A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs tells the story of John Carter, a Virginian soldier, who finds himself stranded on the Red Planet. Through his abilities (that the Martians lack) and his intelligence he must learn to survive, caught between the eternally feuding Green Martians and their Red Martian enemies.
This was a fun read. The recent release of the John Carter film, based on A Princess of Mars, is what first made me pick up the book. Until now, I haven’t been a fan of Burrough’s work, but this novel has made me reevaluate my opinion. However, it is the first in his series of Barsoom novels, so I was disappointed that questions were left unanswered by the novel’s end.
One of the things I noticed was how closely the movie had followed the book, though much of this was in spirit rather than a literal interpretation (which would have resulted in an 8 hour long movie). The novel’s timeline is much longer, as John Carter is stranded for months on the Red Planet, while in the movie it seemed much shorter. Things that he discovered in the novel over the course of months, he learned almost immediately in the film.
In the novel, he learned to speak the language of the Green Martians through lessons he took with his caretaker, Sola – the only compassionate Green Martian that he knew. She was looked down upon by the other Green Martians for being an “atavism” – a throwback to an earlier time when compassion and love were not considered vices. This is explained in greater detail in the book. However, the movie tidily shows how the Green Martians regard Sola’s compassion by showing her branded as punishment for helping Carter – a convenient scene for the filmmaker that never occurred in the book. There were many such scenes.
The film started out with a fantastic air battle between rival factions of the Red Martians; while the book certainly showed them fighting amongst themselves, it wasn’t something that happened early in the novel or happened in quite the same way. The men who manipulated the Martians in the movie never appeared in the book, though they might appear in another of the Barsoom series (which I haven’t finished yet). One of the Red Martian factions did war against Helium, and of course in both book and novel everyone who came across the Princess fell immediately in love with her. While I enjoyed both versions of the story, I found that extremely annoying.
One of the things I loved about the film version was the strength of the Princess. She fought. She got angry. She was incredibly intelligent and obviously a scientist. While the novel mentioned that she was part of a research mission when she was originally captured by the Green Martians, it wasn’t stressed what her mission was or exactly what her job entailed. Her function in the novel, besides illustrating the differences between Red Martian culture and human culture, seemed to simply be the pretty girl that John Carter fell and fought for. She was almost always angry or emotional, and she was always beautiful. Since the character of the princess was my favorite part of the film, I was disappointed with her portrayal in the novel.
I was not, however, disappointed with the novel’s portrayal of Woola – the Martian (for want of a better word) “dog.” This huge beast, in both film and book, was a huge animal who loved John Carter, helped him, and followed him like a puppy. He was a monster with a heart of gold.
One thing the novel had that wasn’t covered by the film was John Carter’s telepathic powers. Green Martians had limited language that they supplemented with telepathic thought, and Carter often “caught” stray thoughts that were not meant for him. Coupled with his proficiency in the language and the fact that the Green Martians could not read his mind, he had a powerful advantage. And of course, in both, he could jump great distances due to the difference between Martian and Earth gravity.
I would recommend the book, Princess of Mars, though the ending of the book is far less satisfying than the film. The parts of the film that cover Carter’s means of travel to Mars differs greatly from the novel, but I suspect those differences are ultimately unimportant – given that I have yet to read the rest of the Barsoom series. His back story on Earth is different, but his rugged and honorable character shines through in both the printed page and the big screen. All in all, I believe the film tells a better story than the novel, but the novel is still worth reading.