Friday, June 26, 2009

Reflections on Barsoom, Part 3

Book 2

3. The Naked Truth of Mars

If the past is prologue Disney, currently helming the John Carter of Mars project, is not likely to rush to take up the baton of aboriginal rights. This studio ran like a scared cat to the editing room to alter a brief segment from Fantasia that featured cartoon Centaurettes. The fact faux nudity and/or characterizations of fantasy creatures in a cartoon bothered anyone would be funny, if it weren't so ridiculous. But, to be fair, that anyone felt a cartoon required editing for content is a sign of shifting attitudes. What once didn't raise an eyebrow several decades ago becomes scandalous, or politically incorrect, today and so too might attitudes that obtain today seem archaic or puritanical decades from now.

How non-Aboriginal cultures treat depictions of aboriginal cultures often reveal far more about the non-Aboriginal culture than the true state of the aborigines themselves. One need look no further than documentaries aired on channels like PBS, Discovery, History, The Learning Channel, et al to see how such programs come saddled with warnings about "indigenous nudity" and, more often than not, blurring and digital fogging. Yet the MPAA rubberstamps movies depicting amoral violence in which it's okay (by their standards) to display eviscerated human bodies and internal organs yet, unbelievably, insanely, a woman's bared breast or buttocks must be blotted out as verboten to see. What this says about our culture, and it's self-anointed blowhard watchdogs, is too disturbing to contemplate here.

Nudity, in and of itself, is neither salacious nor provocative. Nor is it pornographic or erotic. It merely is. One does not become any less human, or worthy of dignity, because one has disrobed or lacks apparel. If this were the case no one would ever take off their clothes to bathe. We are born naked, not wearing burkas. Strip us of our trappings of culture and civilization and we become little more than naked apes, do we not?

Naked Ape

Such reflections are at the core of the Barsoom novel series. For while nude John Carter is never truly naked, for he retains his wit. Edgar Rice Burroughs novels remind us it is intellect, not clothing, or trappings of civilization, that separate mankind from primates. Yet another reason for the lack of clothing on Barsoom, besides lack of resources for extensive textile manufacture, may be environmental. Extremes of heat and humidity may make it impractical for a primitive culture- or a culture with limited agricultural resources teetering on the brink of collapse, as is the case on Barsoom- to have more than rudimentary and crude textiles. Yet this does not preclude the use of skins or furs. Such certainly seems to be the case on Barsoom, or so we can extrapolate based on the following passage from Warlord of Mars:

The moment we entered the city Talu threw off his outer garments of fur, as did we, and I saw that his apparel differed but little from that of the red races of Barsoom. Except for his leathern harness, covered thick with jewels and metal, he was naked, nor could one have comfortably worn apparel in that warm and humid atmosphere.

Remember the examples of Frazetta's artwork? They're relatively timid and decorous in comparison to the reality of Barsoom as writ. And this is what Disney is planning to adapt into a movie? It doesn't make sense. Already the speculation is circulating with articles like `John Carter of Mars': Will It Dethrone `Twilight' As The Best Romance Flick? Viz:

"While “Twilight” fends off “True Blood” for supremacy over the vampire romance market, the Stephenie Meyer-penned series might have an unlikely lovelorn competitor to contend with — the newly announced “John Carter of Mars” starring Taylor Kitsch could well be Hollywood’s next romantic hit."

As are concerns such as: Disney to Fast Track John Carter of Mars Film:

John Carter is about as Disneyfiable as Tarzan is: In other words, not very. Worse, John Carter was a filthy Confederate reb. That's part and parcel of the character, and while Carter never really shows any racist tendencies in the novel (he does, after all, get along exceedingly well with both the green and red men of Mars), it's an integral part of his character, part of what makes him unique. Disney would whitewash that. And it's hard to believe Pixar would do justice to the visceral bloodshed, violence and carnage of Burroughs' classic martian pulp novels.

The worry is Disney will treat this like the typical Hollywood "property" and hire a hack to make-up their own story, slap the Barsoom name on it, and thus exploit Edgar Rice Burroughs novels to make a quick buck. The marketing possibilities if Disney turns this into a costume epic ala Pirates of the Caribbean, as the director already has indicated is the plan, are extensive. The money Disney could potentially rake in on product tie-ins with clothing lines, T-shirts targeted at 'tweens, fast food chains, action figures and their accessories, Halloween costumes, and plush toys shamelessly targeted at children will likely be phenomenal.

Alas, with the director announcing, before shooting so much as a single frame of film, this will be rated PG-13, and a PG-13 'tween flick at that, John Carter of Mars isn't likely to qualify as a faithful representation of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom. It may be a pallid Goldkey version but not likely the Barsoom of A Princess of Mars. This may have critics crying foul and asking if Disney hasn't purchased their MPAA rating and that's why the project, which has languished in limbo for decades, is suddenly getting "fast tracked". There's lots of money at stake, yet so too is the literary vision of Edgar Rice Burroughs.


If Disney follows the usual pattern licensed products will be pushed into retail stores all across the country as part of the marketing blitz leading up to the release of the feature film. If we're lucky this may include new deluxe editions of the novels. And, this being Disney, there may even be a John Carter of Mars ride at Disneyland. That could be fun. But Barsoom isn't a carnival funhouse, it's not a joyride, nor should it be portrayed as such.

Studios buy the rights to something and (too often) just ignore the source material and make up an entirely different story, slap on the title of the "property" and wait for the suckers to buy tickets. It's repulsive. But it's business as usual in Hollywood. Yet, if you were to pull this kind of shell game in the food industry by advertising, say, salmon on your menu but serving catfish instead you'd be put out of business and probably fined, if not thrown into jail. Is it that Hollywood doesn't care? They say they respect authors' and their work, yet the movies they produce say otherwise. It's mind-boggling.

So what if Disney isn't likely to have the moral courage to present a candid and true representation of the aboriginals of Barsoom. They're a corporation, not cultural anthropologists. Should we hate them for wanting to make money? It's not like Disney is in the business of shaking kids down for their lunch money. At least there is going to be some version of Barsoom on the big screen, that's a good thing, right?

Book 2

For those interested in the real Barsoom the full text of the novel "A Princess of Mars" can be downloaded from these sites: Project Gutenberg, Books Should be Free, and can be read online here: Those looking for more information on Barsoom or the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs should visit the following sites: Barsoom, Barsoomia, Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site, or The Robert E. Howard United Press Association. There's also some old concept art for Set Sketches for John Carter of Mars (1970's version), More John Carter, More JCOM, here's a page of Rare Unreleased John Carter of Mars Illustrations and, of course, there's always the artwork of Julie Bell and Boris Vellejo:


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Copyright © C. Demetrius Morgan


Anonymous said...

Been reading these posts with great interest. There is no way the Mars novels can be done correctly via Disney/Pixar, or anyone else in Hollywood for that matter. This will truly be "Disney's John Carter of Mars," and Burroughs'.

Anonymous said...

Whoops, it should say This will truly be "Disney's John Carter of Mars," and not Burroughs'.

Anonymous said...

As a kid I saw the disney version of Tarzan. Then when I was about 13 my dad showed me his old ERB novels and I was sickened by what they did to Tarzan. Now we both hope that it will not turn out like that.

Anonymous said...

Only way it could work on the screen would be to do an animated version of it, put it on DVD.

(Probably shouldnt make the comparison, but Heavy Metal comes to mind anyway)