With a nod to Matthew MacNish’s Facebook post on his most influential books from at least 10 years ago. Piece of cake for the first five but not so easy from there-after. They’re in order of how they came to me. First five today – the rest later in the week.
1. The Gods of Mars/The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the second and third books of the John Carter of Mars series. I found a beat up hard cover copy of these in a two-book special issue on a dusty, lonely shelf in my seventh period study hall in 8th grade. It was the only study hall I ever took. I loved these books so much I took the hardcover with the Frazetta art on the front home with me. When my friend Joe died at the end of that year in a terrible train accident a small part of me thought he died because I took the book. I could come up with no other reason for losing my best friend. It has haunted me. Over the years I collected each of the Frazetta covered hardbacks in the series combing through used bookstores everywhere I went for those special editions with the line drawings illustrating the text. Frazetta did the covers for all Burroughs’ books in the 70s so I read everything he wrote, even if he wrote them all during the early 1900s.
2. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. They are all one to me emotionally. The year before Joe died we read these one after the other. I still remember reading the Bridge at Khazadoom chapter in the car with Joe and my brother on the way to the community pool. We didn’t want to leave the car until we finished that first book.
3. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Nobody has ever captured the thrill of getting a new pair of sneakers on the first day of summer the way he did. I love lots of Bradbury books but this one was just about growing up, nothing more and nothing less and it was magnificent. His voice is so distinctive and poetic. I don’t write like him but I aspire to have a voice as singularly unique and an imagination as full of wonder. I got a lot tied up in him.
4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This was the most powerful fantasy novel (and it is one long epic novel told in three parts) I’d read in a long, long time and I read it just before my son was born and before Harry Potter turned up. And it’s YA. And I cried at the end and stared at the ceiling afterwards examining the cracks and wondering about the world. Damn.
5. A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald. I started reading the Travis McGee series when I was in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The PC library was four shelves of worn paperbacks sitting in the shade by the nurses office in Tegucigalpa. I don’t remember which number book this was for me but it’s the fifth in the series and I’d read a few before this one came along. As a writer this book blew me away because the mystery was cleared up half-way into the book. I was young and naively thought genre books like mysteries always followed a pattern. I had at that moment a blinding realization – that I didn’t care that the book had stopped following the pattern and that was because I enjoyed the main character Travis McGee so much I was willing to go anywhere plot-wise with him. He tore the genre formulae apart. Genre didn’t have to follow formulae. With a good character in hand you could do just about anything in any genre. I always tell writers to read Macdonald’s Travis McGee series. He was a master of genre fiction. You also watch him grow as a writer as the books were written over a twenty-year spread. Check out McGee, the dames who come to him looking for help and his houseboat The Busted Flush somewhere down the coast of Florida. Don’t forget the rum.
I saw John Carter of Mars today – three generations of men sitting in an imax theatre together, 3-D glasses on, my son between my father and me, his fingers in his ears (the sound was loud, loud, loud).
It is hard not to be disappointed about movies based on books that you love and I love the John Carter books in the way only a 13-year-old boy can. So, was I disappointed? No. Was it what I expected? Yes and no. What it fun? Yes, definitely a big yes.
The most surprising thing for me was the humanity I found in the main character, John Carter. ERB’s hero is more super hero – man of no age – always 40 – with little known past except for the civil war. This John Carter has a history of loss that surprised me in its authenticity. It made him different from my memory of him and yet in some ways better – more human.
The frame of the movie that so many critics complained about as incomprehensible I found to be well done. The screenwriter’s combined the beginnings of the first and second books – wonderful openings, both, and created something that worked as a frame. It was atmospheric and felt like the books in tone even if it was not exact in detail. The world building was wonderful, from the clothes (what there was) and flowing capes, to the body henna tattoos, to the design of the cities and airships. It all thundered and whispered and muscled its way across the screen, raising martian dusk in its wake.
My three favorite images from the film were the following:
1. Waking up on Barsoom. The desert and the silence and vastness was captured beautifully from the Arizona desert to the dry ocean bottoms of Mars. That was a cool moment and made me think, yes, these film-makers got it right.
2. The image of John Carter leaping into the center of a chasing green martian horde and fighting against all of them until he is buried by their numbers. This was an image right out of the Frazetta line drawings. This scene was intercut with flashback’s to John Carter’s past on earth and surprised me in its power.
3. Every moment a green martian was on the screen. They were too thin and wiry but grew on me as I forgot quickly they were CGI and saw them as real in a matter of moments. The facial expressions especially were so real.
These three things and the frame made the whole movie for me. There was sword fighting, airships, CGI to make my eyes pop. But there was also a good story – a love story – that survived the meshing of books in the screenplay. ERB was, if anything, a romantic at heart with princesses always being stolen away from their loves and heroes always following after them. His princesses were also tough, wielding weapons as ferociously as their mates. John Carter, the movie, got this right too. Dejah Thoris was perfect.
What was best, though, was having my son and my father with me, sharing smiles and losing ourselves in Barsoom only to be brought back to earth and the familiar presence of my father and my son. My son gave it thumbs up. So did my dad. It leaves me to of only one thing more – I hope there’ll be a John Carter II.
I have circled this story again and again in my life.
I see it.
I try to write about it.
I see it again.
John Carter comes out this Friday and I’m going to go see a morning or early matinee showing. I’m going to play hooky from my day job. I don’t know how I’m going to do this because I’m booked all day with meetings, but I will.
When I was 13 my best friend was hit by a train and lost his life. It was an accident but no one knows what happenned. No one – not even me. It is a mystery shrouded in a thunderstorm, black skies, and torrential rain.From that day on I picked up Edgar Rice Borroughs’ books from a local stationary store – Wientraubs – and started reading them. Before that moment I was a reader but not with the same intensity, the same desire to disappear that I had after my friend was killed. When I ran out of the titles that Wientraubs carried I went to Walden Books and BDalton. This was long before superstores had taken over the landscape. I read and read.
Reading didn’t bring my friend back, but over time it made the pain less. The first ERB I’d found was The Gods of Mars the second book in the John Carter series. At the time I didn’t know it was a series. All I saw was the incredible Frank Frazetta cover and knew I had to read it. It had been published originally in 1918 but this edition – from the 70’s – had Frazetta’s muscular artwork in line drawings all through the narrative.
The scene that captured my imagination – and captures it still – is the opening. John Carter raises his arms to the skies, looks up at the Red Planet and wishes for it to carry him across the cosmos.
And it does.
I’ve waited 37 years for a movie to come out telling this story and this Friday it appears in movie theaters near you and me.
I’ve got issues about John Carter. I circle around them, though not as much as I used to.
Issues make the writer.
They form the landscape of each of our own individual planets.
They fan the desire to help others transport to worlds they’ve never even dreamed of – even if the world is just like the one they exist in now.
Maybe I’ll see you there – in the darkness of the movie theatre.
If I do.
I’ve been in a cave this week – a cave of work, of budgets, of elearning systems, of gamefication explanations and analysis, of wireframes, and harm reduction, of SBIRs NIDAs SSICs and NDRIs. Some days I live in a sea of acronyms and abbreviations. Other days the hull of my ship is made of tinsel. I am tired and not about to catch up on sleep any time soon.
Lying in savasana each day for a few minutes at the end of my yoga practice helps me to settle into myself and rest.
It has been one of those kinds of weeks. But tomorrow is Friday and new movies come out on Friday and even though I don’t go to movies much anymore (I love them but don’t have time for them) Friday has always been a joyous day for me because I can look at the reviews of movies and dream about what I would like to see. That and of course it’s the weekend.
John Carter of Mars comes out in less than a month. I have waited for this movie for almost forty years, since I read the ERB book and was first transported to Mars as a boy. I hope it will be good. I’m taking my son to see it with me.
Three words I found today in my work:
What words have you found in your imagination?