom. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would-some brief interruptions due do work, home and reading other books. But l finally finished and it led me to rethink my position on the series and certain entries. I recently posted my change of thoughts on Swords of Mars so for the next few posts I thought I would offer my new thoughts on the series and reveal in my opinion what has held up, what has improved, dropped and how Edgar Rice Burroughs turned out an influential series. And did it without shape shifting and moving motorized cities. So to kick off let's start with the original trilogy:

A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars

I tackled Princess with one thing on my mind: To prove to myself it still held up. It seemed in the months leading up to the movie the book was getting it from everyone-from fans defending Andrew Stanton's changes to Stanton himself pointing up the book's flaws to every reporter he talked to. The major complaints: No real plot to speak of, no major antagonist for John Carter, little development for the character of Dejah Thoris, even that it was unbelievable that Carter wouldn't have had a wife since most men of the period would have. With those criticisms on my mind I sat down and started reading...and those complaints fell away. I admit A Princess of Mars is not perfect. It has flaws, suffers from long exposition and shows that it was the first novel of a novice writer. It also had imagination, an excitement that comes from it being a first work. I compare it this way: Sgt. Pepper might be the more polished record-and brilliant-but it lacks the joy, the blast of the Beatles' first record where they were discovering their possibilities. Burroughs is doing the same here. Also the criticisms began to melt away. True there might not be a "plot" in the "We have to stop the bad guys from destroying the planet" that Stanton used to confusing effect but there is forward momentum and ultimately a plot does emerge: To rescue the princess and get her home. Also John Carter has enough opponents to overcome as the book proceeds. He didn't need a Darth Vader or a Moriarty to face off with. That was never the main focus to start with. In fact one of the things I always found unique was John Carter goes off on his quest not for "fortune and glory" like Indiana Jones but for one simple thing: Love. He loves Dejah Thoris and that fuels his quest in all three of the first books. And it didn't matter if he had to tear down Zodanga, the Valley Dor or Okar to do it. The criticism about Dejah Thoris I admit is a little more valid. But she still plays the regal princess. No where in the movie does Dejah get to equal her moving plea to the Tharks to come back and work with the red men in saving Barsoom from its fate. Also she was the one who decided to marry Sab Than and save her people. No running away from the wedding. In fact most of Burroughs' characters are much stronger-Tars Tarkas, Sola, Sarkoja, Tardors Mors-than they were in the film. So in case you couldn't tell it still holds up. And for those who think it was hard to believe John Carter wouldn't have a dead wife, if you have no problem believing a man can go to Mars then yeah you can believe he wasn't some moping widower.

Moving on from there we hit the second book and the first one I began to rethink. Originally I always thought The Gods of Mars was an overcrowded book, with a lot of characters throw at us-Thuvia, Phaidor, Xodar, Thurid, Issus, Zat Arras, Carthoris-not to mention a lot of running back and forth from the Valley Dor. But rereading it I soon discovered I was wrong. Possibly it was being prepared for what Burroughs was going to throw at the reader. Maybe it was the Plant Men, one of Burroughs' creepiest creations and the opening sequence with them. Possibly it was looking at the novel's subtext-of using faith and preying on people's beliefs and twisting them into dark and disturbing ideals. Or it was just the kick-ass action sequences. Either way Gods had improved this time. The one place was the Therns and again it had to do with the movie. Burroughs's Therns use their faith and spreading of the word of Issus as a cover for their own degenerate actions. They're cannibals who defile their victims both mentally and physically. Indeed one of the most revealing sections is Thuvia's near crazed killing of Sator Thorg, showing how far the Therns had tortured those who had come looking for paradise. Compare that to Stanton's Therns. Granted they use the belief in Issus to gain control of Sab Than but basically they're generic movie villains out to conquer/or destroy Barsoom (I have to admit I'm still hazy on their goal). I don't know about you but flesh eating men doing things to someone's body is more frightening than Dr. Evil-esque bad guys spilling their big schemes to the hero.

Finally we hit the final book in this trilogy and well another change, this time a lesser one. Maybe it was changing my opinion about Gods but The Warlord of Mars seemed a little weaker. It also seemed to have the trilogy capper problem of having to tie up loose ends-even though Burroughs does a good job of giving the characters appropriate endings-and the fact that it was a basic repeat of Princess. Granted most of the books are but this one has so many similarities-from Dejah being forced into marriage and being threaten with that "fate worse than death" to the final siege-only done on a more spectacular scale...it reminded me of Return of the Jedi in that respect. That said Warlord still delivers in the action set pieces and their variety. From John's fight with Solon in Okar to the mad chase through the castle at the end this one does show it's cliffhanger pulp magazine heritage. And that's the best part of it-it's a fast paced piece, with our hero getting the girl and saving the planet. And isn't that what we want from our stories? A happy ending?

So there it is. The revised ratings: A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars **** out of 4; The Warlord of Mars ***1/2 out of 4. Next time the kids have their own adventures.

1 comment:

Tom Doolan said...

So, after a rant about the poor marketing of John Carter (http://tomdoolan.blogspot.com/2012/03/i-need-to-rant-bit.html), my sister-in-law, who had never heard of John Carter and his books, went on a binge and is now addicted to reading the Barsoom novels, and has even started collecting all of the ERB novels she can get ahold of.

Just thought I'd share.