A visit to Barsoom -- 03/29/12

Yes, more weeks have gone by without an entry here. But, ignoring my lack of online babbling, let us move on...

Last night Jill and I took a trip to Barsoom... and to my childhood. We went to see the John Carter movie.

When I was a kid, we had a barrister style bookcase (the kind with glass doors on them). It was in our living room. There was a multivolume encyclopedia set, various other non-fiction books -- a two volume history of The Great War, one on the sinking of the Titanic, a book on the Johnstown Flood. I mention those specifically because they had pictures, and thus there was something for me to look at when I was really little. I remember particularly the war history because of its photographs of ruined buildings in cities and I used them to visualize the destruction in World War II, the war my father had come back from fighting.

When I turned seven, my attention turned to the other books. I was looking for something to read -- I dashed through each week's supply of children's books from the public library too quickly. I found two sources of books: the library books my parents were reading and the books in this bookcase.

I began working my way through the novels from the family bookcase: Zane Grey westerns, various Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London novels, etc. And one day my father mentioned that if I liked those books, he had some more in the basement. He went down to the basement, to the closet beneath the stairs, a closet that was usually opened to take out and put away our Christmas ornaments. There was a cardboard box filled with more novels -- and one of them was Warlord of Mars, the third book in the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Barsoom is the Martian word for Mars.)

Let's just say that I was totally hooked.

Fast forward a dozen years to the fall of 1962. I am 19, beginning my sophomore year of college, living in an off campus apartment with four friends. If I recall correctly, the copyrights on Burroughs' works expired (and, I think, one of the subsequent changes in copyright law -- the changes that keep Mickey Mouse safe for Disney -- later took most of his works back out of the public domain) and two different companies were bringing out his complete works in paperback. It seemed as if every week there would be one or two new Burroughs book out. My roommates and I bought every new title and we worked our way through them. The complete Barsoom series -- all ten novels (there was an 11th but that was really taking two novellas, one of which was really by his son, and packaging them as a novel in 1964) -- and the moon series and the Venus series and the center of the Earth series.

When Adam was young, he loved to be read to -- and, when as he outgrew picture books (well, not really, he became an avid comic book fan) I began to read him some of the Heinlein juvenile novels and then a couple of the Burroughs Barsoom series. And, a few years later, when it came to bedtime reading for Jill and Jeremy, I again turned to Heinlein and then dug out a Burroughs. I think I only read one of the Burroughs Barsoom books to them -- the purple prose was beginning to get to me.

I was very excited when I learned that Disney was producing a big-budget version of the first book in the Barsoom series (obviously, with ten books, they may have envisioned having a new Harry Potter of their own). I was also worried that they might screw it up. Well, as you have no doubt heard, the movie was released and Disney has lost a fortune because the box office results are far short of the production costs. This is a shame, because the movie is well done and quite entertaining -- and the visualization of Barsoom and the Tharks (William Dafoe is marvelous as Tars Tarkas) and the flying ships are all so well done. I really felt I was seeing Mars as Burroughs envisioned it -- and that he would have approved.

I think they made a big mistake in changing the title. The movie is based on the first book in the series, A Princess of Mars. Apparently they feared that having the word princess in the title would make people think it was another Disney princess movie and the audience would consist only of girls under the age of twelve. The movie was named John Carter of Mars, which is the title shown with the closing credits (yes, of course we sat there and watched the credits) -- and they chopped off the "of Mars" and released it as just John Carter.

Jill and I were the only two people in the audience for John Carter.

Yes, just us, nobody else. An audience of two. Given the that as we were leaving, the only people in the lobby seemed to be kids waiting for parents to pick them up, I have the feeling that the 9:40 pm showing might well have been to an empty room.

We had a good time. It is an entertaining film. And it is really too bad that it is losing so many millions and millions of dollars that there will never be another.

When we were visiting in New York, Adam was saying that he might take Sam to see it. Jill noted on Facebook that she and I were going to see it and Leah commented that Adam and Sam had seen it and loved it.

This is the cover on the 1917 edition of Princess of Mars. (From Wikimedia Commons.)

(The characters in the books actually tended to wear jewelry, armor, and weapons, but no clothing. This made life difficult for illustrators. They had to position figures so that the nudity was not visible or to use their imaginations to create garments and picture them as clothed.)


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