Walt Disney announced a $200,000,000 write down on their calamitous flop John Carter today, and all over Hollywood pundits and producers are scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened. The consensus seems to be that Andrew Stanton (Pixar golden boy director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E) was too faithful to the corny and cliché source material. His love of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels blinded him to their confusing narratives, over-the-top characters and penny-dreadful melodrama. As a result he made a movie that would have wowed the rubes in 1912; a hundred years later it all feels as dull and creaky as a rusty horse drawn carriage. It’s not even steam punk, though modern weaponry seems to co-exist with broadswords on the Mars of this movie. Steam requires heat and the punks are all watching Chronicle and downloading the new Shins album.
Allow me to disagree.
Unlike most of these reviewers, I’ve actually read the books. Anticipating the film, I downloaded the whole series of five novels (more than 2000 pages) onto my Nook for a couple of dollars, which has to be one of the best bargains ever. I read them the way a kids eats Halloween candy, chugged them like a marathon runner chugs Gatorade. And here’s my report from the front lines of actual reading and the prime source of the books themselves.
The books are good. They’re huge enthralling silly fun and yes they’re corny by that gee-whiz turn-of the last-century American go-getter optimism creates a consistent and charming tone. Many of the tropes Burroughs invented have been ripped off, or ‘anthologized’ by generations of filmmakers, most notably in recent years, Lucas, Spielberg and Cameron. The auteur of Avatar even admitted he was making ‘an Edgar Rice Burroughs movie’. What none of these directors have managed to duplicate or purloin is the tone of Burrough’s breathless prose. And no one has fallen so far short as Andrew Stanton. Apparently his love for the material is sincere; all the more baffling that he would betray it so artlessly. The list of blunders is endless, but you can start withg that “jumbled, confusing narrative” that all the critics complained about. No one ever complained about the jumbled narrative in a Burroughs novel. And one ever called Tchaikovsky “tuneless”.
The Barsoom novels plots move straight ahead at rocket speed. John Carter finds himself on a strange world and wins it over utterly. That would be a quick blurb. He is captured by the giant green skinned Tharks and becomes close friends with their leader; he is assigned a vicious guard dog who he befriends with a few strokes and kind words. Soon the ferocious Woola is nuzzling him and defending him with the whole of its crazy, ten-legged armor-plated pug’s body and soul. Carter treats the Thoats the same way. The Thark beasts of burden are just big horses to him, and he loves horses -- he's a cavalryman back on Earth. He’s also the first creature who has ever treated one of them with kindness. Tharks just beat their mounts into submission – and as a result, the beasts are almost as dangerous as the enemy, apt to turn on their riders at any time. The loyalty these animals feel for Carter is another part of his legend among the peoples of Barsoom. Of course, none of this lovely material makes into the movie. There’s a CGI Woola, but no explanation for his bond with Carter. The whole loveless collective world of the Tharks – kids are hatched from eggs and never even know their parents – is side-lined .. which makes the one enduring child-parent bond, between leader Tars Tarkas and his daughter Sola, almost completely meaningless in the dusty swirl of computer generated swordplay and bloodshed.
Many of the big changes from novel to film struck me as cowardly. The idea of Dejah Thoris (the Princess of Mars herself) being an old fashioned 'damsel in distress' must have seemed too hokey and politically incorrect. So the film makes her into some kind of science geek who hides her true identity. Dejah Thoris is no science geek, fellas. And she would never, not for one second, have hidden her true identity.
But that's not all. You can almost see the executives sitting around saying, “All the air is on the planet is supplied by some big factory? And -- let me get this straight … the only way in or out of the place is some bizzaro nine-part mental mantra that opens the doors … right, because everyone’s psychic on goofy world. And Carter just happens to figure out this brain wave deal and manages to save the whole planet in the nick of time by getting into the factory –or something? Come on. And I thought the sparkly vampires were weird.”
Well, sorry, studio guy. The sparkly vampires did okay, and the air factory was a lot cooler than the shape shifting whatevers that the film-makers jammed in there to explain everything that made no sense. These bald deus-ex-machina dudes are called Therns and they don’t appear in A Princess of Mars (kind of better title than the generic John Carter, but sales gurus had figured out that Mars as a setting was the kiss of death. Remember Mars Attacks! And Mars wants Moms? Well, science fiction itself was DOA until Star Wars came out, with all its tributes and homages to Burroughs. Ordinary people might say … if you think Mars is the kiss of death, don’t spend 250 million dollars setting a movie there.)
Anyway, the Therns are crucial to understanding just how cataclysmically these Burroughs fan-boys fouled things up. The movie would have you believe that the Therns are the ruthless omniscient Gods of the red planet, manipulating reality and men’s fate at their whim. Ironically, this is exactly what the Therns of the books want the denizens of Mars to believe. But they aren’t gods; they’re sadistic charlatans who use the gullible hapless Martians as their sacrifices and slaves. To go to the land of the Therns is essentially to cruise down the river Styxx: it means death and no one has ever come back from the Valley of the Dor. Well, no, because they’re captured, enslaved and frequently eaten by a barbaric cult of arrogant cannibals. If anyone ever does return from the Valley of the Dor they are killed as heretics. Martians would rather slaughter their own friends than take a moment to realize that the sin they want to kill them for completely refutes the whole crazy religion. All of this seems spectacularly apposite in the age of Santorum and the Evangelical Right. But there’s no sign of it in the Stanton’s pedestrian film.
There are many more examples, but I’ve made my point.
So what’s the moral of the story? It should be a sobering one to studio heads and film financiers, but a curiously heartening one for the average writer, peckng away at his computer in the small hours, after work. Because the simple astonishing fact is that one failed pencil sharpener salesman with a rickety manual typewriter and a ream of onion skin paper made a product infinitely more entertaining and satisfying, relevant and riveting than an army of journeymen with hundreds of million dollars to spend managed to do.
The result: in my mind the hurtling moons of Barsoom will always mean escape and freedom and adventure.
In the movie, the moons don’t even move.
I think that says it all.