John Carter/A Princess of Mars Book vs Movie Review

written by Laura J.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)

John Carter directed by Andrew Stanton (2012)

This is the story of Virginian John Carter who is transported to Mars where me meets a variety of Martians including the princess Dejah Thoris who he falls in love.

Book Review

I wasn’t sure what I would think of this book since it is fantasy (sci-fi fantasy, but still) but I wanted to cover it because my husband really likes the movie! I had never seen it until after we met.

I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the book! It is a fun adventure story. While John Carter isn’t relatable and at times annoying due to how brave and good he is (we are always being told about how he faces situations head on, is very loyal, a great fighter, very kind to animals, loves kids, and all around seems to be basically perfect lol) I still had a good time with the book.

I also like the character of Dejah Thoris. Considering this was written in 1912, I was surprised at how her character wasn’t just some one dimensional beautiful woman who needed rescuing. That’s not to say this book is perfect, it is very cheesy at times but it is considered pulp so it’s to be expected.

Movie Review and reception

This movie is most famous for costing Disney a bunch of money and not making that money back. It’s too bad that’s what people think of, because I think, like the book, the movie is a fun sci-fi adventure story. I was surprised how many differences between book and movie yet even with those changes it still stays true to the heart of the book I would say.

It is from 2012 yet the graphics hold up. We have some notable actors-Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, and Lynn Collins but I will admit Taylor Kitsch who plays John Carter is not great. There are some cheesy lines in the movie that could have been pulled off if performed right. But the way Kitsch delivers the lines just makes you aware of how silly it is.

In the end though, this movie is definitely worth watching!

I did want to talk about why it did so poorly though because I think it is interesting. For starters, this movie was in “development hell” since the 1930’s. It was going to be made into an animated feature film, and if it had happened it would have beat out Snow White on being the first full length movie cartoon. (I would still love to see this be adapted into a cartoon; I think that would be awesome). Through the following decades it went through different hand and had different directors attached but each one had to drop out eventually to work on something else.

It ended up in the hands of Andrew Stanton who had so far only directed animated features. Disney signed off on an insane buglet, because Stanton was a proven director who made Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Apparently while working on John Carter, he would often seek out the advice of fellow animation directors rather than talk to directors who were experienced in live action movies. He also wanted “Mars” left out of the title because he wanted the movie to appeal to a larger audience. Then, when it came time to release a teaser, he didn’t have any of the more exciting action scenes finished so it made for a lackluster teaser and future trailer. There was also no mention of Edgar Rice Borroughs in the promotion for the film. He would also reshoot scenes many times. In animation it doesn’t cost nearly as much to re-do a scene as it does when reshoot a scene in a live action movie.

In my unprofessional opinion, it seems the reason this was a box office flop falls on the shoulders of Stanton. Like I said, I really like this movie, so it’s not like the final product was a flop. The marketing was just terrible. Funny enough, the movie did decent overseas since it had a later release date and they were able to make better trailers for the foreign release. It did especially well in Russia.

From here on out, there will be spoilers for both the book and movie!

John Carter’s personality and life on earth

In the book John Carter says at the beginning that he isn’t sure how old he is because he doesn’t age like normal men and just remembers always being around the age of 30. He also doesn’t remember his childhood. I am not sure if this happened to him after his first trip to mars, and it messed with his memory and age, or if even before that he didn’t remember being a child…

He is from Virginia though and when the Civil War happens, he meets a guy named Powell and the two of them end up in Arizona and are searching for gold. At one point Powell leaves to go get something and while he is riding away, Carter sees that Native American’s are going after Powell. Powell ends up dying and while Carter is hiding in a cave, he has this literal our of body experience and sees mars and next thing he knows he is on mars. He is never confused about where he is and just knows he is on mars.

In the movie Carter is in Arizona looking for a cave that is rumored to have gold and the locals think he is crazy. We later find out he had a wife and child, but both were killed but we aren’t sure who killed them. Powell shows up and is a soldier who wants to recruit Carter. When Carter tries to run away, Powell chases him and the two end up in a cave. A strange man appears with a medallion and Carter holds the medallion and repeats the words the dying man is saying and when he says the words he is transported to mars, though he doesn’t know that’s where he is.

In the book Carter is very honest, loyal, and adventurous. I wouldn’t call him a rebel at all, and he was someone people respected and liked to be around. In the movie he is very rebellious and has no loyalty due to the death of his family. In some ways I like that the movie has Carter have a chip on his shoulder, because as the movie goes on, we see him soften and change over time. Whereas in the book he doesn’t change over time because right from the start he is a good person who values others.

Tars Tarks and Sola

In both book and movie, the first group that comes across him are the Tharks. They are large green creatures and in the movie, he is able to speak their language because he is given this liquid that gives him the ability to understand them and they understand him. In the book and movie, the female creature named Sola is put in charge of looking after him and in the book, she teaches him their language.

In the book we learn more about the Tharks as a people and how they know no love or friendship for each other. When they breed (and there are no families, so no monogamy) , their eggs are put in these incubator things for five years and when the eggs hatch, all of the young are raised by the community. They only laugh when they see animals being mistreated or someone being hurt and in general are not a kind group at all. As Carter gets to know them, he points out to the reader who barbaric their ways are and tries to show them otherwise at times. There was definelty some colonialization themes coming through on Burroughs end…

In the movie we see some of this, but it was talked about more in the book.

In the book and movie, we learn that Sola is the daughter of Tars Tarkus. Tars Tarkus is a high ranking Thark, and part way though he challenges the current leader and wins. In the book, Sola tells Carter her story-about her mom keeping her egg and raising Sola with love which makes Sola softer and kinder than any other Thark. Her mom and dad were in love, but they couldn’t show it.

Another Thark has is out for Sola’s mom and tells on her. She is tortured as they try to get her to tell the fathers name but she won’t and is killed. But before she had died, she had told Sola that her father is Tars Tarkus but Tarkus was away and therefore doesn’t know Sola is his daughter (their eggs take five years to hatch remember). Part way through the book, Carter becomes friends with Tarkus and tells him about Sola.

In the movie, is was Tarkus who knew Sola was his daughter, and the truth is revealed to her part way through.

Dejah Thoris

In both, Dejah Throis is taken captive by the Tharks and that is how Carter meets her-though the circumstances of her being taken hostage differs from book to movie.

In the movie we have this whole thing going on where this guy, Sab Than of another group, is battling Dejah’s people but says the war will stop if she marries him and when she is trying to escape him is when the Tharks get her. In the book there ends up being a situation where Dejah can end a war by marrying another man, and she thinks at this point Carter is dead and so she agrees to marry him.

Of course, in book and movie she doesn’t marry the other guy, because Carter saves the day essentially.

In book and movie, I liked Dejah Throis a lot and in the movie she was smart, tough, and I found her very likeable.

Traveling to Iss

In the movie, Sab Than is being helped by this group of people called the Therns. In the book there are no Therns until the second book in the series. But here, they are using Sab Than to gain control. When Carter tells Dejah about where he is from, she thinks he is a Thern and agrees to take him to the River Iss where he can go back home.

In book and movie, the people of mars live a long time (assuming they don’t die in battle) and once they are 1,000 years old, they travel down the River Iss towards their version of heaven.

In the movie they go to this area and are then attacked.

A huge group is after them, and Carter decides to let Sola and Dejah Thoris to continue on while he and Woola, his dog like creature, fend off this group. I liked this part in the movie because since the death of his wife and had not loyalty and didn’t want to fight for anyone or anything ot her than himself. But he realizes he is going to stop running and stand up for something.

Battling in the arena

In both, there is a scene where Carter has to battle other creatures in an arena. In the book, he was trying to help Dejah Thoris escape when he is caught by another group and he and another guy have to battle white apes and other things. In the end, the two of them are left standing and it is getting dark so they are able to fake the guy killing Carter. This allows the other guy to go free, and Carter himself also escapes. He later reconnects with this guy by coincidence and the two of them are part of a flying army.

In the movie, he is with Tars Tarkus who has been put in prison and it is the two of them against white apes, and Sola also gets involved. Carter shockingly is able to defeat the white apes, and this heroic moment is how he is able to get the Tharks on his side to go and dight to help the people of Helium-where Dejah is from.

I really like this scene in the movie and like their choice to make the blood blue rather than red.

The end of the movie

After the battles are over in the movie, Carter and Dejah are married. He has the medallion that could send him back home, but he throws it away because mars is his home now. However, one night a Thern shows up and puts a medallion in his hand and sends him back to earth.

He then tries to find another medallion in order to make it back to mars but when he can’t find one, he comes up with a plan to lure a Thern to him in order to get a medallion and return to mars.

The end of the book

In the book Carter interacts with all sorts of people on mars, and on his journey, he meets this guy who works a very important job keeping the air clean on mars. The air isn’t not breathable, but because of this system that has been created, it is livable. This guy I guess is the only one who can operate it in order to prevent sabotage. On mars in the book, people can read each other’s minds, and even though Carter can read other minds, no one can read his. When he meets this guy, the guy can’t read his mind and Carter makes out that he can’t read his either, but really, he can.

He asks the guy how to operate the thing, and the guy thinks the answer in his head, but then says he can’t tell anyone else. Carter later sees that his guy plans to kill him, and so he leaves and runs off.

He ends up marrying Dejah Thoris after the battles are over, and they live together for ten years. At about the first-year mark, Dejah lays an egg (people on mars are born from eggs) and it is put in the incubator thing.

However, before the egg can hatch, the guy who runs the oxygen thing dies and no one else on mars knows how to get in so they all accept they will suffocate in a few days. A couple days pass, and Dejah is faint, when suddenly Carter remembers meting the guy years prior. He travels to where the air thing is and fixes the air right as he is randomly transported back to earth. He is on earth for ten years, not knowing if he fixed the air in time to save Dejah.  

Book vs Movie

I like the book a lot, but in the end, I actually think I will say the movie wins. It changes a lot of the details of Carter’s adventures but stays true to the spirit of the book. The movie adds the Therns, which if I hadn’t already started the second book, I would have thought they were unique to the movie. Adding that Carter had a wife and child who died is kind of cliché, but I’ll let it slide. I also thought Collins was great as Dejah and the action/fight scenes were exciting and fun.