I recently found myself travelling on a seven-hour flight to Canada. Seven hours is quite a long time, especially combined with all the faffing about at check-in and security and duty free on top. But a trans-Atlantic holiday is a trans-Atlantic holiday and one must, if not travel light, then travel fairly middle-weight. That means no huge tomes — no Wheel of Time volumes, for example. (What a shame.)
After successfully passing probation at my current job, my employer kindly gifted me with a Kindle that I had no earthly reason ever to use, not being much of a world traveller and having cute netbook Astradyne reserved for Art on the commuter trains to Edinburgh.
A Kindle is, luckily, fair replacement for actual books when weight and centre of gravity become concerns, as in long-haul air travel. So all I needed was to find some e-books, and Project Gutenberg saw fit to furnish me with a text of elder aspect but recent interest…
A Princess of Mars
I fuckin’ love John Carter the film. Space-fantasy swashbuckling with impeccable style and all the romance sub-plot I could ever ask for? Yes please. The film was based on a book, a positively ancient work by Edgar Rice Burroughs (apparently more famous for Tarzan, but stuff that) by name of A Princess of Mars.
So I figured I would eventually track the book down to have a swatch, though I was in no hurry. Since it’s long out of copyright, and I had an e-reader to hand… Well, it’d have been rude not to, right?
(Note: the following words contain some spoilers.)
Not of a particularly notable length, and far more readable than the sluggish and over-wrought Wheel of Time, I devoured it in about five hours.
While the film John Carter is quite clearly based on the story, it has some fairly seismic shifts in its structure and central story. John’s angst in the film, from his wife and son dying in some American war, is completely absent — in the book, he is described as a “soldier of fortune” that has travelled the world a lot but never known love (let alone offspring). The whole thing about the Therns giving the Ninth Ray to Dominic West, to shift the balance of power, too — the Therns are completely not even mentioned, and the nine rays get only a passing cameo during the explanation of how flying machines work. No journey down the river Iss to the Thern stronghold, no amulets enabling the astral projection that brings John Carter to Mars, nada.
Although the war between Helium and Zodanga is present towards the end of the book, as is John Carter uniting the Tharks to lead them to Dejah Thoris’ rescue, these come along in the last third or even quarter, rather than being the full and primary focus like in the film. Zondanga isn’t even a mobile “predator city” here, which is a shame because that’s an awesome element. (It does, however, have all its houses on stilts that rise up and down instead of locking doors, which is more bemusingly bizarre than particularly cool.)
Most of the book is actually dedicated to John Carter’s time with the Thark. For example, he doesn’t learn the language of Barsoom by supping from a random elixir given to him by Sola; he is taught it over an unspecified period of time living as a prisoner, as Sola teaches him alongside a Thark child. The film seems like it much compressed this period of time, and so the events swirling around the hero’s tenure in the Thark horde are considerably divergent. Some broad strokes are retained, but they play out very differently.
Oh yeah, and in the book everyone is telepathic. Because reasons.
That’s one reason I can see why the film started to diverge; there’s a lot of lore thrown around fairly casually, dropped in with little regard as to how it actually works — while other traditions and customs are very clearly and precisely set down with absolute authority, making it sometimes seem more a tourist guide to a new country than a narrative adventure. There are fairly detailed explanations of exploding bullets (and how they have to use non-exploding bullets at night) and mentions of how the current Barsoomian races evolved from previous ones, while telepathy just sort of happens to John after a few days.
I can also see why the book was almost begging to be made into a film — as noted above, it tends towards description of Barsoomian customs and history rather than actually dramatised events, with most dialogue taking place behind simple paragraphs rather than being fully articulated. Transcribe the action to real scenes and fold those customs into the look of the landscape and the words of the characters and you pretty much have it.
I won’t judge the film’s writers too harshly for reshaping the plot quite so thoroughly, since it worked out in the end, but I might have felt some trepidation on seeing the script were I the original author.
Overall? A fair and compelling read, and, well, it is available free. No excuse not to, really. For fans of the film, it’s divergent enough that it carries plenty of additional elements to satisfy those in search of new experience, so I would definitely present it as a curiosity worthy of exploration if not as an earth-shatteringly brilliant novel.
I still prefer the film, but probably only because I saw it first.