Editor’s Pick
MARCH 19, 2012 9:54PM

What's Really Wrong with "John Carter"

Rate: 18 Flag

  A Princess of Mars

 

 

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.

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So sorry to read this. I was looking forward to that but now I guess not.
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I was planning to see this last Tuesday with some friends. Sickness, and poverty, prevented me. Now I feel better about missing it.

I suspect the whole reason Disney made this film was that the Burroughs books were something they could own. In their history, they made so many stories from "classic" books because their authors were dead and couldn't protest what Disney would do to them.

From the trailers, it looks like Disney fell into the SpielBay trap; continuous, nonsensical, psychotic action sequences. It doesn't help that it was in eye-straining 3D. The cost differential between flat and 3D is becoming critical in this expensive era, and the insistence that theaters have to run 3D (to pay for their expensive equipment) is killing attendance.

Disney losing $300 million - an amount that might have bought its theme park "cast members" some reasonable medical care - suggests that Disney executives have lost their company's old virtue of economical filmmaking. Why was that big a budget necessary? Why is Disney spending $215 million for their Johnny Depp Lone Ranger movie, which sounds like a laughing stock even before the trailer's been released? Have they all been sniffing Disneydust?
Steve, thanks for your great insight into how much more interesting and moving the film could have been. My wife, who hasn't read "A Princess of Mars" saw the film over the weekend and enjoyed it. It definitely captured her imagination and has enough of the drama you describe so that she is still thinking about it and discussing it.
Thanks for revealing the emperors' bare-assed blunder.
Steve, one additional point is how similar the reaction to John Carter is to that of Heaven's Gate. You have interesting points about the artistic decisions made in the film. But the movie itself is relatively good (in my wife's opinion) and for many the crime has become the studio spending too much money as with Heaven's Gate. Some film critics came back years later and said they over criticized Heaven's Gate at the time of its release. They also managed to ruin Michael Cimino's career...
I devoured ERB's Mars series as a kid when I was working my way systematically down the shelves of our tiny local Carnegie library. When I married, my husband came with a set that still sits on our bookshelves. He was eager to see the movie, although we don't go to many, and when we left "John Carter," we reminded each other why we don't. It's not possible to put as much into a movie as fits in a book and a reader's imagination.

Burroughs was subtle in a way that doesn't translate easily into the 21st century, and the movie didn't bother to try. Sure, they're dated, and that's part of the beauty: looking forward through the eyes of the past. Stanton would have done far better to make a movie for those of us who read the books when we were younger than to try to turn it into a poorly done (albeit very expensive) modern reimagining. Bleh.
Steve: There's only one movie-book critic as good as you: Anthony Lane at the New Yorker. Love to see you in this role at some hot- shot pub. I'll sign up, and watch your interviews on Charlie Rose.

As a young man, my dad--no literary maven--started collecting ER Burrough's books. He ended up with all of them, including a number of first editions. I recall--I was just a kid--one day when he and my grandfather telephoned Burroughs, then went out to visit him in Tarzana. No idea what their motivation was. Seems that the famous author was as casual and as "country" as they were. They came back even more smitten. I have no idea what happened to that collection.

Anyway, please do keep cranking out your great stuff.
This was a meaningful review. I have not read the books, so if I did see this, I would just be experiencing it at face value. I appreciate and admire your conclusion about the writer of the series and those who would "fix" the work for the screen. It is telling.
I only saw the trailer, but the movie looked like a 1960s Hercules epic with computer affects. And maybe that's why it's such a bomb.
Exellent book to film comparison. Burroughs' Mars novels are highly imaginative, colorful, and, as you point out, not in the least bit confusing. They should have been easy to adapt to film, and for far less than $250 million for one film.
I saw the movie. I tried to read Burroughs, but never could. I'm a novelist and all that plot and so little character doesn't entice me. It is probably because I don't take the genre seriously, and mostly go for the visual effects, that I was surprised by the movie and not disappointed. If only these guys would take the hint, and not keep taking themselves so damn seriously, I think their movies would be more successful. The audiences are starting to grow up (a little) especially since its become so saturated. Next comes MIB 3, and I think the question once again will be whether it can be as funny as the others, not the effects, or plotting. We've seen it all by now and it ain't enough.
nice review mr fan boy ... & I really commend you for reading the original material ... but it just looks like its gonna be a rare event that there will be big tentpole scifi movies. [even just tentpole movies are starting to fade it seems]. lets face it, star wars & star trek mined out more than 50% of the material easily, and then add to that all the odds & ends other movies like ET.... [oh yeah, lord of the rings with the beasts etc...] it looks to me also like the tentpole movies brought in audiences based on never-before-seen cgi, which now is more like just-seen-last-movie. so I guess we can look back fondly on the golden days of film/bigscreen scifi, but it just might just be fading the same way the pulps did decades ago. which by the way, burroughs was clearly in that era.
so dude, the idea that the director messed up the material I think is just completely offbase .... this kind of material just doesnt resonate with audiences any more. I suspect the movie would have bombed even harder if stanton hadnt been at the wheel.
theres nothing novel in all that material-- any more... [at the time, decades ago, Im sure it was brilliant]. burroughs should certainly not be unhappy though because probably 90% of his ideas saw the screen-- just not in his own movie first, haha. one of the great writers whose work was appropriated by everyone else to massive effect.
oh and by the way, its interesting to contrast this movie with Tron. Tron was a big bet for disney that did mostly pay off. I thought it was a pretty decent movie, despite having a weak middle section that was devoid of much action. and Im glad it shows that a big scifi movie can still have legs. did you review it? maybe you could add a link to that if so. I heard they invested so much in the movie because they needed to create new branding/merchandising opportunities eg disney rides, mugs, etcetera. which seems to be their motive behind this john carter thing as well. I cant imagine Stanton asking for that much money. and strangely he is probably right now knocking himself in the head because he didnt talk them down on the budget, haha. a strange position to be in. it was maybe a decent $50M movie. but not a $250M movie. so yeah some executives are probably gonna be asking for money on streetcorners after this, but maybe there is still a market for big scifi movies.... disney just needs to make 'em more "cyber" than "dinosaur".
As someone who has read the Barsoom books and seen the movie, I was disheartened to see the comments below of readers opting to not see John Carter in the theater. At the least, they do themselves no favors and at the most, they will miss out on an excellent film.

In an interview, Andrew Stanton talks about how he and Michael Chabon approached the material. He made the good point that the John Carter books are essentially set on the premise that Carter starts from point A and then goes to Point B and then on to Point C and so on. Which makes sense, as well, since it was originally published as a serial. You might say that it's a journey, but not something necessarily plotted out, much less designed for a two hour movie.

Rather than criticize the film maker, I think, after seeing the movie that he accomplished in capturing the spirit and sense of adventure prevalent in the novels. The sacrifices made while seemingly painful to those in love with the material are none which sink the effort. By the end of the credits, I definitely was ready to return to Barsoom.
I never read the John Carter books but read ever last Tarzan one and thoroughly enjoyed them. I've had no interest in seeing the movie but I'm glad to have read your persuasive analysis of what it got wrong.
Was the movie too faithful to the books? I dunno. I look at the problems of the movie - the fact that it opens with three separate unrelated and disconnected prologues, that's not in the book. The main protagonist is a dickhead, nope, that's not in the book at all. The lead female character, despite superficial positive character traits is essentially a brat, that's not in the book either. The fact that the third act is a truncated mess? Nope, that's not the book's fault. The fact that the main villains, the Therns are arbitrary and directionless? Nope, they're not even in the book. The truth is that the movie's problems belong to the movie. Yes, there's a genuine attempt to be reasonably faithful to the book, but that's no sin, and to tell you the truth, it doesn't cause any real problems. The truth is that the movie diverges readily and easily from the Book at any and every point it wishes, from the set up of the narrative, to the characterizations, to the progression of events. The reality is that the movies failures have two sources: Stanton/Chabon who repeatedly made bad artistic choices, along with the good ones, and who sabotaged their own material. These guys were quite free to do as they wished, it wasn't as if Edgar Rice Burroughs was going to climb out of the ground and bitch slap them. They did what they wanted, sometimes it just didn't work. The whole first act is a mess because of choices they made. The second fault was Disney, whose entire promotion and marketing was unquestionably the worst I've ever seen.
The comparison of JC with Heaven's Gate is quite appropriate. As a film, JC stands on its own as a hokey piece of cinematic candy....not to be taken seriously, only enjoyed. The entire Barsoom series was tongue in cheek to begin with, as was everything else ERB wrote. He wrote for younger people in a simpler world, a place that's nice to visit to escape from today's complexities. When we saw the film SHMBW and I agreed that it was a fun film, and those are far and few between. Who wants logic when you are talking civilizations on a virtually airless, waterless world to begin with? It was a good film and people who don't see it are missing a fun event.
Kudos to you, sir. I bet 99% of the folks at Disney who worked on "John Carter" didn't read the original source material.
Hi! I'm going to respectfully disagree. I saw the movie and it was quite good. It was not difficult to follow at all. The characters were engaging the changes to DJ were both welcome and necessary. I have not read the whole series, but just the first book. I did not find the book particularly engaging and I think that the filmmakers took necessary liberties with some of the material to put together a movie of sufficient scope. I do agree that some of the things that were not properly played up, like Carter's kindness to Woola and what that meant, was something that should have been better developed, but this is a relatively small criticism.

To me, what is interesting is that,to my mind, much of the critical drubbing of this film is highly undeserved. I'm struck by the sense that critics made up their minds about this film long before seeing it. I just wonder why. The film has its flaws, but not nearly as many as has been commonly asserted.
My family and I go to the movies - a lot - and not even the rippling muscles of the leading man (name?) could entice us. "John Carter" looked like a yawner from the start. We feel the same about most of the cheesy fantasy flicks out there. We didn't feel the same about "Avatar." From the moment we saw the poster we were intrigued. And we've enjoyed the "Harry Potter" and "Percy Jackson" franchises. I think it might have to do with making a series culturally relevant, as you alluded to in many points of your excellent critique. On another note, we're looking forward to seeing the 3D version of "Titanic" in a few weeks.
snarine -- I take your point, but I assure you I had no grudge or preconceived notions going in to this movie. I love Michael Chabon, for one thing, and couldn't imagine he'd screw this up. But I kept saying -- "Wait --! Hold on you didn't ... but what about --? No, no, what's with the moons and the Therns and ,,, where's the air factory and why is Dejah Thoris such a drip? The movie had its moments -- the first meeting with Tars Tarkas felt like the real thing. But for the most part -- meh. I'm glad you liked it.
Stanton was talking up a sequel, but if you've read The Gods of Mars (John Carter II in Disney world) you know that his whole Therns-as-shape-shifting-all-knowing-dieties stuff is totally unsustainable. Besides ... what would politically correct Disney do about the Black Pirates of Barsoom? Sounds like racial profiling to me ...
I found "John Carter" to be decent entertainment. Not a great film, but worth watching, even though it did strike me as a kind of mashup of "Avatar," "Dune" and even "The Phantom Menace," acknowledging, of course, that "John Carter's" source material came long before those three other films.

My guess is that "John Carter" will recup its losses on DVD.
What I find most sad is that Hollywood still thinks great storytelling needs "dressing up"...And just at the time when special effects can make so much of the writer's imagination just blossom on the screen. What a waste of another great tale!
That's what happens when your movie is designed by a committee with a collective low opinion of its customers.
it brings a sour taste in one's head a movie like this! about two centuries out of date for starters. Must be all that clean living in Disneymanically Inc. If you want great retro sci fi go for Clarke Ashton Smith.
So, basically it just sucks?
Excellent commentary. I already saw it, so I did my part to support Disney. I found it charming in a old-meets new SF way. Now I have to go back and download all 2000 pages of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. That should keep me happy for a great while. (P.S. I liked Mars Attacks. Campy and bizarre, but what do I know?)
i left a comment (i thought) days ago when i read this and rated it, but it was from my ipad and maybe it didn't stick. rats. anyhow, glad you got an EP and it's getting all these views, steve. xo
David Axelrod, you're just plain wrong about so many points. Where to begin? the relationship between Carter and Woola? the same, except in the film Cater gains Woola's loyalty by defending him against the Tharks. The father daughter relationship between Sola and Tars Tarkas, and why it's unique among Thark culture? Clearly explained in the film, the difference being that the film ddidn't get sidetrack with a long explanation. "Dejah Thoris is no science geek"? I think you need to go re-read a "Princess of Mars" there, Sparky.

"And the nature of your expedition?" he continued.

"It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father's father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests," replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice. -ERB, A Princess of Mars

...and Dejah Thoris has been portrayed as more of a heroic warrior woman since the Marvel comics from the 70s. There was really nothing new here as far as that's concerned.

You got the Therns wrong, as well. In the film, they're not omnipotent. That's clearly shown when Carter kills one early in the film, and re-emphasized repeatedly throughout. They depend on 9th Ray technology to maintain their dominance over Martian society, knowing full well that if such technology were discovered then their supremacy could be challenged. That's why they sabotage Dejah Thoris' research and put the technology in the hands of someone whom they can easily control. The stuff about their religion being a sham? As you well know, that wasn't introduced until the second or their installments. Why put all your eggs in one basket.

I could go on and on, but the point is, I didn't find any of this stuff particularly hard to follow, beither did any of my friends who saw the film, many of which had not even read Burroughs. I can olny assume that because you found the narrative "jumbled and confusing" menas that you simply weren't intellegent enough to follow it. Trust me, it really wasn't that hard.
Amster ... for a person with the prodigious mental agility to follow an Edgar Roice Burooughs story, you seem oddly unable to keep up with the basic material in my post Excuse the insufferable condescension: tit for tat.
First of all, Dejah Thoris inm the movie is a science-fair inventopr wannabe, trying to hatrness the rays with some machine of her own devising. That's what I meant by science geek. And the problem with Tars Tarkas and Sola wasn't that oit was 'unclear': baldly stated exposition out of context can usually claim clarity, if nothing else. The book dramatized this material, and that makes all the difference. Some study of the difference between 'explanation' and 'drama' might help sharpen your thinking, Sparky. If I may call you that. And I was dead right about the Therns and you're dead. wrong. They don't control the other Martians because of some advanced technology -- just the opposite. They control the other Martians through the power of senseless superstition. The movie made them into shape-shifting demons ... as if the film-makers had bought the same load of BS as the citizens of Barsoom. And don't blame me for stuffing them into the wrong installment -- the film-makers pulled that trick.

Finally, a close look at the text of my post will reveal that I did NOT find the story jumbled and confusing. That was a critique I saw in various reviews. The whole point of my essay was to praise the exhilarating, straightforward clarity of the text.

Oh, and my name is Steven, not David.
I actually use my real name when I write.
Hmm. So - I guess I won't be looking forward to any Lensman flicks. Too bad.

" I downloaded the whole series of five novels "

Oh, dear. There's more than five, and maybe that was one of the problems. We've had creaky old Burroughs adaptations for a while (anyone else recall "At the Earth's Core"?) that didn't require $200M worth of CGI. But let me go in a parallel direction: look at HG Wells and "First Men in the Moon". The novel is an obviously political tract. BUT - get Quatermass auter Nigel Kneale to handle the screenplay, and stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen to handle special effects, and you get a great Saturday matinee flick. No, it isn't an "Important" movie, but "John Carter" should never have been allowed to bloat into something it was never intended to be. IF, I said IF, son, they wanted a franchise, they needed to chop this mess up and dish it out more carefully.
i came to ERB too late. after reading Asimov, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Leiber and Clarke among others. the prose, imagery and world view seemed old timey and completely out of date to me. it was like watching Steamboat Willie after viewing the Incredibles or even a couple of Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Mmmmmm! Steamboat Willy!
I really enjoyed this movie. Not having read the source material I had not pre-conceived ideas of what it should be like. Found the whole adventure quite entertaining, nothing to fault the cgi either. And the ending was a great surprise as well. In the end felt for John Carter's struggle to find his way back to Mars to be with his 'martian' wife. Would be very interested to see what has transpired while he was away...