Behind the Camera With ... John Carter
By Matt Click / January 11

Audiences were treated in July to their first look at Walt Disney Pictures’ John Carter, a film about a Virginian Civil War veteran magically transported to our neighboring planet of Mars after “dying” on Earth. While I’m pretty excited for the film, the consensus from the general public seems to be, “Hey, when did Prince of Persia get a sequel?” And that’s not unwarranted. After all, it was Disney that produced that video game snore-fest, and John Carter (as portrayed by Emile Hirsch) even looks a little like Jake Gyllenhaal’s Prince—what with his shoulder-length, slightly tousled hair, brace of swords, and barely-there chest-piece.

Audiences everywhere were saddened when Prince of Persia wasn't about this guy.

But the fact of the matter is that John Carter’s obvious stylistic similarities to Prince of Persia are more of a chicken-egg situation than a case of "ripping off." Prince of Persia, with its high adventure, sword-swinging, and exotic locales, is clearly influenced by the adventure serials of the early 20th century. John Carter, on the other hand, originates from that very time perioda character whose roots reach deep into the mineral-rich soil of American pulp lit.

Let's go behind the camera, shall we, and discover the origins of
John Carter. Possible spoilers may lurk ahead, but nothing earth-shattering, I promise.

Creating John Carter: From Tarzan to Barsoom and Back Again

John Carter first appeared in 1912, devised by Tarzan-creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first novel in the John Carter of Mars series was titled A Princess of Mars, set on a speculative version of Mars known as "Barsoom." Burroughs wrote the novel between July and September 1911. The magazine All-Story serialized the story between February and July 1912 under the title Under the Moons of Mars. It was only after the wild success of Burroughs' Tarzan novels that the story saw hardcover publication in October 1917, officially retitled A Princess of Mars.

Hey, that character from the early 20th century is clearly ripping off a contemporary video game character!

Burroughs' Barsoom series saw close to a dozen books, with the eleventh and final novel (John Carter of Mars) published posthumously in 1964. Carter doesn't appear in all of the novels, but he's a constant presence, prominently featured in the second (The Gods of Mars, published 1918), the third (The Warlord of Mars,published 1919), the fourth (Thuvia, Maid of Mars, published 1920), the eighth (Swords of Mars, published 1936), the ninth (Synthetic Men of Mars, published 1940), the tenth (Llana of Gathol, published 1948), and the eleventh.

So from 1912 up until Burroughs' death in 1950 and a decade beyond, John Carter was a constant fixture in pulp literature. MGM even attempted production on a film adaptation in 1931. But he's sadly not a well-known character to most people nowadays. Me, I'm really into early pulp novels by the likes of Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and my boy H.P. Lovecraft. And that's why I'm here
—to shed some light on this John Carter nonsense.

Wait, So He's On Mars? And He Can Jump Really High? And Willem Defoe is a Martian?

Slow down, please. One question at a time. John Carter is an interesting and somewhat complex character—a supernatural Earth-being who is reborn on Barsoom and subsequently becomes a Martian warlord.

John Carter: Inspiring sick metal album covers since 1912.

See, it's explained in A Princess of Mars that John Carter is actually an immortal, and has died and been reborn at least twice at the start of the story. He doesn't age, appearing always as a man in his early 30s, and has no recollection of a childhood of any kind. For as long as he can remember, he has been a grown man of about 30 years of age. John is not transported to Mars, or Barsoom, via interstellar travel. Rather, his consciousness is delivered there by way of astral projection, and he takes a physical form identical to his appearance on Earth.

But here's where it gets interesting. Because John Carter is an Earthling, accustomed to Earth gravity and air pressure, he is able to leap great distances on the surface of Mars, and possesses near-superhuman strength. He is able to go toe-to-toe with the Green Martians (four-armed, fifteen-foot-tall warriors), hold his own against the gargantuan White Apes, and generally comes off as a grade-A badass to everyone. Combine these newfound abilities with his decades (more likely centuries) of combat experience and his innate immortality, let simmer, and you've got yourself a recipe for a pulp hero.

Burroughs' vision of Mars
is a dying world based on now-outdated scientific ideas made popular by Astronomer Percival Lowell. It's a savage, war-torn world, with technology that doesn't far exceed our own. Combat prowess is highly valued, and many differing races, subraces, and tribes war over the planet's steadily-dwindling resources. It's a land dotted with ruins, crumbling cities, and the remnants of ancient civilizations. In other words, it's a rich fantasy setting ripe for adventure—and if the movie does it correctly, could make for an awesome spectacle on the big screen.

"Whoa, there are four-armed apes up here? That's it, I'm projecting my consciousness back to Earth. Later!"

In the interest of keeping this article under novel-length, I think that's sufficient. I could go on for a few more pages about the varying races and conflicts that occur across Barsoom, but that would probably just end in me getting hassled and having my lunch money taken. So I'll refrain.

The good news is that most of the Barsoom series is in the public domain, and can be found online free of charge for your reading pleasure. I'd definitely recommend the series, especially the first three volumes, which were fairly groundbreaking back in 1912. Beyond that, we can look forward to an ideally faithful film adaptation come March 9, when John Carter hits theaters. Or it's going to suck and I'll have something else to nerd-rage over. It's not like any of my favorite pulp heroes have been cinematically ruined lately or anything.

Oh. Right.

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