Dejah Vu

I went to the Disney John Carter movie, not exactly after the crowds had died down but more precisely after it became apparent there were no crowds. I am not sure what the standard is for bullshit sci-fi action movies, but apparently there is one, and Disney’s Barsoom ended up in fanboy hell.

It seems a shame. For one thing, Dejah Thoris, the eponymous Princess of Mars, redefines the concept of Disney Princess, and while the entire plot was passed through a funhouse mirror on the way to becoming a script, the furniture of Burroughs’ original invention was left fairly intact. The dead sea bottoms of Mars are still inhabited by ferocious green men, Zodanga is still the traditional enemy of Helium, honkie bastards called Therns still manipulate the more chromatic Barsoomian races, and Dejah Thoris still isn’t wearing many clothes. There are white apes, and banths (here, kitty, kitty), and authentically realized thoats (Martian riding animals, with natty spade-shaped tails). I really had no complaint, even about the interpolated backstory that gave John Carter a previous wife and daughter and a postmodern aversion to taking sides.

It drove me back to the books though. I devoured these things as a kid, when other little girls were reading Nancy Drew. I sort of came in at the middle, in a book about another Earthman who makes the astral transition to Mars and meets John Carter at the end, forcing me to go back to A Princess Of Mars (which provides the matter of the movie) and sort things out. At one point there was actually a comic version, Gold Key I think.

I am most of the way through the third (The Warlord of Mars) and probably noticing things that slipped by me even in my twenties. For one thing, John Carter is a confirmed religious skeptic, not quite what you expect to find in a yarn of epic hokum about impossibly invincible swordsmanship and rescued princesses and deus ex machina plot maneuvers by the cartload.

I knew how strong a hold a creed, however ridiculous it may be, may gain upon an otherwise intelligent people… it is very hard to accept a new religion for an old, no matter how alluring the promises of the new may be; but to reject the old as a tissue of falsehoods without being offered anything in its stead is indeed a most difficult thing to ask of any people.

I believe Burroughs had been observing his fellow man pretty keenly in this respect.

I have to wonder what readers of the nineteen-teens made of his ideas on race, too. Mars has all the gradations of skin tone that Earth has got, plus green. The black race — who live in subterranean cities at the pole — regard themselves as the first intelligent life on Mars, and for generations have raided the white Thern race to take slaves. The Therns are religious dupesters that make Propaganda Due look sort of kiddygarten. The red men whose cities dot the planet’s surface are scientists and achievers but can’t seem to stop fighting each other. The green men are nomadic, dangerous mo’fo’s, and the yellow men of the north have figured out climate control. Every time John Carter — once a soldier of the Confederacy — barely escapes from a situation with his ass intact, he seems to break down another barrier between the hitherto insular Martian races. His son Carthoris is an interplanetary hybrid, incidentally hatched from an egg,  making the Martians a kind of swashbuckling species of monotreme (and stretching probability to its limit where DNA is concerned).

The movie leaves off before Carthoris or any of the adventures among black, white and yellow races; judging by the film’s reception, we may never get there. Still, the scriptwriters managed to come up with something a bit better than the usual action movie’s excuse for a plot, and as long as they were tweaking this and that I am glad that they made Dejah Thoris a genuine threat with a sword. Burroughs’ John Carter states early on that “no Martian, male or female, is ever without a weapon of destruction,” but in the books Dejah Thoris spends most of her life being rescued from durance vile, generally inflicted by potentates of various Martian races (including the four-armed, fifteen-foot-tall green one) who aspire to ravish her. A little more scrappiness is a nice update.

Sadly, movie audiences and fanboys being what they are, I despair that many people will detour to note the pleasantry and grace of Burroughs’ prose, which — on top of his headlong wealth of invention — was literate and often witty.

The Indians had by this time discovered that I was alone and I was pursued with imprecations, arrows, and rifle balls. The fact that it is difficult to aim anything but imprecations accurately by moonlight, that the were upset by the sudden and unexpected manner of my advent, and that I was a rather rapidly moving target saved me from the various deadly projectiles of the enemy and permitted me to reach the shadows of the surrounding peaks before an orderly pursuit could be organized.

Snatch up a random adventure thriller from some modern bookstore rack and find me, I dare you, a paragraph remotely so tasty. if Disney brings back even a little of the relish for narrative like this, I will forgive them all their meddlings. Honest Injun.


8 thoughts on “Dejah Vu

  1. Kaor! How’s everything on Jasoom! I can’t believe you’ve read those books. I confess that I still have the entire library but haven’t read them since the mid 70s. After seeing the trailer I dismissed the movie–the real John Carter would never talk the way the movie guy does. And yes, special effects can never make up for crappy plot.

    I think your observations about Burroughs and race and religion are spot on. I think in one of the later books there is a race of priests who are truly baddies and JC (I wonder if the initials were a coincidence) lets them have it.

    Also, you can’t beat some of the prose. “Chieftans shall the jeddak Tal Hajus prove his fitness to rule over Tars Tarkus?” There were twenty chieftans about the rostrum, and twenty swords flashed high in assent.”

    • Well why ever would you not imagine I’d read them?

      I have to admit I was hugely amused when, in the first struggling attempts to communicate depicted in the movie, the Tharks dubbed John Carter “Virginia.” Being born and raised in Virginia and all, that made me cackle, even though nothing could have been further from Burroughs’ scenario.

      Tars Tarkas is my homeboy. I think the friendship between an Earthman and a large green tusky fellow was one of the most compelling features of the books for me.

      • Well, as you say, other llittle girls were reading Nancy Drew. But after all, you are a Wagnerite so your tastes are more refined!

        I agree about Tars Tarkas and these are the things that make pulp fiction (for lack of a better term) so wonderful some times. TT is such a complex character and behaves so perfectly in accordance with his own code and standards. Plus he’s a square peg in a round hole and that becomes the vehicle that leads to him helping the hero, etc. Kind of an archetype but Jane Austen couldn’t have done much better.

        • Hm — there is a Wagnerian side to the John Carter stories, at least the epic sweep and fearless fighting (Carter bangs on at one point to the effect that he really does not feel fear most of the time, like Siegfried). Not so much the tragic destiny, except of secondary characters, like Phaidor, who does rather a Kundry at the end of Warlord (just got to it). Amazing how I would not have remembered these cold but as they unfold again after a couple of decades all is familiar.

          Ever read the A. Merritt fantasy books? Cut from similar cloth with a similar exploitation of the archetypes.

          • I haven’t read A. Merritt–sounds interesting. Have you read Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein? It was one of the last things he wrote and it’s an homage to the John Carter Mars series. It’s also hilarious and risque and full of references to science fiction legends (e.g., Lensman series). You don’t have to have read those other books but it makes it more fun.

            The heroine in Number of the Beast is a computer genius named Dejah Thoris Burroughs and she marries a heroic academic named Zebediah Carter and they have multi-universe adventures. Give it a try if you haven’t already.

          • Well that sounds like fun!

            My first, and still favorite, Merritt was Dwellers in the Mirage — you get krakens, Norse warriors, lost land, all-female civilizations and Merritt’s trademark conflict between a beautiful wicked woman and a beautiful sweet one. The idea of an atavism to a distant gene donor stuck with me — always suspected I was one myself.


  2. I devoured Tolkien and Lovecraft and Howard as a teen but in hindsight I wonder if a drawback to growing up in a college town with great bookstores was that in order to rebel and be different than my peers I had to spurn sci-fi and fantasy and develop an interest in hot rods? Never got to the Carter series.

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