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John Carter, then and now, 3.5 stars
on April 17, 2012
Although unfamiliar with Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter adventures, I thoroughly enjoyed the recent film -- so much so that I wanted to seek out the source material on which it was based. Many, if not all, of Burroughs' Carter novels are in the public domain (and as such are available as free or bargain-priced e-books), but I opted to purchase this novelization of the film for two reasons. One, I am a sucker for a decent script novelization, particularly if it expands on the movie's action to some degree (the novelizations of the original Star Wars films are extremely effective in this respect), and two, this novelization is packaged with A Princess of Mars, the original and first novel to feature John Carter's adventures on Mars, and the story on which the film is principally based.
The movie novelization is written by Stuart Moore, and as written realization of the film it falls a bit short. Let me put it this way -- if I'd read the novelization first there's a good chance I would've opted not to see John Carter on the big screen, and that would've been a crying shame. Moore's novelization is a decent adaptation of the script, but it fails to flesh out the fascinating world the film introduced me to. I wanted more of Carter's backstory, more insight into the development of his romance with Dejah Thoris, more insight into his efforts to adapt to the brave new and dangerous world he finds himself unexpectedly thrust into when he encounters the Thern being in the Arizona cave. Moore's prose is relatively flat, and given the imaginative canvas Burroughs created that's a shame. But having seen the film first, the novelization does a decent job translating the storyline from screen to the page -- I would simply encourage anyone who picks it up to not stop there when investigating the written origins of Carter's Mars adventures.
Reading A Princess of Mars was a first for me -- I have no experience reading early 20th-century classic pulp fiction, so stylistically I had no idea what to expect. I was of course familiar with Burroughs as the creator of Tarzan, and that character principally through its silver screen adaptations from the 1930s and 40s. First published in 1912 in serial form, Princess is told wholly from John Carter's point-of-view. This means there is a lot -- and I mean A LOT -- of information "dumping," exacerbated by the fact that all of the action is related as Carter's reminiscences, and for a good part of his time on Mars he's observing and learning, concealing the fact that he's learning the Martian language. This narrative style made the first third or so of Princess a bit of a slow go -- but with the images from the film firmly ingrained in my imagination, I was nonetheless eager to learn Carter's origin story as originally envisioned by his creator.
Roughly halfway through Burroughs' first Barsoom (Mars) novel, the action begins to pick up the pace, and what the movie novelization lacked in developing the Carter/Dejah relationship, Burroughs made up for in this novel. While the original Dejah isn't quite the warrior (at least not yet) that we see in the movie, her nobility and sacrificing spirit translated from Burroughs' text to the screen relatively intact. And I'm a complete sucker for an old-fashioned romance, and Carter's character has an inherent nobility that I just adored. Princess is an old-fashioned adventure novel that becomes an increasing page-turner the more Burroughs lets us see Carter adapt to his new environment, gradually opening himself up to friendships and relationships with people whose appearance and customs are so different from his own at first blush. Surprisingly, since it seems so out of my reading norm, I'm more interested than I ever expected in investigating Burroughs' subsequent John Carter novels. Happily the film (though not the novelization exactly) is a decent and fairly faithful adaptation of its ground-breaking source material -- I'm happy to have finally discovered this classic from the pen of a pulp fiction master.