‘John Carter’: A devoted fan chronicles his own martian fascination

The first trailer for Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter” has arrived to introduce a century-old bookshelf hero to today’s moviegoers. The character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also created a certain jungle hero) has never really gone away but Disney knows one challenge for the expensive new fantasy epic is to tap into the brand’s heritage but also make the property feel fresh and cutting-edge. Juhani Nurmi, a Finnish journalist and screenwriter, is one of the longtime fans of the Burroughs books who believes that the warlord of Mars is ready for his moment in the 21st century spotlight.

In the late 1970’s, when I was still a wide-eyed kid watching TV series like “Six Million Dollar Man” and “Space: 1999,” as well as movies like “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” and the early James Bond entries at the cinema, a very good buddy of mine visited me one day. With a knowing smile, he lifted a set of well-worn books from his school bag. I must’ve been around 12 years old at the time, with testosterone, fears and dreams kicking on overdrive. My buddy was 14, and he’d already turned me on to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” But how on Earth could the Tarzan author’s pulpy sci-fi fantasy series even dream to compete with Tolkien’s mastery?

An early Frank E. Schoonover cover for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” (1912).

Well, it rocked my world. Maybe it wasn’t as cultured or finely tuned as Tolkien’s, but I’m telling you: I’m still reeling from the experience, at the age of 45. If you love fantasy, pulp sci-fi and yarns crammed with all kinds of derring-do and swashbuckling, these books have it all – and then some. As I browsed through the elegant cover illustrations, I was instantly hooked by their Space Gothic imagery. Most importantly of all, the imagery spoke to me on a deeply personal and atavistic level. I was gawking at half-naked male warriors fighting to save voluptuous damsels in distress, Mad Scientists surrounded by bizarre contraptions, black-hued villains with ivory-toothed leers and fiendish noblemen wearing bright yellow hairpieces, all of them plotting to eliminate the main hero. Somehow, I knew instantly that I also wanted to co-habit that most elusive of alien worlds, Barsoom, the “Mars That Never Was.”

Obviously, I’m talking of “A Princess of Mars” and its ten literary sequels, perhaps more widely known as “The John Carter of Mars” series. However, this series (which according to some was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ personal favorite of all of his literary creations) isn’t really that well known in popular culture, not to mention the younger generations. This is very important to point out these days, since right now one of Pixar’s best and brightest, Andrew Stanton, is adapting the first novel, with the title “John Carter” (recently shortened from “John Carter of Mars”). The movie will open in March 2012. We only had to wait an entire century for it.

Frank Frazetta’s cover for the 1970 Doubleday edition of “A Princess of Mars.”

Despite its less than PC world view (“A Princess of Mars” saw first light in 1912), Burroughs’ rousing tale still ought to be pure dynamite on the screen: A Civil War officer fights Apaches in Arizona, and gets inexplicably teleported to Mars (a.k.a. Barsoom) after getting wounded. Once on Barsoom, Capt. Carter, miraculously healed – but not bound by the planet’s natural ultra-light gravity – doesn’t waste any time making larger-than-life friends and lethal enemies. He ultimately wins the heart of a gorgeous Martian princess (Dejah Thoris of Helium), and fights all kinds of monsters alongside an enormous, six-armed Green Martian warrior (the fiercely loyal Tars Tarkas), only to end up becoming “the finest swordsman on two worlds.”

But Barsoom is also a dying world, as its fauna and sentient life are sustained only by the Atmosphere Plant. The ending leaves the reader with a tantalizing, infuriating cliffhanger, leading to the inevitable sequel, “The Gods of Mars.” So, will the brave Barsoomians survive, and what will happen to the two lovers, John Carter and Dejah Thoris? If you haven’t read the books, my lips remain sealed.