Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

John Carter wasn't Michael Chabon's first attempt at writing about nineteenth century heroes having swashbuckling adventures on Mars. Long before he joined up with Andrew Stanton to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic novels to the screen, Chabon wrote another Martian epic. Discover the saga of The Martian Agent, and how it led to Chabon's involvement in John Carter.

Top image: Michael Whelan.

Note: We spoke to Michael Chabon on the phone for about 40 minutes about John Carter and The Martian Agent, and only some of the highlights of that conversation are included in this article. You can read the complete, unedited interview here. It's well worth checking out.

Back in the early 1990s, Chabon wrote The Martian Agent, a screenplay which clearly owes a lot to Burroughs. In The Martian Agent, it's an alternate 19th century, and the British Empire has developed technology that allows travel to Mars, where the natives are conquered by good old-fashioned British ingenuity. And in this alternate timeline, the British never lost America, either, in spite of a failed rebellion by General George Custer. Two young brothers, Jefferson and Franklin, wind up traveling to Mars, where they are caught between their duty as British officers and their sympathy for the natives. And it turns out that long ago, the Martians developed fantastic anti-gravity technology, which could supercharge the British empire. It's a pretty rollicking action-adventure movie script, set in a steampunk alternate universe.

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

And The Martian Agent was almost made into a movie — as Chabon explained a while back to ERBZine, the script was optioned by Fox, and Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) was signed up to direct. The studio spent a million dollars on special effects tests, and ILM developed tons of great stuff. And then after Speed 2 came out, it was a huge disaster, and de Bont's stock fell rapidly, killing all the projects he was signed to.

Later, Chabon decided to try novelizing The Martian Agent, but he only got as far as writing the first chapter — which appears in the anthology The McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, and is reprinted in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk. That first chapter just introduces a bit of the alternate history, including Custer's failed rebellion against Queen Victoria, and shows us Franklin and Jefferson watching their father hanged as a traitor.

Asked why he never finished novelizing the Martian Agent screenplay, Chabon responds: "I would love to someday, but I never found the time. It's not like there was an overwhelming demand, I didn't get an avalanche of letters from people, begging me to continue the story... I did it as an experiment. It was really fun to do, and I thought well, it could be cool. But I never got back to it. And then it sort of got continued in this other way that I could never have dreamed."

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

In The Martian Agent, the whole British Empire is transplanted to Mars, where it starts oppressing the Martian people. Chabon was trying to comment on some of the imperialism and racial subtext that's implicit in Burroughs' Barsoom books. In particular, he was influenced by Brian Aldiss' book The Billion Year Spree, which criticizes Burroughs' use of a perfect white hero amongst ignorant, flawed natives. "I started thinking about colonialism and imperialism, the British Empire, and the idea that the sun never sets on the British Empire. What if the sun of the British Empire was extended beyond our world, to another world?"

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

For what it's worth, Chabon now believes that criticisms of Burroughs' imperialism are somewhat oversimplified, and miss the point: Burroughs is frequently using the messed-up cultures of Barsoom to comment on the American society of his day. (In much the same way that Jonathan Swift uses the weird peoples in Gulliver's Travels to comment on European societies.) Compared to other pulp authors of his time, like H. Rider Haggard or John Buchan, Burroughs is much less focused on expounding imperialism or Manifest Destiny:

That isn't really what John Carter is about. The colonialist, imperialist elements of the John Carter books are not explicit, and in fact I would even argue are not really that important. That's just not part of what's going on. What you have is much more of a classic, heroic fantasy structure that goes back to The Odyssey, of this solitary wanderer, this solitary traveler, encountering strange beings and creatures as he makes his way across the strange world he finds himself in.

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

In any case, Chabon didn't hear any more about The Martian Agent for several years — until 2008, when he went to a party and ran into one of the ILM people who worked as a production artist for The Martian Agent. The former ILM worker was now at Pixar, and mentioned to Chabon that Andrew Stanton was working on a John Carter movie. And soon afterwards, Stanton himself got in touch, saying that he'd heard Chabon was a big fan of Burroughs' Barsoom books.

And indeed, Chabon was a big fan of Burroughs, going back to when he was twelve and he'd bought a complete set of the Barsoom books with nice Gino D'Achille covers, and fancy binding, from a bookstore in a mall in Columbus, MD. It was like this "incredibly arresting object" had just materialized. Chabon was awed by the significance of these books, which had given life to so much else that science fiction fans obsess about. And he was carried along by Burroughs' relentless storytelling energy:

Burroughs was a narrative machine. He really knew how to keep a story going, and he knew how to use cliffhangers, and really propel you through the story. He had that great "pulp novelist" narrative drive. He also had a really fertile imagination, in a way that reminds me of Jack Kirby in comics, where he would just toss off one concept after another, in many cases never to return to them again...Just continually dreaming up new amazing vistas or societies or creatures whatever they may be. [There's] kind of a heedless quality to that imagination.

So once Chabon was brought on board John Carter, the big challenge was translating all of that relentless narrative energy into a movie that audiences could appreciate. Obviously, Burroughs' habit of throwing out ideas all the time could be a liability — like, the books introduce the notion that John Carter is immortal, then never deal with it again. And everybody on Barsoom is telepathic, a notion which Burroughs then backs away from.

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

Luckily, by the time Chabon came on board, Stanton and his writing partner Mark Andrews had already done a lot of the heavy lifting. They'd already figured out much of the structure of their movie, including lifting some stuff from the second and third books to shore up the first. They'd combined a few characters, and gotten rid of sequences which would have cost too much or made no sense. The main thing they wanted Chabon's help with was strengthening the characters — including making John Carter a relatable protagonist, and making Dejah Thoris a well-rounded enough character.

And the biggest challenge was fixing up the dialogue and the movie's tone — Burroughs' dialogue is famously stilted, and nobody really talks the way his characters talk. Says Chabon:

The movie's [partly] a period story, and a lot of the early part of the story kind of takes place on Earth and Carter's making his way to Mars. There's that element that has to be reflected in the dialogue, and when you get to Mars, how do you tell this historic adventure? You don't want to have historic anachronisms and people saying, "'Sup, dude?"

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure MovieHow do you do that without veering over into the kind of stilted, affected dialogue that Edgar Rice Burroughs succumbs to a little too often? We want these people to sound like they're speaking naturally — but at the same time, we're dealing with kings and princesses and warriors and evil entities with mysterious agendas. There is a kind of required or expected way for those people to speak, and you want to meet that expectation without going overboard, and you still want to make it sound fresh and natural. I put a lot of effort into that.

And making John Carter a character that audiences could buy into was a major challenge, says Chabon:

Carter's kind of a cipher really. He starts out in the books with not a whole lot of personality, and he never really acquires much more. He's really a vehicle for action, more than anything else. Without any kind of political agenda or sort of movie-making agenda where you feel like no matter what your source material is, you have to somehow do something to it, more than anything else, we need to come up with someone we're interested in as writers in telling a story about. Edgar Rice Burroughs helped us, to a certain degree, by creating this character who was potentially quite ambiguous, in that he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil war, and we encounter him after that experience. There were elements and seeds of an interesting character in Carter. We tried to take those seeds and grow them, and not impose anything of our own that wasn't at least suggested in the source material.

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

Meanwhile, Chabon says that Stanton was keen to steer clear of any imagery that was reminiscent of Frank Frazetta's iconic John Carter art — although most people only know about John Carter through Frazetta nowadays. But at the same time, Frazetta's art is kind of dated in its own way, suggesting a 1970s feeling of "spray-painted custom vans." Stanton did borrow a bit from artist Michael Whelan (whose art is also featured here) — but also from original John Carter artist Frank Schoonover.

One major element of The Martian Agent is that of a European becoming a leader to the natives, and helping them to overthrow their colonial oppressors — much like James Cameron's Avatar. If you've seen the trailers for John Carter, that same kind of motif seems to be present, as John Carter exhorts the Martians to rise up against their overlords.

But actually, Chabon says that Stanton and he were really keen to avoid that kind of notion of "the vital American coming from this young nation, who kind of revitalizes this aged and decrepit society... That wasn't a story that necessarily interested us in telling."

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

If anything, Chabon and Stanton wanted to show John Carter as a catalyst, who allows the Martians to liberate themselves. "Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkis are already seeking change. They are already actively working for change, and the appearance of Carter is a catalyst that makes it possible for the Martian characters to continue to act on their own behalf... It is not so much, hopefully, that he's the savior or that he knows things they don't know."

And they were keen to show that Mars saves Carter, even more than Carter saves Mars. Carter is a "lost soul" who is clueless, and just wants to get home to Earth. But when the Martians see what he can do — including his ability to jump really high, in the weak Martian gravity, they're keen to enlist him on their behalf. It's not so much that Carter sees the Martians are doing it all wrong — instead, we see the caginess and "opportunism" of the Martians, who seize on him as a tool for their liberation.

Michael Chabon's 17-Year Quest to Write a Mars Adventure Movie

And Chabon says the humor is very important in this film, as you'd expect from someone with Stanton's background:

When you have Andrew Stanton, you're talking about someone whose humor is clearly a component of his artistic vision. He's a funny person, and he thinks in terms of gags, like all those Pixar guys. When I say 'gag,' I mean something more noble and artistic than merely a joke. It's like a whole setup and payoff structure, that are used as building blocks for telling that story. Humor is very important to me in my work, too.

And that humor is very Indiana Jones-esque, with Taylor Kitsch managing to bring a bit of Harrison Ford's "ability to generate humor by looking really serious," says Chabon. "The more he seems to mean what he says, the more ridiculous it can feel, and that's part of what makes Harrison Ford so charming. Taylor Kitsch has a little of that, too."

One major trope in stories like John Carter — and The Martian Agent — is the notion that these now-barbaric societies were once technologically advanced and powerful. I asked Chabon why he thought the trope of the former technological masterminds, reduced to barbarism, is so prevalent, and he says:

I think partly because we are haunted by that prospect ourselves. We can see evidence. As the 19th century turned into the 20th century and archeologists started to press deeper in to the jungles of Central and South America and into the deserts of Mesopotamia and India, they began to encounter clear evidence of many civilizations that had attained some level of technological greatness. You look around at these places and you see the living descendants of these people living without the incredibly sophisticated caliber of technology that their forebears had invented. I think it's a very haunting, stark memento mori for a representative of any civilization.

That begins to permeate the thinking of 19th century Europe and America and produces works like The Decline of The West. The rise and fall of civilization is this inevitable process, to which we must all eventually succumb. Nobody's going got be more haunted by that thinking than a parvenu, an ariviste who's kind of new to it all. The person who's most worried about losing everything is the person who's had it the least amount of time. You find that kind of anxiety haunting American popular fiction. You see it in H.P. Lovecraft, you see it in Robert E Howard. In fact, it's probably one of the key tropes of a lot of pulp fiction of the 20th century, that notion that it's all bound to end someday.

That helped determine the way the astronomer Percival Lowell, it helped determine what he saw when he looked through is telescope at the planet Mars. He saw these lines that looked like man-made structures. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli referred to them as canalli, and [Lowell] thought that meant canals. In fact, it meant channels. His mind, prepared by the 19th century experience of the fear of decline, the gotterdamerung — he just made that imaginative leap and thought, "Now I can see Mars is far from the sun, and it looks cold, and it probably doesn't have much atmosphere and seems to be mostly desert. What I'm going to infer from that is that there was this once great civilization that built these mighty canals that criss-crossed the entire planet. And why were they there? They must have been trying to save their world by spreading water from the polar ice caps." This is a man of science, and he just made one wild inference after another. Those were all driven by the gestalt of that, and Edgar Rice Burroughs had the brilliant pulp narrative wisdom and transform into this rich world of Barsoom, which is in this long, slow, gradual decline, having once reached this mighty pinnacle.

John Carter hits theaters on March 9.

Interview transcribed by Jennifer Griffith-Delgado.