When I first saw the trailer for the movie John Carter in 2011, and realized it was an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, I was seriously jazzed–
The trailers for the movie have been severely criticized (more about that later) as not really conveying the fact that the movie is an adaptation of APoM, but personally (perhaps because I knew the story) it gave me the shivers. I looked forward to seeing it.
While waiting for the movie’s debut, though, I began to hear rumors that the production was troubled. Among other things, the budget appeared to be out of control, coming in at $250 million. A movie generally has to make double its production cost to achieve profitability, so that goal was frighteningly difficult for John Carter to reach from the start. And then there was the puzzling fact of the name, which does not mention ‘Mars’ or ‘Barsoom’ or anything else to clue people into the fact that this is an adaptation of A Princess of Mars.
Then the movie came out, and many critics savaged it. That, and the thumbs-down the movie received from a couple of trusted friends, caused me to give the movie a pass, with regrets. I filed it away as yet another failed adaptation of a beloved book, and moved on.
Years passed. A week ago I happened to be in my local library, perusing DVD’s, when I spotted John Carter on the shelf and decided What the heck, I’m not paying for it. (Public libraries are one of humanity’s greatest inventions, right up there with fire and dark chocolate malted milk balls).
Let me say this about myself– while I am often willing to give a film the benefit of the doubt, particularly adaptations of well-known books, I have pretty good turkey-detection capabilities, honed by decades of watching a lot of bad science-fiction, such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Starship Invasions (yes, I sat through Starship Invasions. Give me a break, I was a kid). When I watch a film I usually get a sense about its quality fairly quickly.
(spoilers, spoilers, I mean it, SPOILERS!)
When I sat down to watch John Carter, I quickly realized that to me it didn’t look or feel like a turkey– at no point did it set off my alarms. On the contrary, I found myself quickly enjoying the story. Perhaps it helped that my initial expectations were low, and that I had a willingness to allow the movie to be its own thing. But a lot of John Carter just seemed to work for me.
The production values were excellent– more than that, director Andrew Stanton (a Pixar stalwart associated with Finding Nemo and WALL-E) really managed to convey a powerful sense of Barsoom (Mars) as a dying world, with civilizations in their final decadence. While the story varies from the source material in many ways, in other ways it seemed faithful– the aerial vessels of Helium and Zodanga powerfully evoke the books, as does the character design for the green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks. In fact, in at least one respect, the movie is too faithful for my taste (more about that later).
Lynn Collins is superb as Dejah Thoris (in so many ways, and I’m just gonna leave it at that), and if there were an Oscar category for Best Performance Behind a CGI Animation, Willem Dafoe would have won for Tars Tarkas. Collins and Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) seem to have good chemistry– some fans complained the romance between them was rushed, but it did not overly impress me as such. There is a nice balance of humor and drama through most of the film. Personally, I know I enjoyed a film when parts of it stay with me afterwards, and such is the case with John Carter.
The film is not perfect– the expositional prologue is clunky, some of the emotional notes the movie hits are heavy-handed, and the climatic battle, where the Tharks and Helium unite to defeat the Zodangans and their Thern masters, seems a bit formulaic. Worst of all (for me, anyway), there is a Earth-side framing story that was completely distracting and unnecessary.
This is where the movie was too faithful to the book. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was neither a scientist nor an engineer, writing for serialization in 1911, apparently could not think of any way to get John Carter to Barsoom other than by a sort of lame astral projection in which he appears to die on Earth and lives on Mars. That story element irritated me when I was thirteen, and it irritates me now– although I suppose I should give ERB a small break, since in 1911 even scientists and engineers would have been pretty fuzzy on how to travel to Mars. But for a kid who grew up watching Saturn 5 launches and cut his teeth on fictional warp-drives and star-gates, Burroughs’ means of interplanetary transportation left a lot to be desired.
In John Carter Stanton remained faithful to this feature of the original story, and in fact works pretty hard at rationalizing it– the story posits the existence of an advanced interplanetary transporter, which creates a living copy of a being on the destination world, while leaving the original in suspended animation at the point of origin. John Carter’s consciousness is active in his Barsoom copy, while his Earth-bound body lies in a cave in Arizona– and if one body dies, the other dies. As a rationalization it’s pretty clever.
I still hate it. In my opinion it would have been simpler to just put in interplanetary gates, and lose the framing story, which would have saved fifteen to twenty minutes of film time and remove an unnecessary plot complication.
Having said that, the interplanetary transporter is tied to a nifty sub-plot Stanton introduces (I know, one complication out, another in), which I do not recall from the original books. The Therns, who are manipulating the leader of Zodanga to do their bidding, are apparently immortal interplanetary parasites, who ‘feed’ off the dying of worlds. It is established early on that they are perfectly capable of moving between worlds, including Barsoom and Earth, and that they have their own nefarious designs on our ocean-gifted world. This creates a deeper sense of peril for John Carter– in a sense he’s not just fighting for Dejah Thoris, but for humanity. Personally I found this added element really appealing from a story standpoint, and it would provide a dandy unifying plot element, should there ever be any sequels.
On the whole, the movie impressed me. Sadly, however, it appears unlikely that there will be other films in the near future. In the final analysis, for whatever reason, the film badly under-performed on it’s initial release, not coming close to clearing the $500 to $600 million it needed to be called profitable. Nearly three years later there appear to be no plans to launch a John Carter 2, and most of the principals, especially Andrew Stanton, appear to have moved on– all of which I find regrettable.
After watching the film I did some belated research and found that there is a sharp division among fans about the value of John Carter, with some reviling it as unfaithful to the book and others declaring their undying allegiance (a division rather reminiscent of the Man of Steel controversy). I also found that there has been a considerable amount of discussion of the film as a failure of marketing rather than production. As Michael Sellers, author of John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood put it, this movie was “a box-office flop, but not a turkey” (his book is now on my short list for future reading). The question of the film’s title alone raises issues about what was going on in the marketing department at Disney.
This thought has a certain resonance with me. Marketing, it seems, is emerging as the new choke-point for all kinds of creative endeavors. Getting the film-goer/viewer/reader’s attention seems to be increasingly difficult in a world that is flooded with entertainment and informational options. Certainly my own failure marketing my novels on Kindle has brought this point home. In the case of John Carter, it appears (although I need to do more reading on this subject) that many fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs did not know the film existed until after its run, while people unfamiliar with the Barsoom stories thought John Carter was a derivative rip-off of Star Wars(!), when in fact it’s the other way around.
The depressing thought for me in this is that if Disney, with millions of dollars available to market their product, can blow it, what chance do I have? On the other hand, if my marketing fails– and it has– I know where the problem lies. The fault is mine. There is no circular firing squad at Doug Daniel Productions. And it’s up to me to find a remedy.
I am also belatedly sad about this movie. When I thought it was a turkey it was just a missed opportunity. Now that I see that some good work went into realizing a believable world with some genuine entertainment value, it is a sadly missed opportunity. I know how hard it is to write a novel– producing a major film is orders of magnitude more difficult, and it is heartbreaking when it fails to win an audience, apparently for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Perhaps, in time, the movie will get the recognition it deserves.
Meanwhile, I will definitely read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. Perhaps I can learn a thing or two about what to avoid in marketing a story. Failure, yours or others’, is a powerful teacher.
Oh, and I will be buying the DVD. I want this movie in my library. ‘Nuff said.
PS– no sooner did I post this, than I came across this announcement–
Whoa– I don’t usually experience this level of synchronicity. A very interesting development….