Long a fan of the pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps best known as the creator of Tarzan, I had eagerly awaited the release of Disney's production of John Carter, based upon Burroughs' first Barsoom (Mars) novel, A Princess of Mars. Well, except for the Disney part. I must admit that Disney's involvement had me a little apprehensive. Clearly, the film wouldn't be a Frazetta painting brought to life. Oh well. But the fact remains that a novel which had served as a childhood inspiration for some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of the 20th century, not to mention several generations of fans, was being brought to the big screen, and that is reason enough for excitement.
Despite the film's weak box office performance (the word "flop" is being routinely bandied about) and the less than impressive trailers, I was pleasantly surprised. John Carter is a fun film, quite effectively capturing the adventure and spirit of the original pulp novel. Certainly, the characters were somewhat two-dimensional, but that is not surprising considering the source material. It was a pulp novel, after all. If anything, the writers for the film managed, to their credit, to give the female lead, Dejah Thoris (ably portrayed by Lynn Collins), somewhat more depth than the original, making her more independent and resourceful than the stereotypical damsal in distress that she was in the books (and thus more palatable for modern audiences). The John Carter character himself is also given some more depth, at least in terms of exhibiting character growth as the film progresses. The Carter of the book is unchanging, constantly honor-bound to fight against injustice. The Carter of the film, played by Taylor Kitsch, has a few personal demons to confront, and by and large is only interested in getting home until later in the story, when he realizes, motivated both by love and a sense of honor, that he must do the right thing. Sadly, that love aspect, the kindling of feelings between Carter and Dejah Thoris, isn't well explored, and is rolled out in the story in a somewhat perfunctory and pro forma fashion, as are many of the aforementioned improvements in Carter's character.
Overall, the film remains astonishingly faithful to the book, although there are some major differences, and I can quite readily see why most of those changes were made. For starters, the film transforms the Therns from the book The Gods of Mars into beings who turn out to be an advanced alien race not indigenous to Barsoom. Travelling from world to world, the Therns manipulate the historical development of the civilizations they encounter (including, it would seem, that of Earth), seemingly feeding upon the chaos they introduce. This change allows the filmmakers to not only introduce a stronger overall story arc to the film, but also allow them to correct one of the weakest aspects of the book: how John Carter got to Barsoom.
In the book, Carter travelled to Barsoom by means of, well, essentially wishing himself there. The best way to describe the process would be astral projection, but with the added benefit of actually having a material body at the other end of the journey. This rather unsatisfactory explanation is replaced in the film with a bit of advanced Thern technology, consisting of what is basically a transporter which constructs a copy of the body at the destination, leaving the true body in a state resembling death.
Another major change is the transformation of the city of Zodanga into a moving city, striding across the Martian landscape and consuming resources as it goes. Whether the purpose of this change was to simply introduce a bit of visual spectacle or to make the Zodangans seem a bit more nefarious is unclear, but perhaps it was a bit of both.
Whatever the motivations, the filmakers did an effective job of bringing to life the Barsoom of Burroughs' imagination, which in turn reflects the Mars imagined by Percival Lowell. And it looks like a fascinating place to visit, provided that one stays on the good side of the Tharks.