Sunday, March 4, 2012

Mars Needs Princesses

Perhaps the actual, physical Mars, the one we may well visit in this century, is not in urgent need of them. But Mars of the imagination wouldn't be the worse off for a princess or two. And for one specific Mars of the imagination, Barsoom, is in absolute need of one.

A fair disclaimer: I have never met HRH Dejah Thoris in person, literarily speaking. I'm not quite sure why, and have no excuse for it. It certainly wasn't because I thought I was too good for her. I took in all of the Conan canon that I could get hold of. I even sank so low as to to read a few Gor novels. (A meeting between Dejah Thoris and John Norman would be ... interesting to contemplate. Somehow I don't think Her Highness would be the one who ended up wearing the gold slave collar.)

Ahem, and back to the point. It turns out that the upcoming film, though based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' debut novel, A Princess of Mars, will not be called A Princess of Mars. The title will have no reference at all to Dejah Thoris, a fact that has caused a bit of well-justified kerfuffle. But for that matter, the film's title evidently has no reference to Mars.

It is merely John Carter. To those of us who know our pulps - even if only by cultural osmosis - that name would be enough. But most of the moviegoing audience, even for thud-and-blunder actioners, probably never heard of the guy.

Disney, it seems, changed the title because they say that guys won't go to movies about princesses. (Or that simply have Princess in the title.) I would suspect that it depends a good deal on the princess. As one commenter to the linked piece snarked, The Princess Bride didn't seem to be hurt by having the P-word in the title.

I do not come to this subject with perfect, disinterested objectivity. As longtime readers may know, I have a certain literary interest in the subject. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I can even identify the source of this oddity: the 1953 movie Young Bess, which I saw on TV at some impressionable age. Jean Simmons, plus (implied) galleons - what wasn't to like?

In any case, I have my own variant theory of why the Disney corporation wimped out of giving the movie its rightful royal title. It isn't, I suspect, about princesses in general but about Disney princesses. Which are a highly specialized and, by all accounts, an extremely profitable franchise. And Disney is nothing if not ruthlessly commercial.

Whatever else can be said about her, Dejah Thoris is most certainly not a Disney princess. So she must be kept strictly out of sight of four-year-old girls, their parents, and the parents' wallets. Lest brand-damaging havoc ensue.

Which still leaves the puzzling question of why they also got rid of Mars. Granted that Barsoom has only a very modest similarity to Sol IV (a lot more modest than Dejah Thoris, if Frank Frazetta was anyone to go by), it is not as if mere issues of scientific plausibility ever troubled Disney or anyone else in Hollywood.

Speculations are welcome.

Speaking of Mars - the real one, in this case, or at least an arguably Plausible Midfuture one - a reader, Chris Gerrib, contacted me to let me know that he has a science fiction novel coming out, Pirates of Mars. If Mars can't have princesses, at least it can have pirates. Author and book were featured a few days ago on John Scalzi's 'Whatever' blog.

The image comes from the Mars page at


Anonymous said...

I agree with your "Disney Princess" theory. They make too much money on 5-year-old girls to risk diversifying that brand. What they are missing is the opportunity to attract an older audience. Guys don't want to see a princess movie? If I'm not mistaken, Deja Thoris illustrations are popular with artists who have the skill for them. You mentioned Frank Frazetta. I'd like to mention Frank Cho and Adam Hughes. I think Disney would get a lot more tickets sold if they played the sex appeal angle even a little bit. "John Carter." I'm sure plenty of people thought "who's that???" But if they just mentioned Deja Thoris and Mars, then a lot of folks would think "oh yeah, like from the *artist* paintings/drawings! I gotta see this!" I guess we'll see the merits of Disney's marketing on Friday. After hearing about the book and seeing the trailers, I'm expecting the movie to be targeted towards a too-young audience for my liking. Instead of the cinema, I'll see what the used book store has to offer.

Brett said...

I think Disney is worried that the "Mars" label would make the movie seem extra-pulpy and cheesy. "John Carter" allows them to brand the whole thing as another Action-SF flick and sell it entirely on the beautiful women, green aliens, and big fights.

And yeah, Dejah Thoris would be less modest. Didn't most Barsoomians go nude except for utility belts and the like?

Cambias said...

As I understand it, there's a superstition going around Hollywood that "movies with Mars in the title all flop." This is based on the unimpressive performance of the carbon copy films Mission To Mars and Red Planet back in 2000, and the subsequent unsuccessful Ghosts of Mars and Mars Needs Moms.

Michael W said...

Guys won't go to movies about princesses? How much money did SLEEPING BEAUTY rake in?

And Disney apparently (and surprisingly) doesn't understand the psychology of the young male. Putting it another way: I'm pretty certain I wasn't the only 9-year-old who lost his heart to Diana Rigg when she first appeared as Emma Peel.

jollyreaper said...

The thing I don't like is every movie coming out of Hollywood looks the same, uses the same editing techniques, same crappy, unquotable dialogue, same story beats, and overuse of CGI. Loved Lord of the Rings. CGI was used with artistry there along with some really great miniature work.

Frankly, I do think it's going to seem more than a bit silly when everyone is running around wearing clothes when they most expressly didn't in the original stories.

jollyreaper said...

Wow, blogger really changed interfaces. I don't see where to track posts now? said...

I'm a guy and I went to and loved Tangled. I think Disney suffers from "Old White Guys In Charge" when it comes to marketing decisions.

Brett said...

The thing I don't like is every movie coming out of Hollywood looks the same, uses the same editing techniques, same crappy, unquotable dialogue, same story beats, and overuse of CGI. Loved Lord of the Rings. CGI was used with artistry there along with some really great miniature work.

Too true, although I don't agree on the over-use of CGI*. It seems like every one of these types of films has to have a Braveheart-eque scene where they look like they're about to burst into shouting, "FREEEDOMMMM!"

* A lot of CGI is stuff that you wouldn't even recognize as CGI at the time without prior knowledge.

Frankly, I do think it's going to seem more than a bit silly when everyone is running around wearing clothes when they most expressly didn't in the original stories.

I think the number of movie viewers who have read Burroughs' John Carter novels is fairly small. Even I've only read tidbits of them. They won't really know that Barsoomians go naked in the original stories.

Anonymous said...

It's been years since I've read any of ERB's stories; but I'm surprised that no one has made a big budget movie based on any of his 'Barsoom' novels until now. Besides, Princess Deja Thoris (in the books) knows how to kick ass and swings a mean saber! She's most decidedly the kind of Princess us grown-up males would enjoy seeing up on the big screen.


Chris Gerrib said...

Thanks for the link, although the one to my page appears broken.

I suspect that Mars was dropped from John Carter because enough people have seen the "real" Mars on movies that they would be confused by Burroughs' Mars.

Even a semi-true version of Dejah Thoris could kick the movie's rating up to at least PG, which they seem to be avoiding. Although on the fighting front, I've heard that Disney does have an upcoming movie with a combative female lead.

Rick said...

Welcome to new commenters!

I encourage 'anonymous' posters to sign a name or handle, to make the conversation easier to follow.

I fixed the link in Chris Gerrib's name so it points to his website. Lately it seems like Google's new motto is "Not only will we be evil after all, but our new technology will be lame to boot."

Jeez, Hollywood execs wouldn't be superstitious about Mars, would they? Least of surprises.

Interesting theory that Disney doesn't want to confuse people regarding the real Mars - but how many people actually looked at the cool rover images long enough to know what Mars looks like?

Not to mention that real Mars may not look much like Barsoom, but it does look like an appropriate landscape for adventures. Basically it looks like Arizona without cacti. Yeah, little details like hardly any atmosphere, and -70 C, but the visual image is boffo.

Nearly all movie lameness has the same basic, simple explanation: When you are putting $100 million at stake, paranoia and cowardice become a feature, not a bug.

Stevo Darkly said...

Chris Gerrib said:
I suspect that Mars was dropped from John Carter because enough people have seen the "real" Mars on movies that they would be confused by Burroughs' Mars.

Yeah, this is my hypothesis too. The average Joe at least knows that there aren't any green humanoid aliens or giant beasts on Mars, nor could a Earth human live there without a spacesuit or something. And the studio execs may have decided to leave the precise otherworldly setting ambiguous, at least in the trailer, for fear that most people would not be interested in "obviously outdated science fiction."

Without the "Mars" identification, people unfamiliar with the ERB stories may assume that the story is set on a planet of some other star. Or maybe some other fantasy setting.

Personally, I think they should have at least named the film John Carter of Barsoom. This would definitely attract in-the-know ERB fans -- and general audiences would at least know from the title that the movie is science fiction, or anyways set somewhere exotic, and not just a biopic of some guy named John Carter.

In fact, I am sure they could also have named it John Carter and the Princess of Barsoom and still attracted an adolescent and adult male audience, if they did the trailer right.

VOICE-OVER: "John Carter --!"

(Show John Carter doing something heroic with a sword.)

VOICE-OVER: "... and the Princess of Barsoom!"

(Show a medium close-up of a scantily clad Deja Thoris ... um, inhaling.)

jollyreaper said...

* A lot of CGI is stuff that you wouldn't even recognize as CGI at the time without prior knowledge.

Granted. But when you're noticing it, it's bad CGI. It's like all the action scenes are shot chaotically and all look the same. When it no longer feels thrilling but tacked on, monotonous, dull. I should not feel bored by action.

M. D. Van Norman said...

Y’all must have missed it. Princess of Mars has been done already. ;-)

Chris Gerrib said...

Van Norman - Tracy Lord's version doesn't count ;-)

Rick said...

What Chris said: direct-to-video movies get rolled right over by big productions.

I will join the grump about the quick-cut jittercam style of action footage. If you're not giving me an idea of what is going on, my suspicion is that you don't know what is going on, either.

Chris Lopes said...

The "Disney Princess" idea certainly makes more sense than the "guys won't go to movies with the word 'Princess' in the title" idea. After all, Burroughs wasn't bashful about using the word in the title and his audience (the pulp fiction reading public) was a decidedly male one. On the other hand, I can see where a sword carrying, scantily clad, bad ass warrior princess might not quite fit in with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.

jollyreaper said...

Grr. They need to bring back email notification. That's the only way I can keep up!

Thucydides said...

On the other hand, I can see where a sword carrying, scantily clad, bad ass warrior princess might not quite fit in with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.

Maybe she should give lessons. I'm sure the other princess' would appreciate it!

Chris Lopes said...

"Maybe she should give lessons. I'm sure the other princess' would appreciate it!"

As would I. Unfortunately, I don't think it fits into the current Disney marketing strategy. Pity though.

Sean said...

Disney's marketing strategy, although personally annoying, is sadly the wiser of options. Space is for men, vampires are for women. To me this is just another instance of Hollywood reinforcing gender roles and stereotyping, "Leave space battles to the men while you go look at pretty dresses." Science fiction would certainly do itself favours if it didn't prescribe itself to a solely male audience, I mean there are exceptions to the rule (Ellen Ripley for example) but historically it's a male dominated genre. I don't even know if this is a consequence of the author's preconceptions or if they're merely just trying to appeal to a target audience. If so, why don't women generally appreciate science fiction?

Or maybe I'm completely wrong and I'm chatting crap.

Ray said...

Maybe someone finally wised up and decided not to name a movie after a book because every time they do that it irritates all the book's fans by getting the story all wrong. Nah, that possibility requires too much suspension of disbelief even for a sci-fi and fantasy audience.

Hugh said...

John Scalzi has a long list of films that suffered the "Martian Curse" at
If I were in marketing/publicity, I'd certainly think twice!

Having now seen the film, I can report that while they left the M-word out of the title, "Mars" is used in the first sentence of the opening prologue and heavily throughout. (Bonus points for describing the solar system as having nine planets, correct for when ERB wrote the book.) The closing image is "John Carter of Mars" in first a regular font and then the initials JCM in a Martian font.

As for the setting, it is appropriately dry and desolate (Utah) without the freezing cold and lack of oxygen. There's a very brief bit of narration explaining why it's largely lifeless, but hey it's not important. At least not to the movie: only afterwards did I start thinking what the heck do they eat? We see some water, but no vegetation at all.

Switch off the part of your brain that knows the real gravity of Mars compared to Earth. Otherwise you're going to spend far too much of the movie crying out "Noooo!!!" and eventually be thrown out :-)

Snark: Yep, Dejah Thoris is never going to appear in the Disney Princess lineup. Not only does she clearly spend more time in the gym than the beauty parlour, but she's a scientist as well! Carter calls her "professor" for a while: he's he's just being polite and she doesn't take offence.

The design of the film is interesting. The flyers are beautiful, neither "industrial future" style of Star Wars/Alien nor the shiny blobs of Star Wars prequels/Wall-E. More steam punk than anything else, but lighter and more fantastic. Apparently solar and nuclear powered, or at least "radium" gets a mention and nobody recoils in horror. Add a transparent canopy and they'd make nice spaceships.

ERB seems to have realized the copying implications of an interplanetary transporter beam decades before Star Trek fans did. Good for him!

Definitely rates low on the Moh's Scale of Science Fiction Hardness, but it's well done and entertaining.

Thucydides said...

This at least answers one long standing bit of sfnal/fantasy snark: half na ked princess' had better be good with swords...

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

The actual Princess of Mars will probably be a married middle-aged scientist who not only will not look good half naked- but might resemble your grandma from when you were a kid and first heard about these books.

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

Thanks for the thumbnail review of the movie. (Also see my next post!)

Quibble: Didn't the Solar System of Burroughs' day have 8 major planets, same as now? IIRC, Pluto was only discovered much later, 1930.

Anonymous said...

Pluto was discovered in 1932, I think...My wife dug up our copy of "A Princess of Mars" and the fly leaf states that the story was originally published in "All-Story Magazine" as a six part serial Feb through July 1912, originally named "Under the Moons of Mars"...


Hugh said...

Yes I was wrong about Pluto being known at the time of the book. Mixed them up with someone else and thought they dated from the 1930s.

But while Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930, the existence of a ninth planet was predicted late 19th century and Lowell started his search in 1906. So I like to think that ERB had at least heard about 'Planet X.' Or maybe it's just the film writers making the same mistake I did.

On the third hand (Green Martian) , the setting of the book is just after the American Civil War and there definitely were only eight planets known then.

On the fourth hand the character of John Carter as portrayed in the movie probably wouldn't know much about astronomy anyway.

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

I am not sure the number of planets is mentioned in the book -- its on project guttenburg, I had a look over it yesterday.

Definitely not in the intro. Or first couple of chapters.

Amazing how brief the prose style is. If the book came out today, I am not even sure it would have been published - much less been popular.

Anonymous said...


All I have to say on the matter is that my current favorite princesses are the sisters Celestia and Luna.

If you don't recognize the names, look them up, and you should understand how I feel about gender issues.

francisdrake said...

But who cares about the Mars princesses, when there are the "Leather Goddesses of Phobos"?

An Infocom text adventure with scratch'n'sniff!

Can you prevent the hideous space creatures from abducting the naked heiress?
How to remove a brass bikini?
Can you stop the Leather Goddesses' fiendish plan to turn all Earthlings into sex slaves?

Ah, these were the questions back in 1986, sitting in front of an Atari ST with mindboggling 1024 kB of RAM ... :-)

Cheery Reaper said...

This fella has a good post on why the movie was such a bomb:

John C. Wright also has some good entries if you want to scroll down a few entries.

Basically, they couldn't adapt a book that cost about 10 cents back in the day without blowing a couple hundred million on it first.

Then they didn't have the actual John Carter, they had Kevin Costner's character from Dances with Wolves and put a different face on it.

I think it's like that god-awful adaptation of the Wild Wild West with Will Smith. The only people who hated it more than the regular viewers were the fans of the original material.

Thucydides said...

Sad. I was prepared to like "John Carter" (and did, to a certain extent), but it certainly did not seem to be $200 millon worth of movie.

It will be many years before someone is brave enough to bring back Martian Princesses to the silver screen.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if they tacked on "filmed on location" to the title sequence of "A Princess of Mars"...


Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

jollyreaper and now Cheery Reaper? This place is getting to be Reaper Central!

John Carter bombed on an epic scale, to the point where humans will probably reach Mars before Hollywood goes there again. The causes of its failure are probably 'overdetermined,' as the jargon term goes. More than enough failure points to go around.

Chris Lopes said...

I finally had a chance to see this movie and I found it entertaining despite the whinny title character. Like some who've commented here, I find it hard to believe $200 million dollar price tag (why are the most creative people in Hollywood the accountants?), but there is enough of that money on the screen to make it worth seeing.

I have to agree that the (apparent) failure of this movie has doomed the idea of any other movie about Mars, let alone a sequel to this one. Too bad, because there was some great potential in what I saw.

Thucydides said...

If I were to pick an entertainment project featuring Mars, I would probably go for a "mini series" of the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

It has up to date ideas, a reasonably compelling story line (creative editing to pick one of the many story lines to tie the series story arc together) and seems like something that people can actually relate to. It doesn't hurt that Elon Musk has Mars as a long term goal, perhaps he would be interested in financing the series as part of his groundwork for an actual Mars expedition.