Rizwan Virk

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The Time I Met a Princess of Mars in the Arizona Desert (think “John Carter”)

Fans of the major motion picture, “John Carter” by Disney and Pixar maestro Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E), will know that the movie was based on the wildly popular first book of the Barsoom series by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars.

In the book, as well as the movie, John Carter, a Virginia veteran of the Civil War, is traveling in the Arizona desert when he unexpectedly gets transported to Mars, where he meets the incomparable Princess of Mars, Deja Thoris.

This storyline is science fiction, so obviously, I couldn’t have really met Deja Thoris in the Arizona desert, could I?

Actually I did (though technically it was in Utah and I didn’t actually know her name was Deja Thoris at the time; she just told me she was a princess of Mars)!

Deja Thoris, the Princess of Mars, in the 2012 movie John Carter (Lynn Collins)

The Movie and Background of John Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs

Before I get into that story, it’s been 6 years since John Carter was released, so why am I writing about this now? I recently came across a book by Michael Sellers about the movie, “John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood: The True Story of What Went Wrong with Disney’s John Carter and Why Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Original Superhero Isn’t Dead yet”.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know about Edgar Rice Burroughs and the history of the movie in the book, which is worth a read if you are into that kind of stuff. It goes into (in some cases, rather excruciating) detail about this stuff, but here are some highlights:

  • A Princess of Mars was written and released in 1912, almost exactly 100 years before the movie, in serialized form. Many attempts were made to bring the John Carter of Mars series onto the screen, including a possible animated version in the 1930s.
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs was probably the best-selling author of the first half of the twentieth century, and served as an inspiration for film-makers and writers ranging from Arthur C. Clarke to George Lucas to James Cameron.
  • Flash Gordon and almost every other major science fiction project borrowed from the Mars series. Some, like George Lucas, liberally borrowed words and themes for Star Wars. James Cameron admitted to being inspired by A Princess of Mars for Avatar (a war veteran is transplanted to another planet and falls in love with an alien princess — sounds familiar?). Flash Gordon was basically a rip-off of Burroughs work.

Did Disney Blunder?

The book goes through many of the blunders that Disney made which contributed to John Carter being referred to as a $250 million flop, starting with

  • the fateful decision to change the name of the movie from “John Carter of Mars” to “John Carter” in 2011
  • a terrible teaser trailer on Good Morning America that spent more time showing Times Square than Mars.
  • a 30 second Super Bowl ad which cost $3.5 million but was completely bewildering, and terrible trailers that didn’t give audiences enough information about the movie
  • A complete lack of engagement of social media

Although the film is now used as an example of a ballooning budget, an inexperienced director, and bad marketing, the movie itself wasn’t bad, and had many millions of fans (including outside the US; it had the biggest opening of any movie in Russia until that time). Fans mounted a campaign to get Disney to make the planned sequels, but alas this was not to be (though perhaps there may be ways to do these after all, check out my article, How Blockchain Could Kill Both Netflix and Cable and message me if you want to know more).

I personally liked the movie a lot, and became a fan of Burroughs Mars and Venus series after seeing the movie. I felt it was successful in transporting the audience to another world full of aliens and technology and heroism and heartbreak and love. Sitting here on Jarsoom, I wanted to see more of Barsoom!.

The Time I Met the Princess of Mars in the Desert

OK now that I’ve talked about Hollywood, let’s get back to the story that prompted me to write this post in the first place — How I Met A Princess of Mars while wandering the Arizona desert.

A few years ago (it must’ve been 2010), I took a solo trip to the Arizona/Utah desert. I wanted to take some time off and see Monument Valley and many other places that I hadn’t seen in that region.

I flew into Phoenix, rented a car and decided for my first stop to drive north to Lake Powell, which stretches between southern Utah and Northern Arizona. It was one of the places where Planet of the Apes was filmed, and I wanted to see the “alien-looking landscape”.

I drove to a small, luxurious resort at the edge of Lake Powell and enjoyed a few hours of sunshine, sitting on a chaise lounge on the shores of the lake. I figured I’d stay at the resort but for some reason it was sold out.

Before heading back to the nearby po-dunk town to find a hotel room, I decided to have dinner at the restaurant. Rather uncharacteristically, I saw there was a bar and I decided I wanted to sit there. I say uncharacteristically because I never sit at bars, not for drinking or for dinner, but something told me to sit there.

As I surveyed the bar for a place to sit, I noticed that there was a group of people at one end of the bar chatting away as if they knew each other and were there for a conference or something. What was odd about it was that there was a woman sitting alone on the other side of the bar, and it seemed like they and others in the restaurant were respectfully giving her space.

This struck me as a little odd, though I couldn’t figure out why. She was sitting there politely chatting with the bartender, whom she seemed to know, probably ordering her dinner. She had dark hair, looked like she was in her 30s, probably a few years younger than me at the time, and was wearing a strange outfit. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what exactly was odd about her outfit, since she had a jacket on and it was covering up most of it, but her legs looked odd.

I was hungry and sat down a few seats away from her and ordered some dinner. Here I noticed that she seemed to have on pantyhose that had weird red marks on her legs, which only added to the sense of weirdnes.

As I ordered, somehow we struck up a conversation about her food, which was a light salad, and her outfit. This was also odd, as I don’t think I’ve ever struck up a conversation with any woman at a bar in my life. I think we somehow were joking how she wished she could have some of my burger and fries (rather than the salad she was eating).

I asked her why she couldn’t, and she started telling me about herself and her outfit. She revealed that she was there filming a science fiction movie, and she had scenes where she was scantily clad, and was thus on a very special diet so she looked good on screen.

As a big fan of science fiction and having done some indie film production, this sounded interesting. Of course, I assumed it was some small indie sci fi film so I wanted to know more. She mentioned it was based on a series of very popular science fiction novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and it was set on Mars. She was supposed to be an alien princess, she explained, and that was why she had the weird red marks on her legs and arms, which she showed me.

I didn’t know much about the Burroughs Mars series at the time, which was odd because I could’ve bet you that I knew more about Star Wars or Star Trek than your average sci fi geek, and definitely more than your average moviegoer.

I asked her name, and she said it was Lynn Collins. I had to admit i’d never heard of her. She then, very nicely I might add, tried to convince me that this was no low budget indie project, that Andrew Stanton from Pixar was directing (which I found even more odd since I knew him only as an animation film director), and that she was a well known actress, and this was her big leading role. She took on an amused tone explaining (almost pleading) that she was a well known movie star.

“Well, I’ve been in a lot of big films, you know,” she said.

“Like what?” I asked, since I knew most sci fi / action movies well and didn’t remember seeing her.

“Like Wolverine, “ she answered as she looked at my hamburger and fries. It turns out she was Hugh Jackmans’ girlfriend in that movie, and I vaguely remembered the character.

Wow, that was a very big budget movie, I remember thinking. Then we talked about women’s roles in science fiction films, and how there weren’t that many great roles.

Somewhere along the way, I mentioned that I was an investor and producer in an indie sci fi project adapting another well-known sci fi/fantasy writer’s novels, and that we were looking for a lead actress. She graciously gave me the name and contact info of her agent.

She didn’t seem offended that I didn’t know about her or John Carter of Mars. In fact, I got the sense that she was a little bored and as the lead actress, people were kind of treating her with kid gloves, so it was nice to have a normal conversation (if you can call it that!) with someone that wasn’t part of the film crew.

It was getting dark out and she said that she had to head back to her room and read for the next day, and that they were filming early because of the light.

I decided it was time for me to head back to town as well, so I said my goodbyes to Lynn, told her I’d contact her agent and send along a copy of the sci fi novels we were adapting, if she had any interest, and of course, I’d keep an eye out for this movie of hers that I’d never heard of, set on Mars, which I was still under the impression was a low budget indie film.

When I went back to my car, I realized I no longer had my car keys in my pocket. I went back to the bar, but neither the keys nor the actress was there, and frantically went to the front desk to see if they had found my keys and to make some calls (my cell phone didn’t work).

To make a long story short, I coudn’t find my car keys, and the rental company said they would have to tow the car 120 miles to either Flagstaff, AZ or St. George, UT, but it couldn’t be done tonight. I called a taxi to take me to a nearby motel and spent the night there. What a crazy ending to a crazy day!

The next morning I came back to the resort and saw a group of Germans at the lakeshore who had found a set of keys in the beach, which turned out to be my car keys.

I thanked them profusely, and decided I’d had enough of Lake Powell and Mars. The bar and the resort seemed pretty deserted — I guess the team was out filming for the day, and went on with the rest of my desert adventures, but those are tales for another post.

I had a great rest of the trip, and almost forgot about the incident over the next year as I hunkered down in my latest startup.

Two years later, in 2012, as I watched the big budget John Carter of Mars (now renamed just John Carter), I remembered the incident with my car, and the actress i’d met in the desert. It was her! There she was, on screen with the strange red tattoos on her legs and arms, in full Deja Thoris costume, the Princess of Mars, I’d met in the Arizona Desert!

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