Friday, March 09, 2012

A Princess of Mars

It's been a long time since I read A Princess of Mars. It was probably the first book I read by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was in a collection of Burroughs books that my parents gave me for Christmas around 1970. The collection included all of the Mars books, the Venus books, and a few others. Burroughs was very popular in the late 1960s and 1970s so it was easy to find his books.

Of all of Burroughs' creations, Tarzan is the best-known but John Carter of Mars was his first. Tarzan and its sequel are more mature books and (this is important) much easier to film since they took place in Africa. Burroughs' other series take place on other worlds (or inside the Earth) with alien creatures. Until now that meant that they were unfilmable except as animations. There were some attempts to make the Mars books into animated movies. Bob Clampett did some test footage.

A Princess of Mars was written a full century ago in 1912. It was enormously and became the template for a century's worth of hero-on-a-different-world books. There have been numerous imitators, Just in the 1970s, there were a dozen or more series following Burroughs' formula. The most prolific of these was the Antares series featuring Dray Prescot. There was also the R-rated Gor series. I have heard that Avatar is another decedent in this genre.

Burroughs used the same basic plot for the first book in all of his series and many of his stand-alone books. Sometimes he played with the formula. In Tarzan the plot was spread across the first two books but it was all there.

In short - the hero is introduced to a new environment where he quickly acquires a friend/mentor. He meets the heroine early on, often saving her from captivity. They form a relationship but there is a misunderstanding and she leaves or is torn away. He sees her twice more, quickly, before the final conflict when the couple confesses their undying love. In a series, this is followed by the heroine being snatched away.

After the first book, the series go their separate ways. The main similarity from there is a dependence on coincidence.

Burroughs' heroes were all cut from the same cloth. They were all tall, strong, and honest. Most of them were slightly superhuman (because of differences in gravity or having been raised by apes).

While not a great writer, Burroughs is in the tiny group of writers who invented and dominated an entire genre. Hopefully the new movie will inspire a new wave of popularity.

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