One hundred years later, John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes are still adventuring, thanks to the fertile imagination of their creator, author Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Both were created in 1912, but while the Lord of the Jungle first leapt from the pages of the pulps to the big screen back in the silent era, it took a century for Burroughs’ second most famous hero to hit Hollywood with Disney’s “John Carter.” As the film, directed by Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) and starring Taylor Kitsch (“Battleship”) makes its bow on Blu-ray, PopcornBiz explores the showbiz pasts, presents and futures of both of Burroughs’ enduring adventurers with Jim Sulio, president of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., and ERB archivist Cathy Wilbanks.
It took a long time for such an enduring character to see his adventures on the big screen –“Looney Toons” animator Bob Clampett, f/x legend Ray Harryhausen, Tom Cruise, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau have all made unrealized attempts at a John Carter film. Can you talk about finally getting this project done with Disney?
Jim Sulio: It’s been called “the curse of John Carter” – going back even to the 1930's when they first tried to do it and considered animation, which still didn't work, the problem has been that the technology existing then until now really couldn't do justice to all the content that's in that book in terms of vivid descriptions of a variety of things. That's one of Mr. Burroughs’ main attributes as a writer, the vivid description that he'd give to every situation that arose. Ways to duplicate that technology didn't exist, until finally when CGI has come along. It allows us to do that at some reasonable cost, to portray in detail the characters that he described and the actions that he described. Until now, I guess we'd say like with the Boston Red Sox, the curse has been lifted. We finally have our movie – and it's a terrific movie.
Can you speak about how influential this particular series that Mr. Burroughs created was on the whole of sci-fi and fantasy entertainment?
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Sulio: He's referred to as the grandfather of science fiction, and it's because that story, 'The Princess of Mars' and the following books, had a seminal impact on the creation of 'Superman’ – the concept of lower gravity allowing him to have super-strength and being able to fly, which is why Superman had to come from a different planet, Krypton. It's all based on what Mr. Burroughs created in everyone's mind with a different gravity on a smaller planet. Then of course 'Star Wars' was significantly drawn on from Mr. Burroughs, including the landscapes and the creatures and all those things. I think that someone used the term that George Lucas ‘plundered’ the 'Mars' story to create 'Star Wars’ – and with attribution: Lucas agreed that a lot of his ideas came from the 'Mars' books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And then with 'Avatar,' James Cameron was quoted quite a few times about, over a 15-year period as he thought about this movie, the influences that Mr. Burroughs 'Mars' books had on him. So you're right: there's quite a bit of history that shows how many other beautiful and magical stories are created by the 'Mars' books.
One hundred years ago Burroughs came up with not just John Carter but – in the same year came up with Tarzan. How did his imagination pop so productively in that single year?
Sulio: A very prolific year, wasn't it, 1912? The world must've been at peace and he had time to think about things, other than the world's problems. He was a businessman and an employee in a variety of jobs, none of which worked. None of these businesses flourished. When he was 35 years old he turned his attention to writing and he did that after reading a lot of the pulp fiction magazines that existed at the time. He said 'If people could get paid for writing such rot I can do better than that.' He was a storyteller, but to be exactly answering your question, I don't know if I can tell you how he came up with 'John Carter' at the same time.
Cathy Wilbanks: I think he approached the whole project with such imagination and such hunger. He had experienced so many different challenges, shall we say, through his career, from dredging gold to being a cowboy in Arizona. He tried a variety of different things. He had such a hunger for success, and I think part of it was just feeling that he wanted to escape and he did this through his stories. He would sit there with his kids and tell the stories as bedtime stories and they would love it and be so excited, like, 'Tell me more! Tell me more!' He just used that as a sounding board to create and it took off. Once he got his first $400 for 'Princess of Mars,' that was it. His writing career was sealed. He really did it to entertain and I think that he found something that created such a passion in his life and allowed him to truly explore using his imagination.
Cathy, did you find some archival treasures, in preparation for the release of the movie, that had been buried away that got you excited?
Wilbanks: I did. There was a series of comic strips done in the '40s by John Coleman Burroughs, and I was able to find all of those. It's just amazing and incredible work. One of the biggest treasures that we have is the handwritten manuscript of 'John Carter of Mars.' These are invaluable documents that are incredible. It's living, breathing history and I'm so honored to be a part of all of it.
Do you feel that 'John Carter' was as faithful to the original story as could be?
Sulio: Much more closely than some of the 'Tarzan' movies. It got to the point, where the 'Tarzan' movies never really reflected any of what Mr. Burroughs wrote about Tarzan in his books until after about 10 or 12. There were eight silent movies and three or four sound movies, and then finally in 1935, out of frustration, he produced his own movie called ‘The New Adventures of Tarzan.’ That was the first movie after about a dozen that ever portrayed him as the gentleman that he was supposed to become and the English Lord that he actually was. He finally put him in real man's clothes and speaking the King's English. That was the first time that had ever been done, and I think that they improved on that in the years after that. He was pretty much monosyllabic before that.
Is there a new 'Tarzan' film on the horizon?
Sulio: Yes, there is. The first one will be a 'Tarzan' animation film, done like the 'Constantin' films, and that'll be in March of 2013. That's not that far away now and that'll be the first animation in a number of years. Then also Warner Brothers has an option and has in development a live-action 'Tarzan' film. The script has been written by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad, and I think they're combining them into one film. That's in development. I don't know if we'll see it in 2013, '14 or '15, but it's going to be done and we're looking forward to that.
What do you think Edgar Rice Burroughs would think of the longevity of his creations and the fact that they're continually redone, revamped and celebrated even now?
Sulio: What's interesting is that after a hundred years these are still very popular stories. In fact, we have licensed about seven or eight different languages for reprints of 'Tarzan of the Apes,' and I know that Disney Publishing, who has the rights to the 'John Carter' story, is doing some of the same, so it's amazing, the popularity of the story. I think it's intrinsic to Mr. Burroughs, he wrote to entertain people. He was conscious of literary criticism, let's say, on some of his structure in the story in terms of the linguistics and whatever, but I think the hundred years proves that he was immensely successful at entertaining people and that's why these books endure.
Wilbanks: I also think that he brings in such a level of humanity and his characters are always portrayed with a certain depth and humanness, with humor and love and all sorts of emotions. I really feel that transcends everything and appeals to all generations.