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'John Carter's' influence felt over the past century

By Conor Simao
On March 20, 2012


I'll declare with confidence that some things are simply not what they seem to be. Consider Disney's latest high-budget action-powered flick "John Carter." Its title character may seem like a lame Hollywood fusion of Tarzan and a mythological beast-slaying Leonidas, spruced up by some expensive visual effects and set in a galaxy (or planet) far, far away. But Carter wasn't born in the studios of any 21st century cinematic giant.

No, this icon of all things interplanetary travel debuted in the 1917 science fiction novel, "A Princess of Mars," in which he visits the red planet inadvertently and there enjoys super-human physical power. This month's blockbuster adaptation may seem like a fairly close retelling of that original novel, but it certainly wasn't the first to take inspiration from the literary mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs (who coincidently also created Tarzan), its esteemed author. While the "Barsoom" series, of which "Princess" was the first installment, may not be a modern household name, it has influenced not only the genre of science fiction itself, but also many of its famous icons.

"A Princess of Mars," for instance, tells the story of an earthling, Carter, who falls in love with a Martian princess, Deja Thoris. That may sound like something out of "Avatar" or "Star Trek," and that's primarily because these two science fiction classics were influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the interstellar romance central to the "Barsoom" books. It should be of little surprise then that famed director James Cameron cites the Carter series as an influence on his 2009 Oscar-winning motion picture, "Avatar." It can be argued that by blending scientific and romantic themes, the original "A Princess of Mars" led to a paradigm shift in the world of science fiction, softening it in the process.

Cameron and Captain Kirk weren't the only ones influenced by Burrough's legacy. After all, the famous series featured a man who, upon immigration to a foreign planet, acquired "super powers" due to differentials in gravity and terrain. That may remind comic book fans of DC Comics' "Superman," a humanoid with the ability to blend in on Earth, but with the strength necessary to bend steel. Like Clark Kent, Carter, in addition to touting a similarly banal full name, helped the people of his host planet elevate good over evil. Furthermore, Kent's, at times, starry-eyed relationship with day job colleague Lois Lane stands to only strengthen the bond between him and his literary ancestor, John Carter. 

You should also take into account Ray Bradbury. While popular in the mainstream for his dystopian social commentary "Fahrenheit 451," he is revered by science fiction diehards as the man behind "The Martian Chronicles." The series, set on Mars, was released in the 1950s, about two decades after the first "Barsoom" novel reached official publication. Bradbury will be the first to admit that Burroughs and his conception of Mars as a scarcity-torn land inspired the imagined planet chronicled in Bradbury's own inventive stories.

Of course, "Star Wars," one of the most celebrated science fiction franchises in recent history, may have also looked towards "A Princess of Mars" in its creative design. George Lucas has credited "Flash Gordon," another early sci-fi phenomenon, as an inspiration for the globally famous series. "Flash Gordon," incidentally, borrowed the format and thematic spirit of "Princess," as well. So as some have so eloquently put it, Burroughs is essentially the grandfather of "Star Wars."

Ultimately, when you hear somebody accusing Disney of emulating Lucas and his characters with the new "John Carter" movie, remember that many of these themes are effectively fair game. Remember the white ape sequence in "John Carter" that seemed to copy the arena sequence in "Attack of the Clones?" That was in the original "Princess" novel, predating Lucas' "Star Wars" installment by about 85 years. Movies of the same kind, so long as they share a common ancestor, tend to be similar; archetypes are an integral part of storytelling.

These similarities are noteworthy and allow us to trace much of the evolution within the science fiction genre to some of its earliest manifestations. Among these foundational works, "A Princess of Mars," and its protagonist John Carter have worked as pioneers to develop their relatively young industry. Like Darwin's "Tree of Life," fiction builds upon itself, allowing today's authors and screenwriters to stand atop the shoulders of proverbial giants while still achieving artistic individuality. So when or if you catch the 2012 movie "John Carter," it may help you enjoy the film to consider its resounding historical significance and the purity of Burroughs' 20th century classic on which it is based.

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