“John Carter of Mars”

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.

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Filed under characterization, fiction, science fiction, Writing

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