The Disastrous Trip from Pulp to Film

by Raymond M. Coulombe

John Carter is a 2012 film from Disney Pictures. It was mostly based on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp series, A Princess of Mars. Disney lost a bundle of money on the project. It’s a nice little example of the problems with moving a story from one medium to another. What went wrong?

First of all, if haven’t seen the movie, which apparently a lot of people haven’t, it’s worth watching. See it on the best video system you have access to as it’s visually stunning. The film did not fail from lack of budget. Technically, it’s a success.

How about the writing? Personally, I thought they did a pretty decent job, considering the source material. In fact, the movie has emotional depth that the pulp series lacked. There are flashbacks to the loss of John Carter’s family that added some much needed gravitas.

If I have to point to a major failing, I’d have to go straight to the source material. It was written for the pulps. The format was all about action, adventure, and damsels in distress. A Princess of Mars is a good representation of the pulp era. Characters are one dimensional and nothing is too intellectually or emotionally deep. It’s all about sword fights and a hot princess.

If people are familiar with Egar Rice Burroughs at all, it’s probably due to his Tarzan series. At least with Tarzan, there have been successful adaptations within living memory. Disney was attempting to bring a somewhat lesser known series to life. Perhaps one of the problems is that everyone who read the original work has long since passed away. It was published over 100 years ago. It’s not like filming a book like Harry Potter where the original audience had read the book just a few years earlier. Books normally provide a certain base of interest for a movie adaptation. For that to work, it helps if the original readers are still alive.

To sum up, Disney’s project failed due to the source material and the potential audience. Personally, I still enjoyed the movie. Heck, I enjoyed the original pulp stories, but going in to it I knew it wasn’t going to be like reading Shakespeare.

The movie was a huge financial disaster for Disney, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad movie. Read the Burroughs source material and then enjoy the movie for what it is.

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