Phoning In The Thark Jump

Disney's first stab at Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martians, before they owned the trademark.

If you have even the slightest interest in seeing John Carter in a theater, please, do so.  Friends whose opinions I trust have seen it, think it's great, and urge others to see it.

So, based on their recommendations, I urge you to see it.

Me, I'm not going to.  Not in a theater, anyway.[1]

This is no snark against the material or even Edgar Rice Burroughs hizzownsef.  I've read lots of different stories by lots of different writers and Burroughs was among the tiny handful who managed to bottle the lighting.

On occasion.

Burroughs is a damn fine writer, and the first three Tarzan novels plus the anthology Jungle Tales Of Tarzan are just about as perfect a distillation of the core idea as has ever been written, not just damn fine pulp adventure writing but damn fine writing, period.  Burroughs richly deserves his place at the writers' table.

The problem is this: Burroughs was a fine writer but an even better business man and at a certain point he stopped being a real writer and just started phoning it in 'cuz the money was soooooo damn good (and easy).

I discovered Burroughs at the perfect age: 13.  I had all the sci-fi book club editions of the Barsoom books, all the Ace Pellucidar books, various stray ERB sci-fi novels and read more than half of the Tarzan series.

And I had a grand time with 'em, eating up the lost worlds, hideous monsters, beautiful princesses, and stalwart  heroes.

But I also noticed something -- and this might be the first documented appearance of Buzz the proto-editor:  Burroughs recycled a lot of material.  And by recycled I mean cutting and pasting big blocks of text and replaying the same basic scenario with the same company of stock characters over and over.

It was as if he became bored with the material but couldn't escape the public pressure to crank out more novels.

So he just ended up phoning it in.

You can see this in virtually all his series.  You've got three, maybe four exceptional Tarzan books at the start of the series, maybe another three better-than-average ones, then the rest are pretty dull and mechanical.

Same with the Barsoom books; he's already recycling stuff by The Gods Of Mars, his second Barsoom book, and the quality takes a big nosedive with #3, The Warlord Of Mars (he bounces back strong with #7, A Fighting Man Of Mars, but more on that in a bit).  The Caspak (a.k.a. Land Time Forgot) series actually plays out strongly all the way to the end of the trilogy; Burroughs wisely never opted to extend it to a fourth volume.  Pellucidar is just a prehistoric rehash of Barsoom; once they actually drill through to the Earth's core the first book in that series becomes predictable.

And the rest, every non-series novel he wrote after turning to the sequel business, lack the genius and clarity of vision that made his first books so popular.

So I had a great time with Burroughs at age 13, and I would cheerily recommend him to all other 13 year olds.

But by age 16 I really didn't need to read another Burroughs book for as long as I lived.  I can remember quite fondly the best, and easily over look the faults of the rest, but I'm done with him.

And, unsurprisingly, apparently so were billions of movie goers around the world.

See, you can't blame Burroughs for this: Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.

Burroughs, never a startlingly original writer, nimbly synthesized other, earlier works and authors.  Tarzan is his great literary accomplishment, but it's Romulus and Remus retold through Rousseau plus a couple of dozen tales of white children captives raised by Indian tribes to the point where they thought of themselves as Indians.[2]

And he wasn't the only one.  Burroughs vivid imagination, his ability to create iconic heroes, and his savvy business acumen make him and Tarzan household names to this day, while A. Merritt, another good writer of the same era, is virtually forgotten by all but the best read pop culture historians.

And the kneeslapper is that like Burroughs, Merritt's greatest impact was not so much his own work but how his work influenced others.  Merritt only wrote ten or so books, but those books are all templates of distinctive pulp adventure genres.  He never created a character to equal Carson of Venus, much less John Carter or Tarzan, but in terms of style and craft, Merritt gave Burroughs a run for the money.[3]

Other writers, fans of the fantastic adventure genre, eagerly lapped up the works of Merritt and Burroughs. By the time the great pulp fiction explosion of the 1920s & 30s hit, scores of imitators wrote hundreds if not thousands of imitations.

Even creators not directly influenced by Merritt or Burroughs had to create in response to their pioneering creations.  And the act of creation being what it is, most new creations tended to be mash-ups of two or more basic ideas combined into some new synthesis (The way Burroughs' The Monster Men was a mash-up of Frankenstein and The Island Of Dr. Moreau with a dollop of jungle adventure thrown in).

Ray Bradbury's Martians are poetic creatures of ethereal strangeness, yet his Mars is part and parcel with Burroughs'.[4]

So bottom line, by the time Disney (and The Asylum a.k.a. "The next best thing to porn") finally got around to adapting their versions of A Princess Of Mars, several generations of audiences had already seen it in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and Conan the Barbarian and One Million B.C. and King Kong and Star Trek and Star Wars.

Disney spent $200,000,000 on their version of A Princess Of Mars, The Asylum spent maybe $2,000,000. You do the math & judge the results...

Seriously, take any John Carter preview, show it to any mainstream audience, tell them it's either the new Conan movie or another Star Wars prequel and they'd believe you.  It is by all accounts an absolutely faithful adaptation and that is precisely the problem:  It was done to death before it was done for even the first time.

Back in the 1970s, noted sci-fi writer and pop culture historian Philip Jose Farmer wrote Tarzan Alive, a “biography” of Tarzan.

Farmer’s conceit (like that of many people writing “biographies” of fictional characters), was that Tarzan was real and Burroughs had simply appropriated his story, adding all sorts of outrageous fictional details but adhering to the main truth (at least at first).

It’s a tribute to Farmer’s skill as a writer that when he first published this book, most sci-fi fans thought he had finally lost his mammy-jammin’ mind and had gone off the deep end.

Fortunately, he came out with Doc Savage:  His Apocalyptic Life a few years later and gave us a big wink; it was all a put on.

But in pulling our legs, Farmer made an interesting link, one that binds an awful lot of pulp heroic fiction together.

Farmer created a fictitious network of inter-related families -- the Wold Newton families -- who proved to be the ancestors and scions of literally every pulp hero of the late 19th and 20th centuries.  Farmer cited certain physical descriptions and personality traits that cropped up in character after character in book after book by author after author:  Dark / black hair, steely grey eyes, great physical strength & resiliency, brilliant analytical minds with a susceptibility to amnesia, etc.

Without exaggeration he managed to tie in almost every pulp character ever created, linking Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Lamont Cranston, James Bond, Modesty Blaise, and Doc Savage through familial links.[5]

The truth, of course, was that hundreds of authors -- some good, some bad, some indifferent -- were all drawing water from the same well, and either consciously or subconsciously taking inspiration from one another.  Burroughs certainly did, and scores who came after him took their inspiration from Burroughs.

Burroughs’ strength as a businessman far surpassed his strengths as a writer (and as noted, he was a damn fine writer).  Burroughs was savvy enough to realize copyright was of limited value -- but if you owned a trademark, you and your descendants could theoretically rake in the cash forever.

That’s why Tarzan is a trademarked character.  You wanna do a Tarzan story about a white jungle lord with long black hair who wears an animal skin loin cloth, you gotta deal with the Burroughs estate.  Yeah, the original books are falling into public domain, but the look is locked in forever.[6]

The same applies to the John Carter books: Burroughs trademarked the various Martian critters; you can’t do an official adaptation without ponying up money to use those images.

All of this goes a long way to explain why John Carter had such a lackluster reception at the box office.  By protecting his creations too well, Burroughs pretty much guaranteed no one could play with his toys without his permission.

As a result, he kept most of his work from reaching its widest audience saturation.

Burroughs’ experiences with Tarzan explains a lot of this.  Rarely happy with the film adaptations of his work (even when they were quite good), Burroughs frequently licensed competing films based on his character.[7]

He was particularly unhappy with Johnny Weissmuller’s “Me Tarzan, you Jane” approach to the character, and even more unhappy with the public’s embrace of this interpretation.

Almost every Tarzan movie or TV show except the Weissmuller films for MGM and Columbia feature an articulate, well educated, savvy jungle man, yet everybody “knows” Weissmuller’s Tarzan as the definitive version.

As a result, he protected his other creations a bit too well.  Instead of getting Barsoom or Venus or Pellucidar movies made, he held onto the rights rather than compromise.

In the end his ideas got ripped off anyway and turned into scores of lesser movies and TV episodes, so that by the time they actually did reach the screen they were no longer unique and special but somewhat old hat.

Mind you, the exact same thing happened with Tarzan: Hundreds of bad jungle lord imitations came out between 1910 and 1970.

The difference is, there was a Tarzan on screen to stand at the top of the heap, and all the imitations were just that:  Imitations.  There’s a big big gap in audiences' minds between the crappiest Tarzan movie and the best Sheena the She-Devil or Bomba The Jungle Boy, and it’s not in the knock-offs’ favor.

As I posted, it’s nobody’s intentional fault.  Could a savvier marketing campaign done better? Maybe, but probably not.

John Carter was just a story whose time had come and gone long before the film actually got made.

If they had asked me[8], I wouldn’t have recommended doing any of the early Barsoom books first.  Those stories and characters were much too shopworn.

No, they should have started with the Mars novel Burroughs wrote when he himself was sick of the formula, the book he wrote with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, the story that took all the clichés he’d lovingly created and turned ‘em on their ear.

The book is A Fighting Man Of Mars, but the plot is straight out of O. Henry’s “The Ransom Of Red Chief”:  Lowly warrior Tan Hadron has a hadron for princess Sanoma Tora, but she won’t give him a tumble.  When Sanoma is kidnapped by an evil, insidious villain[9], Tan sets off on a journey of many perils with Tavia, an escaped female slave.

Finally making their way to the villain’s lair, they learn the villain has discovered all he needs to know about Sanoma.

Paraphrased, the book ends thusly:

So, Tan Hadron, you have come to rescue the Princess Sanoma!

Yeah, y’know, I’ve been giving a lotta thought to that while trekking across the desert with Tavia here. Sanoma is one egotistical, stuck-up, overbearing, selfish banth-buster.

Dude, tell me about it:  I’ve been holding her prisoner all this time waiting for you to come rescue her.

Well, that’s just it:  You can keep her.

WHAT?!?!?

Yeah, keep her.  I’ll stick with Tavia.

Oh, no, no, no, no, no!  You’ve rescued her fair and square.  Winner take all.

Nah, you can have her.

Oh, no, no, no, no, no!  Take her!  I insist!

That’s what they should have done: Nobody would have been expecting that and it would have played off hilariously against stereotypes.

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[1]  And, no, I'm not trolling for somebody to take me.  I have better things to do with my time than spend two hours in a theater watching a film I'm only mildly interested in.

[2]  Burroughs, a bona fide U.S. Calvary trooper in his early life, doubtlessly encountered these stories during his tour of duty in Arizona.

[3]  And we're only discussing the genre fiction ghetto; Talbot Mundy and Rafael Sabatini were mining similar veins in mainstream fiction and doing a smashing job of it.

[4]  Like Burroughs, Bradbury spent an appreciable amount of time in south eastern Arizona; the real life American desert coupled with the astronomical discoveries at the Flagstaff observatory created an indelible impression on their minds, forever forging Mars into a mutant clone of Arizona -- even if audiences today know it better as Tatooine than Barsoom.

[5]  He had to do some stretching to account for Doc’s copper hair and golden flecked eyes.

[6]  I suppose it might be possible to do a Tarzan story where he’s bald with a beard and wears jungle fatigues, but I possess neither the resources nor the curiosity to find out if that could skate past the Burroughs lawyers unscathed.

[7]  He also tried producing a few on his own, but quickly learned the truth behind the old Hollywood adage that the surest way to make a small fortune in movies is to start with  a large one.

[8]  …and they didn’t…

[9]  As if there were any other kinds on Barsoom.

So You Want To Be A Writer by Charles Bukowski

...And Now This