I was pretty dubious about John Carter. It was one of those movies which, as a serious SF fan and historian, I have to see even given a quite high likelihood that it was going to offend me with aggressively stupid handling of its source material. Therefore I am surprised and pleased to report that it is actually quite good!
I’ve read all of the Barsoom novels the movie was based on, but they’re not important in the furniture of my imagination in the way that (say) Robert Heinlein’s books are. They’re very primitive pulp fiction which I sought out mainly because of their historical importance as precursors of later and more interesting work. Still, they are not without a certain rude, innocent charm. The heroes are heroic, the villains villainous, the women are beautiful, dying Mars is a backdrop suffused with barbaric splendor, and the prose is muscular and vigorous.
This translation to movie form retains those virtues quite a bit more faithfully than one might have expected. In doing so it reminded me very much of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Junior (see my review, A no-shit Sherlock). I didn’t get the powerful sense Sherlock Holmes gave me of the lead actors caring passionately about the source material, but the writers of John Carter certainly cared as much. A surprising amount of Burrough’s Barsoomian mythology and language made it into the movie. The barbarian Green Martians are rendered with gratifying unsentimentality, and the sense of Barsoom as an ancient planet with time-deep history and ancient mysteries is well conveyed.
If you’re me, reading the Barsoom novels is also an entertaining exercise in in origin-spotting tropes that would recur in later planetary romances and space operas clear down to the present day. The designers and writers of John Carter are alive to this; there are a number of points at which the movie visually quotes the Star Wars franchise in a funny, underlined way that reminds us that Barsoom was actually the ur-source for many of the cliches that Star Wars mined so successfully.
An ironic result of this is that a straight-up rendition of Burroughs would have seemed terribly dated. The filmmakers avoided this by playing to today’s Hollywood conventions in various places where they judged (mostly correctly, I think) that the Burroughs material wouldn’t work well for modern audiences. The only point at which I found this a bit obtrusive was Dejah Thoris, who was a cardboard-thin rescue object in the original and decidedly not the brainy and butt-kicking superwoman we get in this version. While this is in some ways clearly an improvement (and kudos to Lynn Collins for a charismatic and powerful performance that rather upstaged Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter) the savant stuff felt a bit overdone. Also I could have done without Woola, the obligatory cute animal companion.
But some of the changes were unequivocally good. One of the major flaws in the original, to modern eyes, is that John Carter’s transportation to Mars was not explained or rationalized in any way – it’s a weird acausal miracle which pitches us into universe which, because anything can happen, everything that actually does happen is arbitrary and insignificant. Campbellian SF, with its affirmation of a fundamentally knowable universe behind the fantastic material in the foreground, wouldn’t be invented until a quarter-century after Burrough’s first Barsoom novel.
The filmmakers do a nice job of repairing Burrough’s acausal plot-hole in a Campbellian fashion. In their version, Carter is accidentally telegraphed to Mars by exotic technology wielded by the villains of the piece, which same technology functions as a MacGuffin later in the movie. As a bonus, this sets up an implicit threat to Earth which begins to develop in this movie and will doubtless be exploited in the sequels.
And sequels there will almost certainly be, unless John Carter does much less well at the box office than I expect. (And a raspberry to Disney marketing, whose trailer and publicity almost completely fail to convey the movie’s strengths.) In this case turning the film into a franchise would be faithful to the spirit and form of Burroughs’s original. We can at least hope the followups will be better than the superficially watchable but obscurely disappointing 2011 sequel to Sherlock Holmes.
It’s nearly a requirement of reviews like this that I urge you to read the book that the movie is based on before seeing it. I am not actually certain I want to recommend that in this case. If you have anything like my scholarly interest in the history of SF, then, yes – the original Barsoom novels are worth finding and contrasting with this movie if only as a study in how much the expectations of audiences have changed since then, and how those changes influenced the filmmakers’ choices.
On the other hand, if all you want is the sort of thalamic thrill ride that Burroughs intended to deliver, the movie can stand alone. Burroughs’s writing evolved quite a bit during his lifetime; while, like many pulp writers, he never made the intellectually demanding transition to modern SF in the late 1930s, the Tarzan of the last tales around 1940 is rather more complex than his earliest incarnation in 1915 (for some related thoughts, see Reading Racism Into Pulp Fiction). I think Burroughs would recognize what the filmmakers have done and approve.