When I was 12 my mother did something she would come to regret for the next 10 years. Her dad (my grandfather) was a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, but not of Tarzan who everyone is familiar with. His favourites were the books in the Barsoom series that detailed the adventures of Captain John Carter, ex-Confederate cavalry officer, on the planet Mars. One summer’s day in 1973 she brought back from Harrogate a copy of the first novel in the series, complete with a Bruce Pennington cover, and I was completely hooked.
It was A Princess of Mars, first published as Under the moons of Mars in 1917. Inside John Carter, fleeing from some Native Americans, finds himself transported to Mars where his Earth gravity physique equips him with superhuman powers compared to the locals. Burrough’s Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants, is a fantastic world of jewelled cities, multi-coloured peoples of varying degrees of nefariousness (Burroughs wasn’t the most enlightened writer of his time), monsters and ancient science. John Carter, with the help of his 15-foot high six-limbed green best friend Tars Tarkus, rescues the princess and saves the planet through a combination of bravery, swordsmanship and pig-headed Earthman thuggery. It’s ripping stuff, made more so by the fact that everyone runs round on Mars wearing nothing other than ‘leather harnesses’, which practical considerations aside, made it all the more fascinating to a boy of 12 and, I suspect, my grandad.
Burroughs wrote 11 Mars books in all and they were wildly popular, so much so that he followed them with another series set on Venus. But lush Venus, and the hero Carson Napier, weren’t the same as John Carter on the ancient, dying Mars with its abandoned cities and vast atmosphere factories. To be fair Burroughs had taken a lot of the ideas from an earlier book, Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation by Edwin Lester Arnold, but his Barsoom series was massively influential, not only prompting a deluge of imitators down the years, but also sparking a life-long interest in interplanetary travel and Science Fiction in many writers and scientists (including Carl Sagan).
Pixar and Disney plan to release a film of the first book, John Carter of Mars, in 2012, starring (among others) Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe and Ciarán Hinds. I’m desperately hoping they don’t make a mess of it, though early indications are that it will be faithful to the book. In 2009 a direct-to-DVD version starring ex-porn star Traci Lords appeared but the least said about that the better. The only other attempt to capture Barsoom on film dates back to 1936 when Bob Clampett pitched some animated scenes to MGM, who sadly rejected the project.