Monthly Archives: May 2012
Recently the writers group I belong to discussed the issue of creating strong female characters in atypical female roles. I have a character, a female police officer, that’s been giving me fits for years. She just feels like cardboard to me, and I know I’m missing something in the way I write about her. And of course that night our female members were not in attendance. Alas. Men talking about women can be a one-dimensional experience.
As a coincidence, though, this last week I came across a blog by Carey Lohrenz. Ms. Lohrenz was the second female naval aviator “accepted” into the F-14 fighter community. Here’s a chance to look into the issue, I thought, and for those of you who are interested, here’s the URL for the blog: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carey-d-lohrenz/military-women-pilots-veterans_b_1516021.html#es_share_ended.
Thinking about Lt. Lohrenz’s career problems made me remember another excellent female pilot community, the WASPs of World War II. The RAF had a similar outfit that did the same job: ferrying aircraft from the factory to embarkation points or airbases, maintenance test flights, all the aviation drudge work that would free up male pilots for the “stress of combat” that supposedly women just can’t handle. Women, in both the US and England, were forbidden to go into combat; it was simply too tough for them, and they’d never stand up to it. In fact, in the US, male civilian pilots lobbied successfully to have the WASPs disbanded even before the end of World War II. Too much (successful) competition, I guess.
Mm. Wonder what a pioneer wife in the Arizona territory, say about 1870 during an Apache raid, would have said to women not being tough?
Thinking about the WASPs called up another memory. General Charles “Chuck” Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II and had twelve kills. There were not that many male pilots who flew fighters that achieved even a single kill, much less the coveted five kills that made you an ace in the USAAF or the RAF. (The Luftwaffe required ten kills.) The tradition of five kills making an ace goes back to World War I, but that’s another story.
There was another pilot in World War II with twelve kills who deserves mention: Senior Lieutenant Lilya Litvyak of the V-VS, the Soviet Air Force. Litvyak was first a member of the all-female 73rd Guards Fighter Regiment and was later transferred to a male unit. She was wounded three times in the service of her country. She received numerous awards for valor, including the Order of the Red Banner. I’m no expert on Soviet military awards, but Wikipedia says it was the “highest award given by…the Soviet Union.” That makes it at least the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross in this country; our Medal of Honor seems more the equivalent of the accolade “Hero of the Soviet Union,” which Litvyak received posthumously, like so many of our own Medal of Honor winners. In Litvyak’s final fight, jumped by eight ME-109s, she was finally shot down and killed.
Litvyak’s best friend, Katya Budanova, was also an ace, with eleven kills, and like Litvyak was killed in action.
The Soviets had a number of female combat pilots. One, Olga Yamshchikova, was credited with 17 kills. Others flew the famed Il-2 Sturmovik attack aircraft. The Sturmovik was essentially a piston-engined A-10 and flew the same sort of incredibly dangerous mission, low-level ground support. One Soviet female pilot, Anna Yegorova, flew these missions in the Sturmovik throughout the war and was decorated three times for valor.
In World War II, the USAAF and the RAF decided that the effectiveness of aircrew decreased if they were required to simply keep going until the war ended or they were killed. That was the reason for limiting the number of missions or combat hours a pilot was required to fly. It was based on lessons learned by both air forces in World War One. In the US Eighth Air Force, when losses were heavy at the beginning of the war, crews were required to fly 25 missions, and the survivors were often in bad shape. Later, as the effective opposition of the Luftwaffe decreased, that mission total was increased to 35. I’ve spoken with some of the survivors of these missions. In their 80s, that experience is just as vivid and emotionally wrenching as it was in their 20s for many of them.
In the Soviet Air Force there wasn’t any such thing as a tour of duty. You were there for the duration. Surviving pilots, male and female, could have as many as 1000 missions in their logbooks. There were plenty of women in the Soviet Air Force who could claim that distinction. Those ladies must have been tough as hell.
What was it like, then, for those that were required to just keep flying? What kept them going? Because it would seem that we aren’t talking about male or female qualities here, but simply human qualities. Why, then, should it be so important to deny that women have those qualities?
Nothing here should be construed as saying that the Russians are tougher than the Americans, or that women are necessarily tougher than men, but it amazes me that easily available history like this is ignored. Facts, it would seem, are far less important than ideology. Lt. Lohrenz’s career came to an end due to political chicanery by those whose agenda required women to be “kept in their place.”
The point is that we have no cultural referents that aid us, as writers, when we depict strong female characters in non-traditional roles. Women who try to create such roles in real life and are too visible, like Lt. Lohrenz, become targets in no-holds-barred political dominance games.
History shows that our cultural stereotypes have nothing to do with truth or facts. This being said, why do those stereotypes continue to exist?
Are men actually afraid of women? That might be a question for all of us, male and female alike, to ponder.
As the title of this essay suggests, I believe women, potentially and often in fact, really are tough as hell. That’s the first thing to remember, but darned if I can figure out what the second thing should be, or the third, to come up with a better idea for female characters.
Fair Warning: this blog is not for the ADD or those who can’t take the time to read and think about the issues involved. The word count is 3720, more or less. Yes, I am indeed asking you to buy a pig in a poke by reading further; yes, I am arrogant enough to think most of you, even if you disagree with me, will continue reading.
Recently I read a post by M.J. Rose regarding the level of emotion involved in the debate between digital and print publishers. Here’s further evidence of my arrogance: you can read her post at http://publishingperspectives.com/2012/05/the-objects-of-our-obsession-on-the-e-vs-p-debate/. This is arrogant because I am inviting you to stop reading what I’ve written, read something else by another writer, and return.
Is it actually arrogance, though, to assume the same interest on your part as on mine? Maybe; you tell me by continuing to read, or not.
Ms. Rose brings up some interesting points, but by and large I’m not sure I agree with her assessment of why there is so much “vitriol” in what she describes as the “e-vs-p” (electronic, i.e., digital, versus print) debate. In fact, on rereading, it almost seems that she is describing hate directed at digital books replacing our precious printed-paper books. I don’t know of anyone taking that position, however, and on my initial reading I concluded Ms. Rose was directing her article at calming the waters between authors seeking to publish digitally and those still pursuing the print alternative.
I am, in fact, going to give my take on the nature of the “vitriol” and why there’s so much of it being exchanged between the writers who will take every advantage of a changing business model and the in-place print medium and its business model. Ms. Rose offers some interesting insight on how the print model developed and if only for that reason her post is well worth reading.
On the other hand I think she misses the gravamen of the “e-vs.-p” conflict, which is really pretty simple.
“Vitriol” is a wonderful word one doesn’t see often anymore – kudos to Ms. Rose for even using it! – and is particularly apt in this situation. In its literal sense “vitriol” was the medieval term for sulfuric acid, but eventually came to its more poetic usage as “cruel and bitter criticism.”
A lot of people on the print side express surprise at the fact that so many writers are rushing into digital, independent, self-publishing venues. This includes writers – even published writers – as well as agents, editors and traditional publishers. As Ms. Rose rightly points out in her post, it’s been done this way for a long time.
Which may be the point. It has been a long time, maybe too long, long enough for “business model” to acquire the trappings of “tradition” which is only one step removed from “natural law” and/or “the way it’s always been,” i.e., since the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. There’s a certain implicit sense of entitlement that goes along with that territory.
When the book-printing business got started it was still hard enough to print books (as opposed, say, to hiring a battalion of monks to create an illuminated manuscript, one copy at a time) that only those ideas that seemed highly important at the time stood a chance of being printed. An interesting footnote to this is that Ben Caxton, the first printer in England, after he printed a copy of the Bible, was approached to print Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the legend of King Arthur. But other than the Bible, my impression is that most books printed prior to the 19th Century were non-fiction, printed to inform (or sometimes misinform, or even disinform) people about the New World literally unfolding before their eyes. To be printed in those days it had to be important, new knowledge, understood as such by people to whom knowledge and new ideas were important and worth preserving.
I mean, come on. Fiction might be about ideas but when I write a story it isn’t about a new method for the determination of longitude, or my personal observations of the curious habits of the natives of Patagonia. Fiction is mostly about entertainment. Entertainment requires two things: the reader has to have the leisure time to read, and the reader has to be able to afford what he or she reads.
The “vitriol” Ms. Rose quite rightly refers to, the “cruel and bitter criticism,” seems a bit excessive for an argument over a business model, doesn’t it? Business is just business, isn’t that what we’ve always heard? “It’s just business; nothing personal.” However, isn’t it odd that for something that’s just “business as usual” we seem to be looking at a phenomenon which, in terms of engaging the passions, seems to rival, oh, I don’t know, politics or religion? It therefore seems relevant to ask why emotions and tempers seem to be so engaged in this matter.
Is it as simple as conflicting business models? Established publishing methods versus digital publishing and delivery? I’ll point out that, historically, all such “old guard vs. new guard” conflicts engender quite a bit of vitriol. Perhaps, however, in this particular case, there’s something more involved.
That “something more” is a group of persnickety, high-strung, grandiose-depressive creative types otherwise known as “writers.”
Let’s get one fact straight: if there weren’t hordes of people convinced of their talent to the point that they actually sit down and write something, and finish what they write, and then actually have the chutzpah to believe other people might want to pay to read it, the fiction publishing business would not exist. It’s only with the availability of leisure time in which to read for entertainment as well as being an affordable medium of entertainment that the fiction publishing industry became established as well as profitable.
Remember that phrase “affordable medium of entertainment” – I’ll have occasion to refer to it below.
Now for a little personal history. Over the last five years I’ve rededicated myself to being a published writer. I won’t say that I’m doing it for the money, although heck yeah, if I could make a living sitting here pounding the keyboard all day, I’d quit my day job in a heartbeat. So being the sort of person I am I started researching that traditionally thorny question, How do I break into print?
Have you ever looked at the magazine section at your local book store and counted how many publications there are dedicated to just that question? When I started all this it never occurred to me to think about one very salient fact literally staring me in the face: for all those magazines to make a profit, or even to simply break even, there had to be an awful lot of writers out there looking for ways to do just exactly what I wanted to do, and a whole industry dedicated to making money off those wanna-be-think-I-can writers.
At first I treated all those magazines as gospel and thought hard about how I’d implement all those strategies put forward for being noticed, “getting out of the slush pile,” or “landing an agent,” etc. In time here’s what I figured out: there wasn’t a hell of a lot of really specific information in those articles. Lots of generalities, but nothing specific. Even writing-related articles on the subject, say, of “make your characters interesting” were sort of vague. That was a tendency prevalent enough that I could feel that tickle of unease in the back of my mind, but I kept reading. Surely, I thought, somewhere in all of this is the key, the answer, the one thing I can use to reach my goal.
The straw that broke the camel’s back and brought enlightenment was an article from an agent about query letters. By that time I was part of a writers group and “query letters” was a hot topic for us. Let me summarize the discussion, which was fairly heated and lasted for two or three meetings: (a) the agent dealt mostly with romance novelists, and none of us (at the time, we were all males in the group) wrote in the romance genre; (b) the tone of the letters was almost uniformly what we ended up describing as “cutesy” and “flirty”; (c) there was no discussion by the agent writing the article concerning query letters in general, although that subject was implied by the title of the article, almost as if, as far as the agent was concerned, there wasn’t anything in publishing outside of the romance genre (which may have had some truth to it at the time she wrote the article).
I’m not sure I could write a cute, flirty query letter if I tried. At the time I was heavily engaged in the first draft of a novel about fighter pilots in the New Guinea jungle in 1942. I couldn’t see much cute and flirty about that.
Two conclusions eventually emerged for me in all of this. First, most of what I was writing would probably be considered “unpublishable” by the traditional print publishers whatever its literary merits. Second, the people writing those articles, in general, were pretty well wrapped up in their own little world. Articles like the one above I came to see were like those scientific papers where the list of authors or contributors is longer than the paper itself; advertising for the agent or editor as much as anything. Which is fine; we’re talking business, after all, but there’s a subtle point here that’s easy to miss.
If your article in a trade journal is really advertising for the service you provide, and it appears under the guise of “I’m trying to help you,” well, what’s the word for that? I won’t say it’s outright deception; deception implies intent to deceive, and I can’t honestly say the intent is there. But it does seem to me that “self-serving” might be an applicable phrase. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. The implicit subtext, though, is like this: “I’m trying to help you (so I can make scads of money off you).”
Once I understood that I began to see a lot of things about the publishing industry. Not all at once, but over time.
One thing that publishers know is this: there’s always going to be a lot of people who believe that they can write fiction and are willing to put up with endless B.S. to have their fiction published. If you’re a new writer there’s no way to distinguish you from all those faces in that endless sea of unpublished writers.
Here’s something else a perusal of the writing magazines will teach you, and it’s something their publishers (and their advertisers – look how much those Creative Writing MFA programs cost!) would probably prefer you didn’t figure out: there is no one path to success. Something catches the eye of an editor or an agent, and that something is different for each and every editor or agent, and isn’t always the same for any given editor or agent at any given time. So the conclusion I draw is simple: you can follow all the advice in all those writer’s magazines and whether you succeed or not is still a matter of luck. People will tell you hard work and persistence pays off, and they are absolutely right, but the same thing can be said about playing the lottery: sooner or later, if you keep buying tickets, you’ll draw a winner. It might be a couple of bucks, or it might be the jackpot, but if you don’t keep buying tickets you can’t win either way. As for the hard work, well, you have to have the dollar to buy the ticket in the first place, right? You sure aren’t getting it from your writing, however hard you work at that. As for us writers, our lottery ticket is a finished manuscript, and in terms of time and emotion the investment can’t even be measured in dollars.
So there’s the fan dance done by agents and editors alike: they want you to believe that there is some standard, some set of rules, a sure path through their door that writers can follow. But why do the fan dance at all? What’s the point to it?
The point is that agents and editors want you to believe they have standards and rules because they have no other way to establish authority over you, the writer. Think very carefully about this: I used the word “authority” very deliberately, with purpose and intent. If they don’t have some standard of behavior that you, the writer, is supposed to conform to in order to succeed – i.e., to be published – then why would you listen to them at all?
Herein lies the first part of why there is so much vitriol and acrimony involved in the “e-vs.-p” debate: Agents and editors want to have authority, a very parental, paternal sort of authority – sort of like the Pope being infallible when he speaks ex cathedra – so that you, the writer, when and if you are admitted through the pearly gates into the hallowed realm of publication (this isn’t merely sarcasm here, that’s my impression of how they think of it), you will never question why they do things.
They don’t want any questions because if you start asking too many questions you’ll realize they have little more clue than you do about what a good story is or why one story sells better than another. There’s really only one definition of a good story in the marketplace: a good story is what a reader will pay money to read.
Most readers don’t care about grammar or spelling or sentence/paragraph construction beyond a certain point. The truth is that most people don’t use it while telling stories in their daily lives. I suspect only English professors are going to make a fuss about it anyway. I’m not saying you can write at the level of a first-grader and expect to be successful, but in a population whose average reading skills are at the junior-high level, perhaps we could concede that meaning can be conveyed without slavish attention to grammatical niceties.
So if those things aren’t the point, what is?
Story. It’s that simple. Tell a good story, and the rest is window dressing. How much of Mark Twain’s work, for example, is grammatical? Ah, but I hear you saying, you have to know the rules before you can break them! Maybe so, but I’m pretty sure Sam Clemens wrote like he heard people talking. It’s called authenticity. People like authenticity when you’re telling a story. Here’s a rule for you rule-driven people: if you sound too much like your high-school English teacher, it’s going to turn a lot of readers off, since most people don’t talk that way, do they? How many of us liked our high school English teachers? (I remember two that I liked in high school, and none of my English professors in college.) I don’t say that’s a rule, it’s just something to think about.
Wait a minute, though…don’t editors and agents fulfill the useful function of helping you polish your story, bring out the best in your characters, transform a soso story into literary genius? That is the party line they preach, isn’t it? To do that, though, might it not be relevant to inquire as to the track record of editors and agents in picking out the “good” stories from the “bad” ones?
The track record just doesn’t seem to be there. Research it for yourself. Given my definition of a “good” story, however, you’d think that the first editor who had Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone cross his or her desk would have snapped it up at once. Of course that’s being wise after the fact – but a good story is a good story, isn’t it? Contrarily, almost everyone knows that J.K. Rowling was turned down by I don’t know how many publishers before landing a deal with Scholastic. The conclusion to draw here is that editors and agents may or may not know a good story. Supposedly, however, it’s their job, even their profession, to know; it’s how editors justify their six-figure salaries and how agents justify that 15% of your royalties as a writer, if you get that far, that they require from you for their services.
We might ask, though, if that Emperor is actually wearing any clothes.
Yet, as writers, we are constantly bombarded with what amounts to a party line as thoroughly authoritarian and inviolable as any Stalinist or Nazi party proclamation of the way, the truth and the light: that publishers and editors and agents, most of whom aren’t writers (fiction writers, anyway, but I guess there’s always expense accounts) and haven’t paid their dues as writers (whatever that actually means) but nonetheless profess to know everything there is to know about writing and that we, the writers, should listen to them.
If there are no clear standards of good vs. bad art, other than what the public will buy, which is utterly unpredictable, and if anyone who’s been in publishing for any length of time knows that the reading public will buy a good story, but that that “good story” is an unpredictable quantity, then why are publishers/agents/editors so adamant that they have all the answers?
Again: so we, the writers, will believe they do and not question them when we receive those rejection slips, or the paltry royalties, or the bad marketing, or the condescension, etc.
On that basis something that might be understood a little better in this whole print vs. digital controversy, and why passions and tempers are so high, is that, in my opinion, a lot of it is less about how you want your stories delivered than by the way publishers, editors and agents have treated writers for the last fifty years or so. (Probably longer – but let’s go with fifty years.)
Anyone who has read Alice Miller’s ground-breaking work The Drama of the Gifted Child will understand the pattern. The publishers, editors and agents take the role of the abusive, narcissistic parent, while forcing the writers into the role of the abused child. The gift Dr. Miller refers to is the empathic ability of a very young child to interpret the emotional needs of the parent. This is a survival skill. Interpreting the rage of an abusive parent so as to supply that parent what they need emotionally (conforming, submissive behavior by the child — cloaking growing rage) is unfortunately a necessity for many children. Also, like such parents, the publishers/editors/agents know that writers, like children, have nowhere else to go. It isn’t about money, or efficient delivery of a business service; it’s about relative power, its use and abuse.
From that it’s easy to see that the driving energy behind the controversy, at least on the writer’s side, is pent-up rage. Psychologists have known for decades that we learn as children to hide our anger from our parents because we sense it threatens our lives. But the truth is that writers are angry, and have been for a long time. We are passionate people, we care about what we do. We care enough to put up with a lot of bullshit from people who aren’t writers so we can tell our stories. If we don’t get published, the unspoken party line among publishers is, well, sonny, you just aren’t good enough, are you? (pat on the head) But keep trying, keep polishing, and maybe someday, if you try ever so hard, we’ll publish something of yours. If we feel like it.
I’m not saying that, at least in my own writing, that there’s no room for improvement. There’s always room for improvement. But when you see talentless schlock published and pushed when writers with ten times the talent languish on a back shelf, what conclusion is one to reach about the competency level of publishers, agents and editors within the field they profess to be experts in?
Writers – at least, this writer – are sick and tired of being made to feel incompetent and unprofessional by people whose only contribution seems to be to take their money and give nothing in return, while asking you to believe that they stand one step below the throne of the Almighty. When I say nothing in return, I mean just that. I hear over and over and ad nauseam over again how much editors give you in terms of polishing your work and making it more literary and readable. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but when you hear it so often you sooner or later ought to ask yourself if someone keeps saying it so no one will question whether or not it’s true. It’s a propaganda technique known as the “Big Lie.”
Writers have been made to feel like bastard step-children by the very people who depend upon them for their economic existence, because those same people are dependent upon writers, and they know it. The publishers are acting like parents surprised by a child’s accusations of abuse: but we love you! It was all for your own good anyway! Come back and behave and everything will be JUST the way it used to be!
Once a child understands that it isn’t love but abuse, one typical reaction is rage and the destruction of trust. That’s exactly what we see here, in this so-called “e v. p” conflict. It has a lot less to do with the way stories are delivered than it does the way writers have been treated by publishers. New York City publishing has sown; now let it reap.
That brings us right back to the phrase I asked you to remember, the “affordable medium of entertainment.” Hardcover fiction is pushing $30/book nowadays. That’s pretty close to double the cost of a month’s worth of internet access and about what a month of cable TV would cost. Even an $8/copy paperback is starting to push that envelope – buy three or four paperbacks at normal retail and there you are.
I submit that on this basis print isn’t affordable as entertainment.
Digital print media, however, is affordable, given prices ranging from $0.99 to $4.99 per download.
On that basis some of the vitriol from the print side (“You’re cheating!”) becomes comprehensible.
Or, A Hero, Literally, of the Past
Disney’s remake of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure story A Princess of Mars flopped at the box office, losing about $200 million, reported as perhaps the largest all-time loss on a single movie. See Michael White’s article at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-20/walt-disney-film-chief-ross-steps-down-after-john-carter-loss.html.
The article also cites one analyst who attributes the flop to the film being over-budget and “poorly marketed.” I’m not sure what “poorly marketed” means, exactly, in this context; maybe it was. Let’s be sure we understand something: for a film to flop as badly as did “John Carter of Mars,” then there’s probably something more to it than just poor marketing. So perhaps poor marketing was a factor in the film’s failure, but a contributory rather than a decisive one.
Other than the marketing, then, what other causes might one find for the film to flop?
I’d like to share with you what I saw unfold on the screen, but be aware that I’m not a screenwriter nor in any way connected to Hollywood. I can only write this as someone who enjoys a movie.
“John Carter of Mars” has a lot of things in its favor.
The cast was excellent – of course, I’m a big fan of Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy – Lynn Collins, cast as Princess Dejah Thoris, was creditable and delectable – and if I don’t name anyone else it’s just because those three are the standouts. So I don’t believe that lack of acting talent was at fault.
Whatever else it might be I found the film a stunning visual spectacle, at least as far as the recreation of Barsoom goes. The six-limbed green Martian fighting men, the Tharks, were superbly conceived and the CGI behind them was awesome. In short, Tars Tarkas lived and breathed on the silver screen, and so did all his green-skinned brethren. Likewise, the sets and miniatures were seamlessly believable and beautifully constructed. I was particularly impressed with the way features like mesas (from the Arizona desert, perhaps?) were skillfully reworked into the ruins of Martian cities. That was well enough done that it actually made me wonder if some of those mesas were the remnants of long-lost civilizations.
In general, the artistic quality of creatures, sets, models, costumes, weapons, artifacts, were all well-thought-out and first rate, Academy Award quality, in my humble and admittedly flyover-country opinion. Given the reported production cost of $250 million, however, it shouldn’t be surprising that the film has fantastic production values. Nonetheless, I think they captured the spirit of Burroughs’ vision quite well. In fact, I rather think Burroughs would have thought that in some regards, the various artists involved in this film had read his mind.
With that deliberate reference we segue to the remaining element of the film: screenplay, or story.
Before I get to the screenplay maybe we should look at the story in A Princess of Mars, as written by Burroughs. I’m not going to recap the plot. If you want to know, read it for yourself.
Consider this: it may not be possible to get away with things as a writer in 2012 that one could take for granted as a writer in 1912. I’d never read the Mars stories, but I thought I’d read them before watching the movie. One of the things that struck me the most about Princess was the positive lushness of Burroughs’ description of Mars, its cities, people, creatures and terrain. In some respects the book is more of a travelogue than a story, more Gulliver’s Travels than Lord of the Rings. Of course, everyone on Mars goes naked – quite a stimulating thought for readers in 1912, before Hollywood really took off, before television was available, even before commercial radio. I’m sure imagining the lissome Dejah Thoris, clad only in jewels that glittered in the reflected light of the hurtling moons of Barsoom, was quite a pleasant task for the male readers of 1912! I didn’t find it unduly burdensome, either, a hundred years later.
Consider also that in 1912 the only mass market entertainment was the pulp fiction serial – the format in which A Princess of Mars was first published. In fact, that’s how the book reads, like a serial, going from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and even ending on a cliffhanger – i.e., will John Carter make it back to Barsoom and his beloved Dejah Thoris and their unhatched son?
As for us here on Earth, though, that hundred years between 1912 and the present carries a lot more baggage than the rise of mass media. Let’s not forget the effect that two horrendous world wars, innumerable “brush wars” and “police actions” and “wars against terror” and “Cold Wars” have had on our psychological and cultural perceptions of the heroic as well, not to mention such non-romantic things as “shell shock,” “combat fatigue” and “PTSD.”
Then too, John Carter survives his adventures because, in essence, he has super powers on Mars, as a result of which he not only whips up on the bad guys but wins the hand of the Princess of Helium. If all you have to do to solve most of your problems is lay about you with your trusty sword in a fashion that even Conan the Barbarian might envy, then where’s the conflict for the protagonist?
That, however, may be the problem. I wouldn’t say that the audience of 2012 is necessarily more sophisticated than that of 1912, but the point is that by the present day any one of us over the age of twenty has seen this idea – on the screen, at least – I don’t know how many times, but certainly a lot.
In this respect think of the various incarnations and variations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that have appeared over those same years, both in film and in print. I’ve often wondered what it might have been like to sit in the audience in a theater in 1931 when the film version with Bela Lugosi first came out, back when the horror film genre hadn’t been done to death – or undeath, all things considered.
A hint of what that might have been like came to me a few years ago while I was watching Toho’s “Godzilla” (1956). As the monster moves through downtown Tokyo, smashing buildings and setting the city on fire with his gamma-ray breath, it occurred to me to think about the Tokyo audience that would have sat in a theater in 1956 to watch this film. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that “Godzilla” is just a guy in a rubber suit smashing up model houses and buildings on a stage miniature set. How is this even remotely scary? Here’s where understanding historical context comes in handy: I suddenly realized that not one person in that audience less than twelve or thirteen years old could fail to be aware, from personal experience, that the city of Tokyo, like many Japanese cities, had been leveled in fire-storms (just like the one being produced on screen) caused by American bombing raids, with enormous suffering and loss of life and property. In fact, more people were killed in the Tokyo raid of March 6, 1945, than were killed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. So imagine, if you will, what a Japanese survivor of the Tokyo fire raids in 1945 might have felt, watching the monster Godzilla march across the screen.
But historical context also requires us to ask this question: would an American audience of 1956 feel the same thing that the Japanese audience felt?
For either country, by now, Tokyo has been destroyed by so many monsters on screen over the years that one has to wonder what’s left of that frisson of fear I imagine swept over the Japanese audience of 1956.
Were the screenwriters aware of this problem? That question, for now, is rhetorical. It would be interesting to learn what was said in the writer’s conferences as the script took shape, though. Deducing anything from the script by comparing it to the events of the books is a process unlikely to produce valid results, and runs the risk of being wise after the fact, but let’s look briefly at what was done.
The screenwriters altered the beginning of the story a little, but not materially. Instead of being a simple prospector with a partner killed by the Apaches, John Carter is wanted by the US government for some unspecified service, evidently because he’s a “Virginia cavalryman.” Being from the South, knowing a little about the War Between the States, and having lived in Virginia where those cavalry regiments were raised, I understand the reference, but how many people in a modern audience will? Could we say that this part of the script is intended to promote a certain understanding of John Carter as a war hero who just wants to be left alone to look for his cave of gold? Then, when John Carter is beaten and thrown in jail by the US Cavalry troopers, perhaps the intention is to cast John Carter as something of an underdog, promoting sympathy for his character? While he is in jail, the script produces a flashback of a domestic scene which was nowhere part of the original books; John Carter’s only wife was Dejah Thoris. So, John Carter now has a certain mystery, a past hinted at but no more than that; a past, perhaps, that drives him. Then the writers threw in an element that Burroughs introduces in the second novel, The Gods of Mars, i.e., the infiltration of Barsoomian society by the evil, secretive Therns – in the movie, the Therns are depicted as near-immortal super-scientists (lacking only the overgrown, bulging foreheads) who reminded me almost irresistibly of an Oriental society preserving ancient secrets, so beloved of pulp fictioneers back in the 1920s and 1930s. I don’t remember if Sax Rohmer’s character, Fu Manchu, was one, but that character is archetypical of the sort of menace I’m describing. The point would seem to be to create a menace whose super-powers, so to speak, are sufficient to counter-balance those of John Carter.
So in the screenplay one finds an attempt to create a past for John Carter much different from the one in the book, presumably in an effort to create depth for the character. In the long run, though, the story isn’t about what happened to John Carter in the past, nor even how that past might affect his actions on Barsoom. The story is about John Carter saving Helium – this time.
I see the real problem is something a little more fundamental, and I think it is that, in both the screen and print versions of the story, the characters of John Carter and Dejah Thoris come across as two-dimensional. In a male-dominated society, or an audience dominated by men, a beautiful naked woman to be desired and possessed might not need much depth, at least in 1912. She is what she is; how much depth does Helen of Troy have, or need, in the Iliad? But the story in the book, and to a lesser but still significant degree, in the film, is told from the point of view of John Carter. He has to be more than tall, dark, handsome, and handy with a sword.
Is it fair of me to say this? That’s it’s as simple as poor characterization? Maybe not, but that’s my impression; it’s what I got from watching the movie. Perhaps the question might be this: did anyone else, watching the movie, have that same lack of engagement with the main characters?
If we don’t really care about the two main characters, how can we care about the story? One can’t help but wonder how a different script might have changed things. The problem is that I have no idea how I would make a character like John Carter come to life, much less a woman like Dejah Thoris. I think the screenwriters were largely faithful to Burroughs’ vision, and that may be the problem, since I see that same lack of characterization as a flaw in the original stories.
If you don’t see that, ask yourself this. If you were going to write your own story involving the characters of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, how would you give them life in words? When so much has been written about them over the years? To me, the problem is largely the same.