There are a few different ways to approach a film based on a well-known novel. A few films go all out and try to reproduce the minutiae, which is understandable. Some will go to the opposite extreme and slap the book’s name on a story completely unrelated to the original. The bulk of films fall somewhere in between, leaning one way or the other. It is an unfortunate fact that, as a moviegoer, it is hard to say where a movie falls along this continuum until the film rolls.
“John Carter” is supposed to be based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fantasy novel “A Princess of Mars.” With years of distance between me and the novel (I think it was seventh grade reading) it is fairly safe to assume the film can drift pretty far away from the novel without me noticing the difference.
The film begins in a desert saloon/general store where John (Taylor Kitsch) tries to get some supplies. The shopkeeper is unwilling to extend him any more credit. John quickly fights off a couple of patrons that attempt to remove him from the shop, and he gives the shopkeeper a bar of gold to settle his debt. Before he can leave, some federal troops arrive looking to recruit him into the army. Eventually escaping the troops, and fleeing some Apache warriors, John ends up stumbling upon the cave of gold he’s been searching for. In the cave, he encounters a strange man and gives him a mortal wound. Before the man dies, he is heard mumbling in a strange language while holding on to an unusual medallion. Carter takes the medallion and wakes outside.
John Carter is initially distraught at losing his cave of gold, but is soon distracted when he discovers he has difficulty walking. It seems that his feet launch him up and forward with greater force. With some practice, he learns how to walk, but also discovers that he has supernatural leaping ability. He soon discovers that he is far from home when he is captured by the Thark, a feral race of four-armed reptilian creatures.
He is given to Sola, a heavily branded female Thark that seems to show unusual levels of compassion compared to other Tharks. She gives him a liquid that allows Carter to understand and speak their language and as punishment is given another brand. The language problem out of the way, the film can progress without subtitles, but most of the characters use a kind of halting cadence that must represent the differences in language.
By chance, several light ships fly over, sending the Tharks hiding, but Carter gets involved and ends up saving Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess from Helium. She is impressed with his fighting ability but doubts his story when he claims to be from the third planet of the solar system. Still, she promises to help him return home, but actually guides him toward Helium when his fighting ability could turn the tide of war and prevent her marriage to Sab Than, the prince of Zodanga who, through the aide of the mysterious Thern, is winning the war against Helium.
Now that the characters are in place, from this point on there is little to surprise a fan of science fiction. It is good to remember that the original story was published in 1917 and much of the fantasy was new and unique at the time and even inspired many well known authors of science fiction that followed. It has taken until now to have the special effects technologies available to do the concepts in the original text justice.
For the most part, the basic plot follows the book, though there have been a few major changes and overall, the feel of the book remains. On film, the awkward speech that represents the strangeness of Barsoom’s language gets tiresome. At times lines are painfully delivered in a way more at home in a high school play. Still, the overall spectacle does not suffer from this. Though not the epic presentation I always hope for from science fantasy, “John Carter” is an acceptable movie, and I would say it falls closer to the novel’s side of the continuum. I’ll have to read the novel again to check my memory.