Why Did It Take 100 Years for John Carter to Make It to the Big Screen?

Disputes and misfires kept the hugely influential sci-fi tale from reaching theaters until now.

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McClurg / Disney

It's been 100 years since Edgar Rice Burroughs created John Carter, who makes his big-screen debut in a film of the same name tomorrow—which makes the character older than pop culture icons as indelible as Superman, The Lone Ranger, James Bond, and Burroughs's own Tarzan of the Apes. But if John Carter isn't as prolific as those heroes, it's not for lack of trying. John Carter's long, strange journey to the big screen is arguably as interesting as the stories themselves. For 80 years, the John Carter rights have passed from filmmaker to filmmaker, whose various thwarted attempts at a John Carter film have made A Princess of Mars the cinematic equivalent—in both allure and potential for misfortune—of the Hope Diamond.

John Carter first appeared in a magazine submission by a young pencil-sharpener wholesaler named Edgar Rice Burroughs, who worked on his stories in secret. The serialized narrative that would eventually be collected as A Princess of Mars ran its first installment in pulp magazine The All-Story, where it was christened "Under the Moons of Mars" and credited to "Norman Bean." (To celebrate the centenary of its publication, Library of America is reissuing A Princess of Mars with a new introduction by Junot Diaz; as A Princess of Mars' actual copyright has expired, thriftier fans can read the entirety of the book for free at Project Gutenberg.) Buoyed by the story's success, Burroughs wrote many more Barsoom stories, which were collected in a further 10 books over the years.

The many, many fans that Burroughs's Barsoom stories amassed included a young boy named Bob Clampett, who went on to work as an animator for Warner Brothers in the 1930s. Clampett, then in his early 20s, arranged a meeting with Burroughs and successfully convinced him that animation was the only way to render A Princess of Mars on the silver screen ("There is no other medium that allows you to exert such control over every frame of film," Clampett recalled arguing decades later). With no budget, Clampett enlisted his fiancée and Burroughs's son to help prepare the animation samples for his help. His passion for the project is evident in every frame: the final, hand-drawn test footage, which can be viewed on YouTube, was well ahead of its time—conveying realistic, dramatic action at a time when most cartoons centered on comedy. But ironically, the success of Burroughs's Tarzan came at the expense of his John Carter; MGM executives eventually asked Clampett to draw a Tarzan cartoon instead—which he never completed ("I just lost my enthusiasm for the new project," he said in a later interview).

Though John Carter didn't make it to the big screen, he spent the next few decades exerting a considerable influence through the printed page. A generation of science-fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury of The Martian Chronicles and Arthur C. Clarke of 2001: A Space Odyssey, cited Burroughs's Barsoom stories as a key influence. And filmmakers, like writers, continued to fall under John Carter's spell. Legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen discussed an adaptation in the 1950s. Disney executives approached Die Hard director John McTiernan about a big-budget John Carter film in the 1980s, with Tom Cruise as a possible star (the full story is documented in David Hughes's essential book The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made). In 2004, when Paramount and Columbia—each convinced that special effects had finally reached the point at which John Carter film could be made—engaged in a fierce bidding war for the rights to the series, which Paramount eventually won. But over the next two years, three filmmakers—Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Jon Favreau (Iron Man)—each failed to bring the project to fruition.

There is, in fact, a John Carter film that beat John Carter to the punch: 2009's Princess of Mars, a live-action, direct-to-DVD release by The Asylum—a company primarily famous for low-budget "mockbusters" like Transmorphers and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. The Asylum's adaptation, which is fully (and ironically) titled Edgar Rice Burroughs's Princess of Mars, stars underwear model Antonio Sabàto Jr. as John Carter and former porn star Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris, and casts its hero as a U.S. sniper in modern-day Afghanistan. The company's films are typically budgeted at "well under a million dollars." It shows.

But the path that finally led John Carter to the big screen—where it rightly belongs—began in 2007, when Disney reacquired the film rights to Burroughs's Barsoom stories 30 years after the company had first tried and failed to adapt the material. John Carter came into the hands of Wall-E director Andrew Stanton, who had first read and loved the Barsoom stories as a child. Like Bob Clampett, Stanton's passion for the material is evident: His original cut of the film (which cost a reported $250 million) was nearly three hours long, and there are tentative plans for at least two more sequels.

As John Carter finally reaches the big screen, a full century after the character first inspired countless dreamers across the country, it's hard not to feel sentimental. After all, it's not just the dreams of Stanton that are finally being realized: It's the dreams of countless other writers, producers, and filmmakers before him. As befitting a man whose story began with a trip from Earth to Mars, John Carter's journey to the silver screen has been sprawling and epic. And if John Carter manages to take hold of imagination the way A Princess of Mars first did a century ago, there's no limit to the dreamers it could inspire in the future.