Especially for a potential blockbuster, there could hardly be a more ordinary-sounding name than “John Carter” — and for the uninitiated, it might seem like an odd choice for Disney to gamble $175 million on.
But for countless lifelong fans of the John Carter books — including the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, who directed “Finding Nemo” in 2003 and “WALL-E” in 2008 — this weekend’s release marks the culmination of the 100-year history of possibly the most influential sci-fi series ever created.
Originally published in serial form as “Under the Moons of Mars” in 1912 — the same year that New Mexico and Arizona joined the union (as the 47th and 48th states) and the Titanic embarked on its ill-fated maiden voyage — the first John Carter story, which was later reprinted as “A Princess of Mars,” was also the first story ever written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Later that year, of course, Burroughs made his name with another book about a stranger in a strange land called “Tarzan of the Apes.”
A Chicago native who turned to writing after a number of failed business ventures and years working a hodgepodge of menial jobs (including a brief stint as a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City), Burroughs went on to write dozens of stories — among them 11 books in what eventually became known as the Barsoom series (after the Martian name for the fourth planet from the sun).
Although his influence has been neglected in recent years, Burroughs’ creations are a vitally important part of American culture.
One of his many illustrious fans, the great sci-fi author Ray Bradbury (author of “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451”), has gone so far as to say that Burroughs “probably changed more destinies than any other writer in American history.
“I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields who, when they were 10 years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon," Bradbury says in the book “Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews,” by Sam Weller.
Proof of Bradbury’s claim is the long list of authors, scientists and filmmakers who identify Burroughs’ adventure stories as major inspirations in their careers, including Arthur C. Clarke, writer of “2001: A Space Odyssey”; Robert Heinlein, writer of the TV series “Red Planet”; astrophysicist Carl Sagan; and astronaut Terrence Wilcutt, who’s made four space flights.
What’s more, without “John Carter of Mars,” there would be no Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon or “Star Wars.” Even words like “Jedi” and “Sith,” after all, were lovingly cribbed from the Barsoom novels.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Kryptonian hero Superman, as well, is descended from Burroughs’ original sci-fi adventurer. Under the weaker gravitational pull of Mars, Carter becomes superhumanly strong and able to leap huge distances — or tall buildings — in a single bound. This was the same explanation Siegel used for Superman’s modestly conceived powers 26 years later when he first appeared in “Action Comics No. 1.”
Even recent sci-fi films, including James Cameron’s “Avatar,” owe a huge debt to Burroughs. As Cameron expressed in a 2009 interview that appeared in The New Yorker, “With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like ‘John Carter of Mars.’ ”
So it is that exactly 100 years since he was created, John Carter has finally come full circle.
After inspiring countless other stories, Andrew Stanton’s film is the first time Burroughs’ sci-fi epic has been adapted to the big screen — a Herculean feat that is only possible now thanks to the technology that pioneering filmmakers such as George Lucas and Cameron have developed over the last century to help tell their stories. (Remember that Pixar, with whom Stanton cut his filmmaking teeth, was originally part of Lucasfilm before Steve Jobs bought it in 1986.)
With John Carter, Burroughs himself has also come full circle, in a sense, as his first literary creation finally receives the big-budget Hollywood treatment.
The humble author would likely appreciate the fact that the state he once had to leave with barely a cent to his name doubled for the alien vistas of John Carter’s Mars. About a third of the film, in fact, was shot in southern Utah around areas such as Moab, Kanab and Lake Powell, which in turn put roughly $19.7 million back into the Utah economy, according to Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission.
With any luck, “John Carter” will be just the first in a proposed franchise based on Burroughs’ “sword and planet” novels, and filmmakers and audiences alike will be able to return to the alien landscapes of southern Utah.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.