Book corner: A Princess of Mars (E. R. Burroughs, 1917)

It has been over two decades I've read the first of the Barsoom series. Through that time I've always had a good impression of it, as for a lad of 12 or so, it presented an imaginative and thrilling adventure, set on untrodden land with heroic heroes, noble adversaries, and cruel villains. Out of the famous creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter has always been my favourite.

In A Princess of Mars John Carter, a Virginian gentleman is whisked to Mars after he hides in a mysterious cave when Indians are after him. In Mars, Carter meets first a group of four-armed green Martians among which he finds his first friends, Sola, Tars Tarkas and not so dog-like creature Woola. Among them, he also meets the love of his life, Dejah Thoris.

So, the question now is, does this old, old tale of adventurous pulp sci-fi still hold up in the world where the more fantastical approach of pulp writers isn't necessarily so appreciated anymore. And the simple answer to that question is yes. The world of Mars Burroughs created still holds up. As a story, it is just as imaginative and just as thrilling as it always was, even now when I'm separated from my childhood by many more years.

Upon re-reading A Princess of Mars I also now finally fully understood why I disliked the recent Stanton movie adaptation of it. Now, I don't actually have any issues with the changed structure of the movie itself, as the book is written such, that in order to make a movie out of it some things need to be changed. And a lot of things in the movie do look very good. But the big issue is, that the movie really did change the character of John Carter way too much, when from some reason they made him a whining sap, who first cries after his dead family, then keeps muttering about "his cave of gold".

The thing with Carter from the novel is, that he's not whiny at all. He is looking for gold in the beginning of the story, but that's not his main goal in life. He's just doing it for the adventure of it before he's whisked away to Mars. Not once does he cry after the gold he's not getting, as he has a lot of more important things to tackle. He even gets the gold in the end of the book, but for him, it never was about that. At first, it was about adventure, then it was for love and friendship.

See, unlike in the movie, John Carter states in the book, that before he laid his eyes upon the fair Dejah Thoris, he had never been in love in his life. That was the first time for him. There was no wife or child dead in the rages of civil war. Carter took part in that, was on the losing side and then started doing other things, which didn't involve getting married. So in a word, the man in the movie is not really the same John Carter at all. He's a whiny, broken sap, who takes ages to see a good thing when it happens to him, whereas in the book Carter is the kind of a guy who strives under pressure and tries his hardest to make things go the right way. He takes charge because that's the kind of a guy he is.

As I said though, I do understand why changes were made in the story structure, as while the book works nicely on its own, it's written a bit like a travel log. Carter tells in it what he does and where he goes. And a lot of stuff in it seems to happen by chance rather than design. Carter just seems to stumble in the right place at the right time a couple time too many, be it saving Dejah Thoris or helping Tars Tarkas to become the supreme leader of the green Martians. There's nothing wrong about that in an adventurous book like this is, but for a movie, it does present a bit of a dilemma, as it might make Carter look less resourceful than he's described to be in the book.

The story still is good though. Burroughs has a knack for weaving a thrilling tale and a lot of things that happen in it and why they happen the way they do can be explained by the fact that at first the Princess of Mars was published as a serialized story in papers, so for that format it just made more sense to keep things exciting and thrilling and ending things with a cliffhanger.

Out of many other pulp sci-fi fantasies from the early 20th century, A Princess of Mars holds ups pretty well. Some things in it might cause a modern reader to raise an eyebrow for a moment or two, but what it boils down is, that in the end it just is a damned good piece of adventure.