Avatar, John Carter, and the return of planetary romance

An Earthman—an ex-soldier—is transported to a distant and exotic planet. Alone in the wilderness, he encounters hostile aliens. His first meaningful human contact is a rescue involving a princess, the daughter of a powerful chieftain, who at first treats him with disdain. But as she teaches him the ways of her graceful but scantily clad people, they come to respect and eventually to love each other. The Earthman learns to use telepathy to control the great multilegged beasts he rides. He becomes a warrior in his new culture and unites many tribes to fight the bad guys and save his adopted nation.

The creator of this work has drawn on up-to-date science to make his story, although fantastic, at least plausible. The story is wildly successful and inspires a host of imitations, most of which are grossly inferior, and effectively launches a new genre.

It was published in 1912.

The Earthman was John Carter, the princess was Dejah Thoris, the creator was Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the story was A Princess of Mars, first serialized in the long defunct pulp All-Story. The new genre was planetary romance, now making its biggest resurgence in decades. That’s thanks to Avatar, which is firmly and deliberately in the tradition of A Princess of Mars—so much so that the opening description applies just as well to James Cameron, Jake Sully, and Pandora, as it does to Burroughs, John Carter, and Mars.

The romance in planetary romance

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants, is a dying world. The oceans have long since dried up, the atmosphere has thinned, life is sustained by piping water from the polar caps to the fertile lands in vast canals and continually regenerating the atmosphere with giant terraforming (Barsoomiforming?) installations. The few civilizations still operative as such survive by a strict martial code, not only because they are vastly outnumbered by hordes of savages who squat in the ruins of the once-great cities, but also because every additional life is a drain on the planet’s ever-thinning resources. Like the elves of Middle-Earth, the civilized people of Barsoom are fighting the long defeat, wielding the wisdom of millennia against an endless night that can be postponed but not escaped. Honor and enlightened self-interest are pitted against mere selfishness and brutality.

What I (and, apparently, everyone else) remember from A Princess of Mars is the density of incident. It seems like there’s a mortal duel, daring escape, or bold rescue on every other page. But really there’s not. John Carter eats and sleeps, has long conversations, ponders his fate, walks places, makes friends, learns the local customs, and all of this is “on screen”. And it’s really what makes the book. Terry Brooks admits, freely and (in)famously, that his intention with the Shannara books was to take the fantasy elements of LOTR, strip out the mythic backstory, and tell the tale at Indiana Jones pace. And the books suck. Similarly, Burroughs’ Mars books only appear to be nonstop action-adventure stories; actual nonstop adventure stories by later writers feel hollow by comparison. The Mars books work because Burroughs put in all the details—the culture, language, customs, and most importantly an internally consistent backstory—that make Barsoom a real, genuinely exotic place, and not a Generic Alien World. It’s the difference between the desert planet of Arrakis, and the Desert Planet (TM) of Tatooine. I’m not going to argue that Barsoom is an act of world-building on the level of Middle-Earth, but it’s closer than most people think.

A Princess of Mars launched the genre of planetary romance, but other sub-genres of fantastic fiction trace their lineage back to Barsoom as well. Sword-and-sorcery is effectively planetary romance with superscience replaced by magic; Dying Earth stories from Jack Vance to Gene Wolfe substitute a far-future Earth for Barsoom; Big Planet stories provide a clever rationalization for “sword and planet” science fiction: the eponymous big planets are low-density super-Earths, which keeps the gravity and physics normal enough to be familiar, the natives too metal-poor to develop industrial civilizations, and the canvas large enough for endless storytelling. You can almost see Larry Niven’s smirk as he draws out the Big Planet style of planetary romance to its ultimate mind- and matter-bending expression in Ringworld.

Writers in these other genres seem to have a better grasp of something that too often has escaped the writers of more “mainstream” post-Burroughs planetary romances (which are often slavishly formulaic), which is that planetary romances in the classic vein are not just romantic adventures told on other planets. Rather, the planet itself is a necessary part of the story, almost a character in itself, and one that must delight and enchant the reader. Those of us who have been to Barsoom may have been drawn by John Carter and Dejah Thoris; we keep going back because in our mind’s eye, the swiftly hurtling moons light the ochre sea beds, the worn-down mountains, and the alabaster columns of the shadow-haunted cities just so. The best planetary romances are not merely romances on planets so much as romances with planets.

There are still romances on the planets, of course. Typically the protagonist, always human and usually an Earthman, falls in love with a local princess. Jake Sully and Neytiri, Luis Wu and certain Ringworld women, Paul Atreides and Chani—they’re all replaying John Carter and Dejah Thoris (some more faithfully than others). This tendency spilled out of planetary romance into space opera, as demonstrated by James Tiberius Kirk and numerous alien babes in Star Trek. It now occurs to me to wonder if Superman and Lois Lane constitute a deliberate inversion of this trope (i.e., alien stud falls for human babe). A more obvious case of a later creator riffing on Burroughs is the first meeting of Jake and Neytiri in Avatar. In A Princess of Mars, John Carter’s first contact with Dejah Thoris comes when he rescues her from cruel treatment at the hand of the savage Tharks. James Cameron, working a century later and featuring his trademark strong female characters, has the huntress rescue the hapless Earthman from another group of hexapodal alien aggressors.

In fact, despite the similarities I outlined in the opening paragraph, many aspects of Avatar seem to be deliberately in opposition to Burroughs. Where Barsoom is drawn in sunset colors, an old world slowly losing its grip on life, Pandora is almost impossibly lush and vibrant, energetic rather than elegiac. Barsoom is on life support, sustained only by the remnant super-science left over from an ancient golden age; Pandora is life itself, and the slow ruin of the world is not an historical fact but an impending threat, caused rather than prevented by high technology.

Neytiri was inevitable

In her review of Avatar, Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science wrote, “The characters are not deep. To some extent, this actually works here; as you are immersed in this world’s sights and sounds, the characters are blank enough slates that you can imagine yourself into their skins and try to figure out what you would do in circumstances that seem impossibly constrained.”

That reminded me very much of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, in which he discusses the psychological phenomenon of “masking”, wherein readers (or in this case, watchers) “mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world” (Understanding Comics, p. 43). The more detail the character has, the more we see it as something “other”, and the less we subsume ourselves into it. In Japan there is a long tradition of drawing super-elaborate settings and then populating them with very simply drawn heroes. I think that works pretty well as an explanation for what you might call the “design decisions” in Avatar. First, I firmly believe that the point of the movie is to get the viewers to fall in love with Pandora and the characters are to some extent merely vehicles for that. I think that, “Did you like Avatar?” and “Did you fall in love with Pandora?” are effectively the same question. I also think the “masking” of moviegoers into the, ahem, uncomplicated characters was deliberate because getting us to identify with non-human characters to the extent of finding them hot is no mean feat, and anything that streamlines that process would obviously be attractive to Cameron.

Now, storytellers have been getting people to identify with non-human characters for millennia; but Neytiri is not an anthropomorphic bunny or a talking teapot. She’s a stone fox, oversized eyes and tail notwithstanding (those might even help, as demonstrated by anime and furries). She is effectively a tall blue elfin babe, which is undoubtedly why Cameron made Pandora the moon of a gas giant, as opposed to, say, a super-Earth. Getting the audience to identify with or even fall in love with Neytiri would have been a lot harder if she’d been a heavy-worlder. You could probably make a character-study movie about a normal guy who overcomes his initial disgust to get it on with a muscle-bound circus freak shaped like a fire hydrant, but no one outside Park City would care. That is pretty clearly not the story Cameron set out to tell.

It just occurred to me that Cameron could have made Pandora a small terrestrial planet, like Mars. But planets don’t come with scale bars, and moons do. By making Pandora the moon of a gas-giant, Cameron is both staying current with exobiology, and hitting us over the head with the world’s essential characteristics: low gravity and strong electromagnetic flux.

I decided to write this analysis in the first place because I saw some fanboy reviews of Avatar that essentially said that Cameron was a moron because Pandora and its inhabitants were too Earthlike, and that alien humanoids in particular were astoundingly unlikely, and that he’d been brainwashed by the forehead prosthetic mode of alien creation from Star Trek. And I wanted to holler because whether or not you think Cameron is a moron, none of the rest of those critiques hold water. Cameron has said on more than one occasion that his intent with Avatar was to update Edgar Rice Burroughs. So if your analysis only goes back to old Trek, you’re stopping about half a century too recently (and you’re not nearly the geek you think you are).

It’s a given in planetary romance that the Earthling will fall for the alien; that dictates that she (or, much less commonly, he) must be alien enough to be plausible to non-arch-geeks, but sufficiently alluring for Earthlings—both the POV character and the moviegoers masking into him—to find attractive. Shorter than normal would be weird, so she must be taller than normal. Ditto with red vs. blue skin, bigger vs. smaller eyes, etc. Four-fingered hands were good enough for Jessica Rabbit, so they’ll do here (three would be bad; have you seen the dinosauroid?). The tail is almost a freebie—lots of faux alien-ness for little if any loss of hotness. It’s essentially a forehead prosthetic for her butt. In that sense, Avatar is not a failed hard science fiction look at parallel evolution on another world, it’s a romantic fantasy propped up by enough quasi-science for viewers to hopefully suspend disbelief, and I find it hard to believe that that was not deliberate. To those were actually unable to enjoy the movie because of the improbable evolutionary parallels between the Na’vi and Homo sapiens: I salute your overdeveloped sense of pedantry.

Once you’re committed to having a humanoid babe on screen, it doesn’t make sense to populate the world with terrestrial cephalopods or sentient superfluids. The existence of even one Na’vi implies a whole phylogenetic tree of chordates. Contrary to the suggestions of some arch-geeks, the truly alien critters of Wayne Douglas Barlowe (who did creature design work for Avatar, btw) and Nemo Ramjet would not have been more appropriate for Pandora; the evolutionary gulf would have been too great (and before you argue back, remember that the movie was written for—gasp!—non-Tet-Zoo-readers and other laypeople, and not arch-geeks). And speaking of Tet Zoo, I agree with Darren that the split-armed proto-lemurs are obvious intermediates between the otherwise hexapodal fauna and the Na’vi—Cameron’s way of having his multi-legged Barsoomian cake and eating it, too. But, given the foregoing discussion, I vehemently disagree with this: “Given that humans are meant to be remotely piloting genetically modified Na’vi bodies – it wouldn’t have mattered to the story what the Na’vi looked like.” Avatar is not a science fiction story about genetically engineered ROVs, it’s a romance. It would never have gotten off the ground if Neytiri had been a sentient rodent or turtle, let alone a non-tetrapod.

In fact, the logical endpoint of this discussion is that you could predict almost the entire structure of Avatar by deduction from first principles. All you need for givens are (A) that noted sci-fi writer-director James Cameron was (B) making a Burroughs-style planetary romance. That implies Neytiri, who implies the Na’vi, who imply both the Pandoran fauna, and Pandora itself (low-grav moon and all that). Jake must fall in love with Neytiri and Pandora, and the audience must fall in love with them through him, so he must be sketched in broad strokes. He had to get to Pandora somehow, which for Cameron means spaceships, which implies that other humans will have come, too. Since this is a Cameron film, of course they will be mostly corporate and mostly evil. That implies that they came for loot, and room-temperature superconductors are easy for the audience to grasp and also make it easy to turn half the world into a Roger Dean album cover.

Dances with Pocahontas in Ferngully

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe said that Avatar was “the same movie” as Dances with Wolves. That’s true, but it would be more devastating if Avatar was not also the same story as A Princess of Mars, which predates the novel Dances with Wolves by three-quarters of a century. Comparisons to Pocahontas are probably more apt, but it is not clear whether Cameron was riffing on Pocahontas directly or getting it second-hand through Burroughs, because A Princess of Mars is pretty darned close to A Pocahontas of Mars. These attempts to write off Avatar as “just X with better special effects” seem awfully familiar. People said the same thing about Star Wars. But most movies just recycle standard tropes, without becoming genre-defining megablockbusters. I think we must conclude that even if Lucas and Cameron are only running X through the blender, where X might be old film serials, pulp fiction, first contact stories, Dune, Joseph Campbell, H. Rider Haggard, their own previous work, or all of the above and more, they’re at least doing it measurably better than anyone else (I’m speaking here of Original Trilogy Lucas).

To me, the most blatant theft in Avatar was from one of Cameron’s own previous films. Here’s the scenario: guy with a weapon standing on top of a hovering aircraft, a sudden tilt of the aircraft pitches him over the edge, but his fall is stopped when he catches on a missile. Are we talking about Jake Sully in Avatar, or Salim Abu Aziz in True Lies?

Incidentally, George Lucas borrowed pretty liberally from Burroughs. Desert planet peopled with a mix of species using a weird amalgam of high and low tech? Check. Where Barsoom has banths, Tatooine has banthas, and Burroughs fans know the Sith as a species of insectoid predators introduced in The Warlord of Mars.

Whither John Carter?

I wrote almost all of the above a couple of years ago, right after Avatar came out, but then never got around to polishing and posting it. I’m doing so now because this year, the 100th anniversary of the first publication of A Princess of Mars (in serial form as “Under the Moons of Mars”; the novel version followed in 1917), Burroughs’ story is finally coming to the big screen as John Carter. The screenplay was written by Pixar alums Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews, and genre fiction revivalist Michael Chabon. Like a lot of science fiction fans they obviously revere the source material, and the trailers suggest that the movie will be a faithful adaptation. Andrew Stanton is directing, and it’s not his first time out as a writer-director. You may recall his first two efforts, a couple of little art-house flicks called Finding Nemo and Wall-E. So John Carter seems to have as good a shot as one could hope for.

But I wonder how it will fare in the modern multiplex. So much cinematic science fiction has borrowed from Burroughs that his stories may paradoxically seem like retreads. Will people think that the story that inspired Avatar is simply an Avatar ripoff? Will Barsoom come off as a quaint version of Tatooine or Geonosis? Or will the filmmakers capture the combination of energy and atmosphere that has made A Princess of Mars beloved for a century, so that the story outshines its extensive host of imitators? I honestly don’t know. Prior to 2001, I thought that The Lord of the Rings was inherently unfilmable, so I am leery of saying it can’t be done.

And, on some level, I don’t really care. I’ve always wanted to see at least one Barsoom movie made with care and devotion, and it seems like I will get to. If the movie succeeds, great, maybe we’ll see more. If it bombs, it bombs; either way, I’m sure Burroughs’ novels will continue to enchant readers in their second century.

Would you like to know more?

If you’ve never read A Princess of Mars or the rest of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, you can start right now, for free. Most are in the public domain, and you can find them at Project Gutenberg, and on Amazon in free Kindle versions, and probably elsewhere on the web as well.

My own previous musings on Barsoom are here, along with a great essay by Richard Wolkomir that introduced me to Burroughs when I was 12, which Wolkomir kindly gave me permission to repost.

The ultimate online source of all things ERB is ERBzine, and the folks who run that also have what is probably the ultimate John Carter movie fansite, including a looong interview with writer/director Andrew Stanton.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to The Art of Barsoom blog, which does what it says on the tin, but with awesome and encyclopedic completeness.

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2 Responses to Avatar, John Carter, and the return of planetary romance

  1. Pingback: Back to Barsoom « 10 Minute Astronomy

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