John Carter

John Carter posterI saw John Carter at the beginning of May with my sister and decided that it was important enough to write up a legitimate review of it, rather than just a paragraph for One Paragraph. Unfortunately, that means I’m only getting to it now, just shy of three months later.

I hadn’t paid the film much attention until my dad mentioned he wanted to see it but didn’t think he’d be able to. Shortly thereafter, I managed to get my sister to go with me, and when we sat down in the theater, I’d seen a single preview and she hadn’t even gotten that much. We didn’t really know anything about anything.

The minute I discovered it had a young Edgar Rice Burroughs in it (oh, the joys of an author’s self-insertion), I knew the time period the original novel—1910s or 20s. The movie is based on the dime store novel A Princess of Mars, but the name was changed to John Carter of Mars (not to be confused with the novel of the same name) and then simply John Carter because producers (marketers?… well, someone) feared the title would cause fewer boys and young men to see the film. The film lived in development hell for several years before finally being released in early March this year, to mediocre reviews.

I remember telling my sister upon exiting the theater that the film was basically a mish-mash of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dune and she correctly pointed out that Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars actually pre-dates all three of those franchises by several decades. (Burroughs, most famous today for his Tarzan novels, is said also to have inspired sci-fi greats such as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke.)

Anyway, I liked it. I mean, it wasn’t the greatest film ever made or anything (that was impossible before the project began since it’s based on a novel that’s hardly the best piece of science-fiction ever written), but after hearing that it wasn’t worth my time, I was pleasantly surprised.

Dejah and John
Dejah, the original novel’s title character, and John, the film’s title character

That’s not to say the film was completely unproblematic. To the best of my recollection, it failed the Bechdel Test. There were moments it could have passed, but… no. It really bothered me that the title was changed—the sexism should be evident, and it’s a cyclical thing. (Boys don’t want to watch perceived “girly” movies because of sexism and so producers/directors/whomever reinforce sexism by catering to the “core audience”—boys.)

There are issues of race paralleling a cowboys versus Indians motif. Red Martians (of which Dejah is one) are civilized, humanistic people who live in cities and use science and technology to war with one another; Green Martians are completely uncivilized, living on a “survival of the fittest” model outside of the cities and who war with each other using more “primitive” tools (bows and arrows, spears, and animal mounts). The whole thing, in that respect, was just eye-roll-inducing. Not to mention the completely unambiguous morality (all good people are good and evil people are only evil), damsel in distress (sub?)plotline, and gender essentialism that all the characters displayed. Ugh.

Here’s the thing, though. All those things are issues I have with the novel, and the film was basically forced to follow an outdated, racist, sexist plot in order to “stay true to the original work”. The films creators, to their credit, gave Dejah a more active role than simply “damsel in distress” (though she does fall into that trap near the end anyway), and made John totally fine (if a bit surprised at first) with her intelligence and natural leadership. So, they were trying, I guess, but they really didn’t have that much to work with without rewriting the plot completely.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom—the Martian name for Mars—stories, however, spanned more than ten novels published between 1917 and 1964, so what do I know? Oh well, I at least have to get my dad to watch it to see what he thinks.

Viannah E. Duncan

Viannah E. Duncan is a writer and activist hailing originally from Los Angeles. She lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has a cat, Cleo.

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