L.B. Gale is a literacy specialist in New York City. She studied comparative mythology and fantasy fiction for her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago. She writes articles on both analyzing and creating speculative fiction at www.lbgale.com.

Dancing with Avatars on Mars: On John Carter and Ripoffs

Harold Bloom is a Yale literary critic and a crank. I have no doubt that he would consider Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series to be popular culture trash, and I have even less doubt that he’d look down on Disney’s attempt to translate Burrough’s saga to the screen. Nonetheless, Harold Bloom is famous for a theory that helps explain the most perplexing tidbit emerging from the pre-release buzz surrounding Disney’s John Carter-the fact that the John Carter stories were both original and incredibly influential, and yet John Carter is already being lambasted for ripping off the very stories that likely ‘ripped off’ A Princess of Mars in the first place.

The thesis of Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence is that all artists (he referred mostly to poets) are crippled by the greatness of their predecessors. As a result, most creative work ends up being a retelling of some great past work, and writers can only become original by beating their forebears at the same game. Take Virgil’s Aeneid being a knockoff of Homer’s epic poems as the classic example. In a nutshell, Bloom is saying that all writers have a kind of Freudian desire to beat their ‘literary fathers’ to a pulp at their own game.

In that sense, John Carter is a literary father that’s been taking quite the beating. This article, which foresees massive failure for the movie, explains that the film has “Avatar-sized” ambitions and faults it for not clearly defining its story in trailers. “Is this Avatar meets Clash of the Titans?” the author asks. I find this type of critique of the marketing valid but the overall concept to be somewhat mystifying: Avatar is clearly heavily influenced by A Princess of Mars. Faulting John Carter for looking like an Avatar knockoff is like faulting Bill Cosby for the standup bit that Carlos Mencia stole from him.

But lets unwrap this a little bit. When Avatar came out, it was widely criticized for being derivative of multiple kinds of ‘fish out of water in a strange culture goes native and defends said strange culture’ narratives. Among other things, it was called Dances with Wolves in space, a Fern Gully ripoff, and a Last Samurai ripoff (which in turn was blasted as a Dances with Wolves ripoff). But here’s the thing: what is Dances with Wolves but A Princess of Mars on earth? Civil war veteran? Check. Spends time among indigenous, persecuted, warlike population in American West looking setting? Check. Veteran falls in love with member of this people and defends the people as a whole? Check. Dances with Wolves is clearly following the same pattern that Burroughs employed years and years before (and others likely used before Burroughs). So we have this infinite loop of criticism. John Carter ripped off Avatar! Avatar ripped off Dances with Wolves! Dances with Wolves ripped off A Princess of Mars!

Are any of them really ripoffs? No. If Bloom is right-and I think he mostly is-then this is the way art works. Artists take old narratives for a spin all the time, and they try to beat that old narrative at its game. It’s one thing to complain about plagiarism, but the constant complaining about derivation ignores a chief rule of myth, art, literature and all of storytelling-that stories are made to be retold. Fandom in general needs come to terms with this. It would end a lot of bickering.

In the case of John Carter, we cannot expect those buzzing about the film to embrace this rule. It will likely get more criticism for being derivative. Should the filmmakers, anticipating this, have tried to go a little more ‘out there’ with the adaptation (which seems more or less faithful in narrative and look)? Should they have tried to out-Avatar Avatar in response to Avatar‘s attempt to out-John Carter A Princess of Mars? I love the books-and I’m sure there is a moderately sizable population that does as well-but I think that in this case an inspired yet unfaithful adaptation might have been the best way to go. The sad truth is that by changing the playing field in this genre so long ago, the Barsoom series made it more difficult for itself to find a warm welcome on the silver screen. In this sense, the job of the filmmakers wasn’t to do the old story justice but to make the old story seem new yet again.

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