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“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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On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”

When I began writing this post it was about the elements of a good aviation story, and in the middle of that I had some insight into one of the things one sees put forward as one of the “rules” of successful commercial writing, usually rendered as “know your audience.”  As it progressed I found I was also thinking about “conflict” and how it is usually (i.e., conventionally) approached.

I’m going to keep this in the theme I originally wrote about, i.e., the aviation story.  I know a little bit about aviation, so this comes under the heading of the “rule” regarding “write about what you know.”  (I’ve always wondered just exactly how that was supposed to apply to science fiction, but that’s another post, maybe.)

What, exactly, is conflict in the dramatic sense?  Most of us have an instinctive feeling for this.  As kids we know when trouble is brewing on the playground between two rivals.  Maybe that’s as good a source as any.  And of course there’s the best known conflict of all: “good” versus “evil.”  In time of war the propaganda battle between the two sides revolves around efforts to cast the opposite side as “evil.”  Oddly, it seems that one’s own side is good mostly by contrast.  Most people have a pretty good idea of what constitutes “evil” – but by contrast very few people can say what they mean by “good.”  “Us, not them” is an interesting definition of good vs. evil; reminds me that for most small tribes, the name of the tribe usually is the name for “people”; that is to say, “us, not them.”  In his excellent and informative study of the factors motivating killing in combat, Col. Dave Grossman, PhD, identifies dehumanization (“WE are people; THEY are NOT”) as one of the enabling factors.

Sorry, I’m a philosopher at heart.  But perhaps, dear reader, you might pause and reflect upon this simplistic notion of conflict.  Granted that it’s a venerable storytelling device; going back as far, or farther, than the origin of the Hero Tale; but I might submit that to be the point.  The Hero overcomes some obstacle, and that victorious struggle enables the tribe to survive.  In other words, WE have triumphed; THEY have NOT.  I don’t object to this as a literary device, I simply urge a little more sophistication and awareness upon us as writers.

A conflict in a story might be nothing more than a problem, seemingly insurmountable, that the protagonists must solve in order to attain their desires.  Nevil Shute, in his novel The Far Country, uses this device.  In The Far Country Jennifer Morton, visiting relatives in Australia, falls in love with the émigré Carl Zlinter.  Their problem, in one sense, is simple economics; Carl was a doctor in the German Army during World War II, but cannot be one in Australia unless he wants to redo his medical training, which is expensive.  Jennifer, the daughter of an English doctor, loves Carl and Australia after being exposed to both, but refuses to marry Carl because he is a very good doctor, and if she marries him before he can manage to get back in practice, he will never be able to do so.  This generates the conflict between them, and it is well and gently and elegantly done.

In essence it’s Romeo and Juliet, but without the bloodthirsty Capulets and the equally sanguine Montagues.  The conflict in that play is simply that which lies in a name.

Conflict, then, is as simple as what the protagonists want, and the obstacles existing to the attainment of that desire.  The action of the story is overcoming the obstacles.  One problem with the G vs. E conflict is that we’ve seen it so very, very, very often that for “good” to triumph in any credible manner, the poor beaten-up hero has to endure trials that would bring Superman to his knees.  Think of any of the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” movies and you’ll see what I mean.  If it strains credulity, then it also strains that “willing suspension of disbelief” that we as writers strive so hard to attain.

This is, however, a good segue into the “Know Your Audience” element.

As I have heard over and over and over and ad-nauseam over again from all sorts of writing coaches, publishers, editors and agents, a writer who hopes to be published has to know the audience he or she is targeting.  But push most of them to answer the simple, logical question, “Well, how do I do that?” and you get some such answer as “picture the person you want to read your book.”  OK, and I’m willing to admit I’m dense and maybe even a little literal-minded, but I don’t see that as anything other than a rephrasing of “know your audience.”

Perhaps we could just admit that this “rule” is more something that has crept in from the marketing department of the major publishers – you know, the ones who would rather you do their work for them, so that your book will fit their marketing research – rather than anything that has something concrete to do with actually telling a story.  It’s a hoary aphorism in marketing to define your “target market” and tailor your advertising accordingly.  Please don’t tell me I’m the only one to see the rather suspicious similarity to the “rule” requiring a writer to “know your audience.”

Look at it this way.  There’s another aspect to “know your audience” which I have never – and I mean not ever, not once in forty-odd years – heard anyone mention: its fine to know your audience, but a good story is a good story is a crossover story that transcends genre and target markets.  What about J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series?  They might be targeted for the Young Adult market, but it was the cross-market appeal that made them runaway best sellers.  A good and well-told story will eventually find an audience.

Look at it this way: whether expressed as “target marketing” or “know your audience,” the principle translates into expectations of behavior based on assessments of a sample population whose completeness we cannot know, not with any certainty.  Recall how many publishers turned down J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before Scholastic picked it up; this was a good story well told; so my suspicion is that turning down the story was based on it not fitting any of the marketing research done at the time.  “Know your audience” is an aphorism for making some rule-of-thumb assumptions that sometimes work extraordinarily well and sometimes fall flat as a cow patty.

That being said, maybe we could think of the relationship between “genre” and “know your audience.”  Genres exist in the first place because a significant number of people – which is, ahem, nothing more than the sample population listed above – like that genre.  “Romance” novels are a great example, if only because as a genre label “romance” is almost useless nowadays without a qualifier, such as “paranormal romance” or “historical romance.”  How these sub-genres emerged in their own right involved the discovery that significant numbers of readers liked stories written in that vein, which only goes to prove my point.

Since all I know about the romance genre is what I’ve learned from my significant other, I’m going to look at the audience that might read an aviation story.

In one sense you can think of aviation stories as techno-thrillers, and I’ve read novels that were pretty much that.  Dale Brown’s Flight of the Old Dog is one such, and almost any military aviation novel with any pretense to accuracy and realism written since 1984, when Tom Clancy essentially defined the techno-thriller genre with The Hunt for Red October, has to adhere to those standards.  Being military or ex-military gives one a real edge in that sort of writing – unless, like Clancy, you’ve studied the subject for years.

But let’s consider aviation stories that are concerned a little less with the gadgets and a little more with the people involved.  Essentially, any flying story set between 1914 and 1954 could qualify.  Nonetheless when I write an aviation story, I’d be well advised of two things that concern my potential audience: first, anyone with any aviation background whatsoever is going to be hypercritical of the technical aspects of what I write, and second, the overwhelming majority of the population isn’t going to have a clue to what I’m talking about in a technical sense.  Writing to either audience in this case means the same thing: write accurately and knowledgeably and incorporate technical details into the course of the story, informing without necessarily teaching, just like in hard science fiction.  Almost invariably when pilots talk about aviation fiction, its quality is judged less by story than technical content.  Contrarily, non-pilots will be more interested in the story, but also want technical content that “puts them in the cockpit” without bogging the story down.  So there’s a constant tension between the two that the aviation fiction writer must be aware of – and this is part of “knowing your audience.”

Aviation stories are about pilots flying airplanes that take those pilots to the very limit of what those pilots can bring to the airplane in terms of skill, knowledge and courage.  In an aviation story, quite often, the only conflict is within the pilot himself.  In a movie, we might see the beads of sweat on the pilot’s face, or his face contorted with fear, or the grunts of effort as he strives to haul back on the stick – but the challenge for the writer as storyteller in this genre probably goes back further than the Epic of Gilgamesh: whether a man strives within himself to bring out the will that means victory or survival, or strives with another, the challenge for the writer is to show a victory that does not seem foreordained, i.e.,  a mere decision by the storyteller that the Hero Shall Prevail.  We live in an uncertain world.  I once had a flight instructor who told me he’d rather be lucky than skilful, since luck can save you when skill will not; but in a story this comes under the category of “coincidence” which tends to appear suspicious in the eyes of our readers unless done (ahem) with skill.

Then there’s another problem: for those of us who are already in aviation, “love” is almost invariably a part of the process.  Sometimes that love goes so far back that one might wonder if there’s something genetic about it.  My parents, for example, argued about whether or not my first word was “airplane” or “light” – but both agreed that at the time I spoke my first word I was pointing my chubby little baby finger at an airplane’s running lights in the night sky.

I am not alone in this, by the way, but as a writer it brings up another problem: you can talk to those who share your love, and achieve comprehension among them in a few dozen words of matters of surprising technical complexity.  But what about people who know nothing about aviation?

I’ll give you an example.  I’ve worked as a tour guide in at least three different museums in the course of my life.  Two were aviation museums.  It is unusual, but not unknown, for adults to look at an airplane and say something on the order of: “Now…that long thing coming out of the thing in the middle…ah…is that the wing?”

It’s extraordinarily difficult for me to realize it’s possible not to know something so wholly fundamental and elementary.  But therein lies a caution on writing the aviation story:  even someone who has wings in their heart begins without any other knowledge.  I have seen the knowledge of that love dawn in a child’s eyes, looking at a particular airplane, and I have told their parents, be careful, because airplanes are like malaria, the disease might go into remission but it never, ever leaves you.  And I have seen people who look at an airplane, from something as beautiful as a Supermarine Spitfire or as historically significant as a Douglas DC-3, and scratch their heads, and visibly if nonverbally wonder what the hell the fuss is all about.

Someone at that level of ignorance is probably not going to be your audience, but you can never know that.  But this goes back to the tension raised by level of detail in your story.  In an aviation story, “level of detail” might be directly proportional to the level of the reader’s own knowledge.  The experienced fighter pilot, reading my account of a fictional air battle, might scoff at me for the detail I leave out, where the average reader who just likes airplanes would be thrilled.  So a happy medium may not be available, but therein lies the tension of the question for the writer.

So my conclusion is relatively simple.  In knowing your audience, be very careful to distinguish between the “genre” aspect and the “marketing” aspect of the term.  If you write within a genre you’ve defined your audience, but it may be that that is only the first step.  As illustrated above, each genre has its own audience at varying levels of sophistication, which in itself may raise difficulties for the writer.  As writers we are better able to solve those problems if we know about them.

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Filed under Tom Learns His Craft, Writing, Writing as Business