A Princess of Mars

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
A Princess of Mars Book Poster Image
Old-style planetary romance is basis of John Carter film.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Burroughs' Barsoom bears no resemblance whatsoever to what science tells us about the actual planet Mars. Nevertheless, A Princess of Mars has historical interest as a prime example of the genre known as "planetary romance." The author of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs was a hugely popular author in the first half of the 20th century, and his influence can be seen in the work of Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, and Michael Chabon, to name just a few.

Positive Messages

John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and the green Martian Tars Tarkas are each brave and extremely loyal, traits that the author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, seems to appreciate almost above all others. Each character is capable of selfless acts, and their self-sacrifice is usually forestalled by a last-minute rescue from some unforeseen quarter.

Positive Role Models & Representations

John Carter is the quintessential adventure hero of early 20th century planetary romance. He's not well-rounded, by any means, but his admirable character traits are enough to make him an appealing protagonist. Although he never shies away from a duel to the death, he is not a bully. He is brave, loyal and dependable, ready to give his life for the woman he loves and the planet he has vowed to protect.

Violence

John Carter spends much of the book engaged in battle, either against wild beasts, green Martian warriors, or humanoid red Martians. His combatants are more often that not felled with a single blow, and when they aren't, the descriptions of the fighting generally don't feature much bloodshed.

Sex

John Carter is instantly smitten by Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium. The two of them engage in smoldering looks and flowery declarations of their passion but do not kiss until late in the novel. Eventually, they marry, and Dejah Thoris lays an egg containing their first offspring. The precise mechanics of Earth/Martian love are never contemplated.

Language

Carter refers to Native Americans as "red Indians" and "savages." Otherwise, the language of A Princess of Mars is unobjectionable.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Princess of Mars -- which has been adapted for the new Disney film, John Carter, to be released March 9, 2012 -- is an old-fashioned adventure tale, a product of a different age with no swearing, little bloodshed in the many battles, and no premarital sex. First published as a novel in 1917 (serialized before that), its characters are flat, the dialogue stilted, and the male/female dynamics are practically prehistoric. And yet there is a giddy sense of invention here that can appeal to readers open to an unsophisticated but energetic narrative.

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What's the story?

Former Confederate soldier John Carter is trapped in an Arizona cave and then wakes up on Mars, known to the natives as \"Barsoom.\" Because his body is built for Earth's gravity, he has tremendous strength on Mars and can leap great distances with little effort. He quickly wins the respect of Tars Tarkas, the ferocious leader of the six-limbed, green Martian Tharks. But when the Tharks capture the beautiful humanoid princess Dejah Thoris, Carter almost immediately falls in love with her and begins plotting their escape.

Is it any good?

A PRINCESS OF MARS is a product of another age, an adventure written to entertain an unsophisticated readership. Scientifically impossible and often woodenly narrated, it may be too old-fashioned for readers used to the best science fiction now available. But the book has been hugely influential, displays a good-natured innocence and certainly doesn't lack for action.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how science has changed science fiction over the course of the last century and a half. Does it matter than Burroughs' depiction of the planet Mars doesn't match what we know to be scientifically possible? Or can the modern reader still suspend disbelief and enjoy the far-fetched adventure?

  • Why do you think that, rather than start the story directly, Burroughs uses a framing device to set up the circumstances of how he supposedly found the manuscript left behind by his forebear John Carter? 

  • Why do you think the author makes a big point of John Carter treating his pack animals and his pet/bodyguard Woola with kindness?  

  • Why do you think the characters of John Carter and the other inhabitants of Barsoom have remained popular for so long? They appear in 10 novels by Burroughs, in numerous comic book adaptations and sequels, and in the new Disney film, John Carter, to be released March 9, 2012.  

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