One Good Thern Deserves Another

While the upcoming John Carter of Mars film has been described as an adaptation of the first novel only, the appearance in the cast list of the character “Matai Shang, ruler of the godlike Therns” suggests otherwise, as Shang and his merry band of Therns don’t show up until the second and third novels. And the “Civil War colonel who comes into conflict with Carter” corresponds to nothing in the books whatsoever.

Frazetta illustration for Burroughs' Mars books

I fear that the faithful movie adaptation that fans have spent nearly a hundred years waiting for (admittedly treating “fans” as a collective of variable composition) is not on the way.

But wait, it gets worse. Actor interviews (see here and here) reveal that the Therns are beings like “Olympian gods” who “travel round keeping order in the Universe” (they do no such thing in the books) and that the aforementioned Matai Shang (a fairly minor character in the books – it’s his daughter Phaidor who’s important) will be “John Carter’s nemesis” and a shapeshifter who “can adapt into anything.”

Talk about missing the point! The whole idea of the Therns is that they’re false gods – they’re just ordinary human beings who have set themselves up as gods. Giving them supernatural powers of shapeshifting and starhopping defeats their literary purpose. Burroughs structured Barsoomian society so that the religion of the red and green Martians would be a hoax perpetrated by the white Martians (i.e., the Therns), the religion of the white Martians would be a hoax perpetrated by the black Martians, and the religion of the black Martians would in turn be a hoax perpetrated by their own rulers. (Burroughs, as you may have guessed by now, was not a fan of religion; see also Savage Pellucidar and The Return of Tarzan.) If the Therns are now going to have magical powers, or be aliens with more advanced technology, or whatever it is that’s being planned here, then the story that Burroughs actually wrote is evidently being fairly thoroughly jettisoned.

My enthusiasm for this movie is rapidly dropping.


13 Responses to One Good Thern Deserves Another

  1. Tom G February 25, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    As I said in your last mention of this movie, directors and producers can’t seem to keep themselves from meddling in basic elements of stories they bring to the screen. For instance, if the green Martians will be done in CGI, why can’t they be 12 feet tall instead of 9 feet as Mr. Dafoe seems to think they’ll be? Let alone the massive changes to the plot that look to be in store.
    Those books are the perfect size for movies – tinkering with the storyline is just unnecessary! There was plenty of cliffhanger suspense and fighting in them already.
    I guess it’s time to find my old stash of novels and re-read them all. Just look on the bright side, Roderick – with movie prices so high these days, we will save a lot of money not going to these bastardizations.

    • Roderick February 25, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

      Yeah, except there’s no way I’m not going to go ….

  2. Anon73 February 25, 2010 at 6:13 pm #

    There seems to be some rule that movie adaptations of books have to have some or many deviations from the source material, and the director gets bonus points the more absurd the deviation.

    • Gary Chartier February 25, 2010 at 7:12 pm #

      Frequently, that seems to be exactly right. But not always. Two of my favorite examples: (1) Harold Pinter’s script for The Last Tycoon uses the material from Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel very effectively, incorporating what Fitzgerald actually wrote while avoiding the over-the-top melodramatic ending Fitzgerald envisioned. The film is much better than the book Fitzgerald had in mind. (2) The film version of Remains of the Day tracks the book version very closely, but subtly shifts the focus of the story from politics (still very much in view) to the relationship between the characters played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The film isn’t better than the book, but it’s not worse either.

      In general, I despise directors’ willingness to ignore their source material, but I guess there are always exceptions.

      • Brandon February 25, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

        I did not see the movie version of Gone with the Wind until after I had read the book. I found the movie disappointing, because it broke — no, it stomped on — one of the book’s major plot points: the inability of either Rhett or Scarlett to express their true feelings for each other. At one point in the movie Rhett tells Scarlett he loves her, which never once happened in the book, although it was obvious to readers that he felt that way. The whole point of the book is that neither of them can admit it out loud until Scarlett does so at the end — and by then Rhett tells her he no longer gives a damn.

        When that happened in the movie I wanted to stop watching and throw the tape in the garbage. But it was a very small deviation in a four hour flick. It detracted from the movie, but the changes in The Remains of the Day helped the story in my view. I did not enjoy the book as much as the movie. As I recall I disagreed with all of the politics in both, but the book was worse. TROTD is my favourite Merchant-Ivory Ruth Prawer Jhabvala flick.

  3. Craig Varian February 25, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    Discouraging, to say the least. Reading these books as a kid in the 70’s, I couldn’t wait for them to become a movie – and now that it’s happening I find myself almost wishing that it wouldn’t….

    Another great example of Burroughs’ disdain for religion can be found in book six: The Mastermind of Mars’ “The Great Tur”, reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz…

    • Roderick February 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

      A funny passage from Return of Tarzan, where Jane has been captured by the Oparians:

      Presently the day came, and a young woman whom Jane Porter had not seen before came with several others to her dungeon. Here some sort of ceremony was performed — that it was of a religious nature the girl was sure, and so she took new heart, and rejoiced that she had fallen among people upon whom the refining and softening influences of religion evidently had fallen. They would treat her humanely — of that she was now quite sure.

      And so when they led her from her dungeon, through long, dark corridors, and up a flight of concrete steps to a brilliant courtyard, she went willingly, even gladly — for was she not among the servants of God? It might be, of course, that their interpretation of the supreme being differed from her own, but that they owned a god was sufficient evidence to her that they were kind and good.

      But when she saw a stone altar in the center of the courtyard, and dark-brown stains upon it and the nearby concrete of the floor, she began to wonder and to doubt.

      Elsewhere in the same book, the high priestess La tells Tarzan:

      It is the duty of a high priestess to instruct, to interpret — according to the creed that others, wiser than herself, have laid down; but there is nothing in the creed which says that she must believe. The more one knows of one’s religion the less one believes — no one living knows more of mine than I.

      (Oddly, however, when Burroughs returned to this milieu a few books later in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, La has inexplicably been transformed into a sincere religious zealot.)

  4. 400 Lonely Things February 25, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    In the interest of furthing intelligent and heartfelt discussion of all things Barsoom, please stop by:

  5. 400 Lonely Things February 25, 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    Umm… “furthering” rather.

  6. littlehorn March 1, 2010 at 8:14 am #

    If this can soothe your disappointment, your post got me interested in the book.

    • Roderick March 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

      Which book?

      • Brandon March 1, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

        The Afterlife of Samuel Johnson by Boswell’s ghost.


  1. Adios, Colin Ward. | Pittsburgh Alpha to Omega - March 16, 2010

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