Friday, July 13, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'A Princess of Mars' and 'John Carter'

The Book: A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, Book 1)

The Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

How I Found It: My father was a great fan of the books, and I was really intrigued by the movie trailer last summer. This book is in the public domain and can be read for free!

The Review: I am finally back, with a review that might be slightly muddled thanks to how long a hiatus I had to end up taking--so long that I read this book in February and March and am only just reviewing it now! I apologize greatly for the hiatus; my semester ended up busier than planned and I was not only unable to read as much as I would have liked, I had absolutely no time to put my thoughts down in reviews.

John Carter's story really begins with someone else--that someone being Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. A trusted nephew of Carter's, Burroughs receives word when he dies and goes to Carter's estate, only to be greeted with strange instructions in his uncle's will. He is not to be embalmed, and wishes to be laid in an open coffin in a specially built tomb... one that opens from the inside. He has also entrusted to Burrough's care a manuscript that must be read only after eleven years have passed, and only divulged to the masses after another twenty-one. The manuscript left behind is the story we're reading.

The story is, as one might expect, every bit as strange as the instructions John Carter left behind him. It begins with reminiscences on John Carter's experiences in Arizona, and with these words:

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred,possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as othermen, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I havealways been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I didforty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on livingforever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there isno resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who havedied twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it asyou who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, Ibelieve, that I am so convinced of my mortality.

John has an out of body experience shortly after seeing his friend and business partner brutally murdered by Native Americans on the Arizona hills, and ends up in a mysterious cave. His spirit, his soul, is transported off Earth when he stretches his arms out to Mars, or Barsoom, which he can see in the sky.

Mars is a strange and dangerous new experience for our hero, who doesn't quite do himself any favors by landing near a hatchery for martian young. He is quickly captured by green Martians, or Tharks, and valued as a warrior thanks to Mars' reduced gravity affording him the ability to jump unnaturally high and his experience as a veteran giving him superior combat skills. But John Carter is not the only prisoner of the Tharks--soon there is Dejah Thoris, the red princess of the martians of Helium, whom Carter swears to protect and return to her people. Along the way, he will evade and be captured by many races of martian, but his love for Dejah Thoris and his desire to protect her remains his primary goal.

I was eager to read this not only after seeing the trailer for the film, but when I learned it was one of the most influential works of science fiction there is, and the first work to really explore and flesh out a planet besides our own. Sometimes, while reading it, I was stunned to realize that a work of science fiction written in the 1800s could have so influenced our depictions of Mars and martians today. For a two hundred year old book, the language was accessible and easily understood, and I was pleased by how quickly it read.

Of course, having been written two hundred years ago, by today's standards it might not be considered quite so polished. Yes, it has colonialist undertones. Yes, John's a bit too perfect, and frequently describes himself in terms of his own importance. And yes, to me, it did eventually read as a catalogue of "John gets kidnapped by this alien race, and this alien race, and this alien race..." But I took all these things with a grain of salt--it was pulpy and fun and just nice to read about another planet as a fun, exciting escape whenever I could squeeze in a few pages on TARDIS.

I think the thing that ended up grabbing me most about the story was the characters. While, yes, John is a bit perfect, he's an engaging narrator and relates the differences of Mars in terms a reader can easily picture--I read a reviewer who stated it bothered him that John would preface a description with how we had nothing like this creature/plant/etc. on Earth, but then would go on to equate it to an Earth something, but honestly, it worked better for me than having to picture something based on a bizarre description. Dejah Thoris' dynamic with John, driven by their different attitudes towards courtship (John's ignorance of martian norms, Dejah Thoris' bristling at Earth customs), had me looking forward to their scenes together. Woola, the martian watchdog, was priceless and touchingly devoted to John. Sola, the female Thark assigned to guard John in the beginning of the story, has an interesting backstory and a strong presence as a female character--indeed, between her and Dejah Thoris, I was pleased to see women play such important roles in a story (a science fiction story, no less!) written so long ago.

While, like I said, the plot sometimes dragged due to John's endless captures, the action scenes are stirring and vividly depicted, the characters are strong, and the book is really easy to read--although it does end on a cliffhanger, as I'm sure was typical of fiction back then that was meant to be serialized, written by authors who earned their bread and butter on such stories.

By now nearly everyone knows that John Carter, the movie, was a flop financially, one of the biggest of this year. Many agree that the movie's flop was not indicative of poor quality, however, but of poor promotion and marketing. I read an article sometime around the movie's release where John Carters in all fifty states were called and asked if they were going to see the movie. Thanks to the title not including John's "of Mars" suffix, many of the men asked if it was the same John Carter they'd read about as a kid. If the title had been kept, the movie would perhaps have appealed more to those who'd heard about it but hadn't looked it up to verify just what it was about.

The movie trims down John's numerous captures and focuses on the war between the Tharks, the Helium red martians, and the Zodangan red martians, therefore eliminating one of the elements of the book that didn't work for me. Some elements are changed or refocused, but the essential story remains the same, and the cast performs admirably. Taylor Kitsch's John Carter is given a more heartrending backstory, and makes the most of his comedic early attempts to move on Mars and then, later, of being an action hero. Lynn Collins' Dejah Thoris gets many chances to fight and move in on the action. Dominic West, as Sab Than, is more of a threat here, thanks to weaponry bestowed on him by the film. I really enjoyed Samantha Morton's voice work as Sola, who remained true to the complex character I'd liked in the book. But the real standout is Woola, the martian watchdog I mentioned earlier--he's a riot!

Overall, both the film and the book are worth giving a chance if you've not heard of them and are interested in the beginnings of science fiction. Many critics said that the movie has a little bit of every science fiction hero you've ever loved, and that's part of the fun of both the book and the movie. Reading it, you'll see where so much of our martian lore and depictions came from. And aren't we all a little bit curious about life on Mars?

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