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John Carter: Not the Burroughs Hero After All?

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Taylor Kitsch as John Carter

Taylor Kitsch as John Carter

OK. I admit: it’s too early to judge. The movie isn’t even out yet, just trailers and promo photos, but on that basis alone I am regarding the imminent release of John Carter with one eye a-squint.

This does not look like the hero (and heroine) I know and love from Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ classic John Carter of Mars series, and I am perturbed.

In Which I Discover Science Fiction, Along With a Few Adult Topics

Now, please understand: Burroughs was my first introduction to science fiction. As soon as I turned 12 I became eligible for the adult library card at the Long Beach (California) Public Library, which I promptly upgraded to. And there were three pieces of adult reading I instantly checked out. One was John Carter of Mars. The entire set of Burrough’s Mars books was there on a shelf, calling my name, and I’d only been able to browse but not really lose myself in one before that summer birthday. There was something there that captivated me, that I needed a full dose of. And finally, oh joy, I could take one home and go to Mars.

The other two books I eagerly grabbed from the shelf were the Autobiography of Christine Jorgensen, the first widely known transsexual, and Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal, a comedic/satiric take on Myron’s transformation into Myra. “Transgender” was barely a word in the contemporary vocabulary, but “sex change” was getting a lot of buzz – usually in scathing tones – and I knew this was one of those secretive adult topics grownups didn’t want to talk to kids about. Critics were praising Vidal’s book, and moralists were thundering against it, and Jorgensen was in the news again as well. Why? I was burning with curiosity about this taboo-but-in-plain-sight material. Que curioso.

Of the three books, it was Breckenridge that caused the librarian to peer at me over her half-glasses a long way down her nose and ask, “Do your parents know what you’re reading?” To which I boldly replied, “They do, and they’re ok with it.”

Well. They knew I was reading books, at least, and had a new adult library card (Mom had just signed for it), and they were certainly ok with that. More details the librarian did not need. And neither did my parents.

Jorgensen’s autobiography touched me, and educated me. Myra Breckenridge – I didn’t see what the fuss was about. This was my first excursion into the realms of gender dysphoria, transgression, and sexual identity. I came away from this with the conclusion that adults should let kids read adult things before their viewpoints are tainted by grown-up biases. Kids are capable of forming open-minded opinions of their own when subjects are not framed in judgment, fear, or hatred. At least it worked for me.

So both of those books were eye-opening in a special way that summer of 1968. And then….there was Burroughs.

Burroughs is always linked for me with my first foray into Adult Reading, which is why I mention the other Adult things I was reading at the same time. I brought the same ready-for-anything open-mindedness to Burroughs’ work. But the John Carter story was a whole different kind of adventure. A near planet, exotically renamed Barsoom by the locals! Moon shot/science fair/science nerd moi loved the concept. Four-armed giant green-skinned aliens! Flying air-ships! Adventure! and let us not forget, “the incomparable Deja Thoris.” I was in heaven and read the whole series beginning to end. Then discovered anthologies, and Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and much more, and off I went down the slippery slope to aspiring science fiction novelist at high speed.

So. A little transgenderism, a little subversive literature, a whole lotta adventure on another planet – all in all, a wonderful summer. (OK, so I was one of those twelve-year-olds…)

John Carter & Deja Thoris by Frank Frazetta

John Carter & Deja Thoris by Frank Frazetta

Meanwhile, Back on Mars…

John Carter is an iconic figure for fans of Barsoom, on the same scale as Tarzan, Burroughs’ better-known character and series. His descriptions and background about the character are clear, and here’s where I get my first hit of terrible cognitive dissonance.

To quote Burroughs from A Princess of Mars,

He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.

His horsemanship, especially after hounds, was a marvel and delight even in that country of magnificent horsemen. I have often heard my father caution him against his wild recklessness, but he would only laugh, and say that the tumble that killed him would be from the back of a horse yet unfoaled.

Enter Taylor Kitsch cast as the lead. He stands 6′. His hair (in character) is brown. And…long. Long? Say it’s not so! He effects a scraggly could-be-savage-he-man kind of presence, or, like Tom Brady’s late unlamented locks, one could be reminded of the mythical “girly-man” of gubernatorial scorn if one wishes to bundle a lot more critical subtext into these descriptors. Why does that wording even come to mind? Because this look is so counter to steely eyed 6’2″ John Carter of the close-cropped black hair, gentlemanly manners and manly courage, with a distinctly broader shoulder-to-hip ratio than Kitsch demonstrates. The fault is not entirely in the casting – Kitsch did a fine job playing troubled teen Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, so one would think he has potential – but what foolish makeup and costuming decisions were made to package his look in this manner? From the very get-go, this actor does not look like John Carter is supposed to look. Too short, too long-haired, and where, prey tell, is the carriage of the trained fighting man, the fire and initiative? Where is his presence? He does not seem to have the right heroic edge to him, to judge by the trailers.

This is sad. It is unfortunate. It is perhaps even a travesty – I’ll reserve judgment on that point until I see the movie, but with this start from first impressions, I am not optimistic.

But Wait! There’s More!

And this brings me, then, to Carter’s love interest and co-protagonist, Deja Thoris, Princess of Barsoom. Burroughs describes her through John Carter’s eyes:

[T]he sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

In addition to this, Deja Thoris is much smaller than John Carter. She has a slender, girlish figure, and is “less than half the height” of the green-skinned, four-armed Barsoomian aliens; she has “little hands” that she puts on his arm or chest when speaking to him. One gets a clear picture of a woman leaning closer to average height than not, perhaps even petite, who although imperious at times is also relatively small and to be protected by large strapping warrior John.

John Carter and Deja Thoris (Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins)

John Carter and Deja Thoris (Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins)

Now on the big screen enters Lynn Collins – a few inches shorter than Taylor Kitsch, a fairly athletic woman in her own right – far from a ‘girlish’ figure – with straight dark brown hair (where is the mass? the waves? the black?), with attractive but not “exquisitely” beautiful features. But the princess of Mars is supposed to be a babe; she is “beautiful in the extreme.” She is drop-dead gorgeous. And Lynn Collins is…well. 5’8″ of pretty. A suitable romantic lead in X-Men: Origins. But she is not, alas, “the incomparable Deja Thoris.”

I don’t generally critique women’s appearances in media, but in this case I critique both male and female leads for one simple reason: these characters are as well established in their physical presence as anyone from Tarzan or Lord of the Rings or myriad other properties with distinctive characters made famous over time and multi-book series. That the essentials of their appearance, demeanor, and presence are blithely ignored by director Andrew Stanton, without even an effort on the part of makeup to compensate for some of these shortcomings, tells me that the screen presentation of the in-the-book characters is not important to this creative crew. This is like casting Walter Matthau as Gandalf and saying “that’s good enough.”

McKellum and Matthau - 2 Gandalfs

Ian McKellum as Gandalf, and Walter Matthau: change hat, add beard. Good enough!

And that, of course, makes me wonder what else Stanton has deemed dispensable. In his spoken intro to one movie trailer, he talks about loving these books as a child and wanting to stay true to them. If this look in the lead actors is his idea of staying true to the original…well, all I can say is, he’ll never be Peter Jackson when he grows up.

In any case, time will tell. The movie will be released in March 2012, so it’s just around the corner. I think this is one I will be catching on DVD, not the big screen. In the meanwhile, I think it’s time to reread some Burroughs and John Carter of Mars.

The real one.


This movie has not received any Stomps of Approval because a) I haven’t seen it yet and b) this is a commentary not a movie review. When I see it I’ll update this post with a link to the review proper.

 Related Post

Me, Short Stories, and Robert Heinlein

Warlord of Mars cover

Cover art by Joe Jusko.


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Author Deborah Teramis Christian

Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

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This military science fiction anthology contains "Live Fire," Christian's Tiptree Award-nominated short story set in the Sa'adani Empire, the setting of her science fiction novels. Now available at Amazon in print and Kindle editions.