How did it take a century for one of the greatest works of science fiction to reach the local cinema?
In 1912, a 37-year-old author named Edgar Rice Burroughs saw two of his books published. The first of these was "Tarzan of the Apes," and the second was a book called "A Princess of Mars."
"A Princess of Mars" was the first in a cycle of novels known as the "John Carter" series. These novels follow the adventures of a rough-and-tumble Civil War veteran named John Carter who finds himself on the red planet fighting epic battles and facing fantastic creatures. While the concept of such amazing life forms populating another planet in our solar system has been disproven by years of scientific research, the true innovation in the John Carter novels comes from the archetypes Burroughs employs to tell the story of Barsoom, the kingdom of Mars.
John Carter is a bit of a rogue, a man who writes his own rules and chafes at the concept of being a servant to any government or regent. Traces of his personality can be found in dozens of pop culture antiheroes such as Han Solo, Clint Eastwood's "man with no name," Indiana Jones, Wolverine from the X-men, and many others.
"Although these books are universally acknowledged as some of the most important literary works in the genre, the task of faithfully translating them into visual media while meeting the expectations of a tentpole big-budget science fiction blockbuster has seemed impossible for a number of the best directors in Hollywood."
What makes him unique in the landscape of Mars is that his origin in a planet with higher gravity allows John Carter to execute near-acrobatic movement and feats of great strength much like the character of Superman, who came to Earth from his home planet and found himself to be powerful by comparison to Earth's inhabitants.
The princess that John Carter loves, Dejah Thoris, is an aristocratic intellectual with a fierce warrior side. Her archetype influences dozens of more recent film and television characters including Princess Leia (from Star Wars) and Neytiri from the film Avatar.
Supporting character tropes and epic plotlines from the John Carter books can be found in television shows and films like Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Avatar, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and Babylon 5. Almost every major science fiction franchise from the last 100 years owes its success from ideas pioneered by Burroughs in these books, so why did it take so long for them to become a motion picture?
An excellent interview on the history of John Carter as a film franchise can be found at Ain't it Cool News' website, written by Austin native Harry Knowles. Harry was once part of a team struggling to translate the John Carter mythology into film and knows the labyrinthine history of the current film quite intimately.
Essentially, until the last two decades, Hollywood producers seem to have alternated between thinking that no one would be interested in a John Carter film and feeling overwhelmed by the cost or difficulty inherent in creating all of the effects for the fantastical world of Barsoom.
Although Burroughs' books are universally acknowledged as some of the most important literary works in the genre, the task of faithfully translating them into visual media while meeting the expectations of a tentpole big-budget science fiction blockbuster has seemed impossible for a number of directors including Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo Del Torro, and Jon Favreau.
The important lesson to learn here is that, despite the abundance of cases like "Game of Thrones," and "The Walking Dead," where authors have written amazing source material that was translated for the screen within a matter of years, it is possible to create work that is so far ahead of its time that it may not see Hollywood production within the author's lifetime.
Even though Burroughs passed away in 1950, long before his work received this much attention, the impact of his creativity and imagination will echo through our culture for centuries to come.