Monday, June 22, 2009

Reflections on Barsoom, Part 1

"This piece is something of a follow-up to last weeks John Carter of Mars is GO! examining certain concerns about the announced movie adaptation. It really began as a reply to a comment and just sort of ballooned into an full on article. While a bit long and dry in places I hope it isn't a entirely dull read. - KP

Book 11

1. The Harsh Reality of Mars

If memory serves there's been talk of adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels for the big screen for quite some time, the first almost-was production being an animated feature circa the 1930s then the almost-was Ray Harryhausen version discussed circa the 1980s. Paramount also had the rights circa 2000, but nothing much came of their attempt either. There may have been other aborted projects but these seem to be the best known almost-got-made attempts. So what's the hold up? What's the difficulty?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle are the novels themselves. These are old school pulp science fiction written not just in a time before political correctness but in a era when ideas about utopianism, naturism, socialism, eugenics (betterment of the species through selective breeding and/or genetic enhancement), and progressivism were being explored. Too, herein are aliens that are truly alien- not merely humans dressed up in bad costumes with prosthetic foreheads- and unabashed sexism. Or rather what the post-PC world would view as sexism. The hero, John Carter, is the epitome of what contemporary post-modern feminists would derogatorily refer to as an testosterone fueled chauvinistic male.

Why are these problems? Aside from the potentially awkward "politically incorrect" aspects there has been a shift in our social mores and attitudes. John Carter comes from an era when men were expected to be men, meaning self-reliant individuals who think for themselves and bow to no one. That's quite a departure from the prevailing mentality in our contemporary genuflecting victim culture. Too, the Tharks pose unique challenges all their own as they look like this:


Easy to do in animation or a CGI environment but difficult to do in a live-action movie. And that's just one of many strange looking creatures inhabiting Barsoom. Which explains why Pixar is involved.

Burroughs' Martians also seem to be an idealized eugenic society presaging the current trends in "green" eco-progressivism demanding the exertion of control over not merely the environment, per se, but how humanity lives (and dies) within it. Witness the following passage from A Princess of Mars:

I do not mean that the adult Martians are unnecessarily or intentionally cruel to the young, but theirs is a hard and pitiless struggle for existence upon a dying planet, the natural resources of which have dwindled to a point where the support of each additional life means an added tax upon the community into which it is thrown.

By careful selection they rear only the hardiest specimens of each species, and with almost supernatural foresight they regulate the birth rate to merely offset the loss by death.

Each adult Martian female brings forth about thirteen eggs each year, and those which meet the size, weight, and specific gravity tests are hidden in the recesses of some subterranean vault where the temperature is too low for incubation. Every year these eggs are carefully examined by a council of twenty chieftains, and all but about one hundred of the most perfect are destroyed out of each yearly supply. At the end of five years about five hundred almost perfect eggs have been chosen from the thousands brought forth. These are then placed in the almost air-tight incubators to be hatched by the sun's rays after a period of another five years. The hatching which we had witnessed today was a fairly representative event of its kind, all but about one per cent of the eggs hatching in two days. If the remaining eggs ever hatched we knew nothing of the fate of the little Martians. They were not wanted, as their offspring might inherit and transmit the tendency to prolonged incubation, and thus upset the system which has maintained for ages and which permits the adult Martians to figure the proper time for return to the incubators, almost to an hour.

The incubators are built in remote fastnesses, where there is little or no likelihood of their being discovered by other tribes. The result of such a catastrophe would mean no children in the community for another five years. I was later to witness the results of the discovery of an alien incubator.

While the term eugenics has become disused or carefully tiptoed around this is only because when taken to it's extreme it can become a dogmatic doctrine of racial purity. Such a doctrine was espoused by Nazi eugenicists, but then any science taken to extremes can become sinister. It is important to remember that Mr. Burroughs was not alone in writing about such thematic issues in his novels and that they were written long before the Nazi's came to power in Germany. Nor does the fact John Carter was a officer of the Confederacy bear any greater implications beyond the facts as laid out in the opening chapter of A Princess of Mars; namely that our would be hero finds himself destitute and adrift:

At the close of the Civil War I found myself possessed of several hundred thousand dollars (Confederate) and a captain's commission in the cavalry arm of an army which no longer existed; the servant of a state which had vanished with the hopes of the South. Masterless, penniless, and with my only means of livelihood, fighting, gone, I determined to work my way to the southwest and attempt to retrieve my fallen fortunes in a search for gold.

John Carter, formerly Captain of the Army of Virginia, was thus a man who found himself handed the shit end of fortune's stick yet managed to turn it around to his advantage. These facts form the thread from which the world of Barsoom was woven. Pull one out, white wash the facts, or substitute other threads and it is no longer Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom.

Book 1

The current Barsoom project, tentatively titled John Carter of Mars, was first announced sometime circa 2006 or 2007, after Disney acquired the rights from Paramount, and, needless to say, this has had numerous actors and directors attached to it over the years. But, if the news from last week is any indication, it seems Disney/Pixar has finally decided to green light the project. More than that it appears this is planned to be a trilogy. But will it be Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom that makes it to the big screen?

Book 4

One can only hope this adaptation wont be turned into some ludicrous, nonsensical, piece of garbage aimed at ADD riddled 'tweens and thus avoid the fate that befell the Land of the Lost movie. Alas this is Disney and Hollywood, where the odds that any adaptation will be faithful to the source material are slim to none. That may be a cynical view but then Hollywood is a cynical town. Then again considering this is also a Pixar movie that means there should be some potentially awesome CGI, I say potentially because Pixar does animated movies well but it remains to be seen how well they will be able to integrate their work into a live-action feature. Hopefully they'll do the VFX very well.

Despite this silver lining the fact remains it's a Disney production. One can't help but despair that what will be produced is a dumbed down, white washed, politically correct version of Barsoom. How much of the Barsoom found in Mr. Burroughs' novels will actually make it onto the screen? Sadly given the current trend to pander to the 'tween demographic with tweaked-out adventures one can only hope the worst that will be done is John Carter of Mars will be turned into a action adventure comedy with a romance subplot.

Dejah Thoris

# to be continued in Part 2

Copyright © C. Demetrius Morgan

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