Schumpeter at The Economist analyzes the failure of “John Carter” the film, and comes up with three rules for making a total failure:
First: slaughter a sacred cow.
Second: mix oil and water.
Third: produce a genuinely awful product.
Now, in fact, from looking at people’s reactions, I don’t think you can fairly say that the movie is a “genuinely awful product.” There are lots of people who’ve said they enjoyed it. The first two rules have some genuine content, but not in the way Our Columnist describes them. Take them, turn ‘em around a bit, and you have a real insight: One way to make a megaflop is to start with something utterly dependent upon the cultural and social factors of an earlier time — factors you don’t even know exist, let alone understand — and try to “interpret” it in terms of current mores. There is no way in Hell the result can possibly make sense, either to the original audience or to today’s, and all it will be is puzzling and disappointing.
A Princess of Mars is written in first person, as the intensely personal memoir of a character presented as an instance of an archetype familiar in Burroughs’s day, but almost entirely absent from current ideas. To present John Carter as “a Civil War veteran” is true, but misses the point. He describes himself as “a fighting man”, and if you don’t know what that means — and most of you, and damn near everybody in Hollywood, have no teeniest hint of a Clew — the whole story is just a mass of unconnected violent events. If that’s all there was to it, Burroughs’s audience wouldn’t have grabbed the narrative and held it in their minds. There were lots of “pulp” writers in that day; what most of them wrote was as simplistic and undriven as any of the drivel put out today, and most of them are utterly forgotten except for a few academics who might dig them out of dusty archives. Why did A Princess of Mars resound and become beloved, where the Rover Boys and similar stories — much more popular in their day than Burroughs ever was — descended into obscurity?
Answer: In many subtle ways, Burroughs presents The Fighting Man on his own terms and subverts the notion. The result is fascinating in its own terms, with the SFX being a sideline.
The Fighting Man, as an archetype, was almost the last holdover of the millenium-long European wars. He is an effective dealer and organizer of violence, and is proud of his laboriously-acquired skills and knowledge; the overlying society admires him in many ways as an expert in his profession, but regards him with some suspicion because now that he’s out of work he may become a danger. Both he and the society he lives in recognize that he is restrained by the ways he was taught, summarized in the word “honor”. John Carter, in the introduction to the book, chafes at those restraints but understands that they are necessary, that the society he lives in has no use at the moment for his talents and abilities, the which talents and abilities can and would make him a real danger if he were to forget his honor so far as to employ them. His transubstantiation to Mars, where he can freely indulge himself in the joy — his very word, often repeated in the books — of fighting and killing his opponents, is a dream come true for him.
In present-day society, the only referent we have for The Fighting Man is the caricature of soldiers presented by the Left; such people are to be medicated into submission at the very least, and (especially among the preening Progressives so common among the elite) a person fighting for a wrong cause cannot be taken as having virtues of any sort. In Burroughs’s day the Fighting Man was still honored, though perhaps more in theory than in substance; valor, in and of itself, was seen as a Good Thing no matter which side the valorous individual had taken when valor was exhibited. In that connection, it is worthwhile to point out that John Carter is a Confederate veteran. When the books were written, it was still taken for granted in most circles that such people could have been and often were brave and honorable, even though they were on the wrong side and fighting for a Cause that was (even then) considered villainous.
So Carter, in his own eyes a Good Guy who is unfortunately out of work in his chosen profession and doesn’t care to learn another, finds himself on Mars, where he is presented with a series of challenges that exactly match his skills and talents. He takes advantage of that, and is extremely pleased by it despite the fact that it results in danger and privation.
Then he meets Dejah Thoris — and, almost more importantly, Sola, the green woman.
To a modern person, steeped in feminism, Dejah Thoris and Sola are very nearly nonentities. They are slaves in a slaveholding culture, constrained to act in certain ways by the assumptions of that culture, which they fully accept (though they may resent their status, they understand it). In Burroughs’s day the memory of slavery was yet green, and Sola and Dejah Thoris are fairly accurately portrayed — and that’s where the story goes off the rails in then-contemporary terms, and the reason it caught people’s imaginations sufficiently to be preserved when much of the other adventure fiction of that day has been lost. Carter, too, sees them as nonentities in the beginning, though on completely different terms than the way a modern has to see them — Sola is a servant, to be ordered about without expecting questions; Dejah Thoris is a game token, to be carried back to her parents for an expected reward, like the flag in a paintball game. Neither of them is a person, to be interacted with soul-to-soul.
But that’s not the way it works out. Sola first begins mutating into Yet Another Instance of the “n– sidekick”, like Friday in Robinson Crusoe — dependable, but lacking her own motivations. It doesn’t take long, though, for Carter to realize that Sola has an agenda of her own, and that she helps him not out of any obligation as a lesser being serving the greater but as a way of furthering her own goals. Woola is unthinkingly subservient and helpful; Sola is not — she’s a thinking being, and if at any point Carter’s goals don’t lead toward her own she’ll abandon him like a used hankie (in fact she does so, at least once). That, in Burroughs’s day, was a startling subversion of a common trope, and people read on to see where he’d go with it.
It is against that background that Carter encounters Dejah Thoris. At first she is merely a game piece, somebody to be rescued for the reward — which may include her person in marriage; the rules of honor on Mars echo those on Earth, and under those rules, for Carter to “take advantage” of her person (sexually, although that’s never mentioned directly; it’s omnipresent in then-understandable code we now find hard to interpret) is Wrong, dishonorable. Carter, being honorable, accedes to that requirement despite strong physical attraction and plenty of opportunity, and proceeds to rescue the Princess in much the same way as he would seek to take advantage of any other treasure trove. Again, though, it doesn’t work out that way. Dejah Thoris turns out to be smarter than he is, and much better versed in the ways of her society; she brings him up short at several points, and even abandons him at considerable cost to herself when his proposed course of action can only bring disaster in her society’s terms. She knows what she’s doing, and knows that he doesn’t — and that, again, subverts the then-prevailing trope. Pauline, having been rescued from Peril, is supposed to throw herself upon the arms of her rescuer. Dejah Thoris is no Pauline. She starts out that way when it doesn’t appear that the result will be rejoining with her family — she likes Carter, and would be content to be his mate as a commoner — but when it becomes clear that her rescuer is determined to go all the way back to Helium with his game-flag, she demurs, and makes that demurral real.
It is that character interaction (and others along the same line) that made A Princess of Mars stick in the minds of its first readers, who placed in the pantheon and have referred to it ever since when most of its contemporary fiction has been forgotten. It is, in reality, a fairly powerful story of how honor and faithfulness can be achieved under difficult conditions, and how a character can grow and change to meet new challenges without recognizing it himself — as narrator, Carter never drops the “Fighting Man” trope even when he is clearly acting in violation of that ideal.
All of which is why I haven’t seen the movie, and won’t. Given modern ideals, it is inevitable that Carter must be flawed, an apologetic semi-warrior who sees his abilities as somehow shameful and tries to minimize them, and that Dejah Thoris must be a spunky feminist who takes over the action. Against those ideals, none of what happens in the book makes any sense whatever; it’s just a bunch of swordfights and jumping through hoops with no overarching narrative, which is why the filmmaker had to drag in Therns and the life-after-death scam (and get that mostly wrong, too) in order to provide some sort of plot that he could process into a sequence of events. In a literary sense, the whole thing’s a tragedy on the same order as Starship Troopers, and for the same reasons: the filmmaker was simply and categorically incapable of understanding what the story is about. Of course, for all his flaws Voerhoven is a good filmmaker, and the resulting movie is worth watching so long as you realize that it is emphatically not the story Heinlein told. John Carter doesn’t rise to that standard, and flops on its own terms.