I suppose all the hype around the upcoming “John Carter of Mars” movie from Disney/Pixar has reminded people that Edgar Rice Burroughs had a more famous character: Tarzan. For some reason, Carter never attracted quite the audience that Tarzan did, and I cannot quite put my finger on why. I’ve read Tarzan books and John Carter books. I’ve watched many Tarzan movies. As a kid I idolized Ron Ely for playing Tarzan (although I couldn’t figure out how he ended up in South America).
You just don’t see in-depth literary coverage of John Carter like you see for Tarzan. I think that’s a shame, as I feel there is plenty of depth in John Carter’s world. The characters are classic sword-and-sandal warriors. Their emotions are plainly visible and lack the depth of angst-laden, constantly-in-turmoil lost souls but their adventures are the stuff of male imagination: lost civilizations, rolling landscapes, mysterious technologies, unusual creatures, and naturally beautiful women who don’t throw themselves at just anyone. It takes a real man to earn their love.
These stories have influenced everything in science fiction and fantasy today, one way or another. Some authors have rebelled against the sexist stereotypes and gone completely in the opposite direction. Some authors have tried to update the age-old vision of the brawny warrior with his trusty sword. Now he is a nerdy guy with a computer, or maybe he’s a business man who has lost his passion and can only find it in an alternate world where the girl is stronger than him.
The basic concept of boy meets girl, boy realizes he’s in another place, boy beats the crap out of everything that comes between him and girl has accrued a few layers of theoretical exposition that attempts to draw the reader deeper into the characters’ souls. Frankly, I don’t give a damn, my dears. That is not what pulp science fiction is all about. Maybe putrid science fiction dwells on the innermost thoughts of the character. The pulps are about decisive action, drawing lines between good and evil, and standing up for what is right even if it means losing the girl of your dreams.
Tarzan became a complex character for a variety of reasons, the chief of which (in my opinion) was simply the fact that so many other writers (screenwriters) had a hand in developing the character. There is an anecdote about how Edgar Rice Burroughs approached a brawny athlete at a party and screamed out, “Tarzan! You’re Tarzan!” I’m sure the guy looked the part but his movies bombed badly.
Rule of thumb: one-writer characters are more likely to be shallow.
Now, that’s not always true. But action/adventure characters tend to evolve more when multiple hands lead them their their adventures. Sometimes that approach is a disaster in itself. The original vision that made the characters so interesting is lost or subverted for less desirable point of view. But I think that television and the film franchise experience has taught audiences to appreciate the depth of a character that is built up through a combination of change and continuity.
We can probably expect something similar for John Carter, but truth be told it will be a long, long time before Carter’s history and character parallel the depth and scope of Tarzan’s.
I’m sure ERB wouldn’t have it any other way, if he were forced to choose between the two characters.