Superman. Flash Gordon. Star Wars. Avatar. These characters/films share a common ancestry through Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic novel A Princess of Mars. The creators of these and so many others at some point in their lives picked up this story and were absorbed into the world of Barsoom, introduced to a man named John Carter, a man transported to a world apart to have adventures the likes of which no one had ever seen. The fantastical world created by Burroughs, as well as Carter as the ultimate hero, inspired 100 years of film and storytelling, though the original story itself did not come to the silver screen until 2012.
I was not familiar with the character nor the world of John Carter until I learned of Disney Studio’s film adaptation, directed by Finding Nemo (my review) and Wall-E director Andrew Stanton. I wasn’t much excited about the film until the month or so before its release, when the director began to tweet about it and retweet advance reviews and content regarding the film’s upcoming release, at which point I became very excited. Through the narrow tunnel I was viewing the film through, comprised of the director’s Twitter feed, I thought that the film was going to be a big success, with me even tweeting the following:
Okay. I have this gut feeling that John Carter is gonna be huge. I’ve read nothing but good advance reviews. I’m getting really excited.
— Chad Hopkins (@Chadadada) February 29, 2012
As the film’s release approached, my excitement grew and grew until…well, it flopped. John Carter, which had an estimated budget at a whopping $250 million, received negative reviews online in the week leading up to its release, with the critic consensus over at RottenTomatoes.com stopping at a 51% “rotten” rating. The film only opened to $30.6 million domestically in its first weekend, though it fared better overseas, earning $70.6 million outside of the US. Looking back now, though, the film has surpassed its production budget, with a total worldwide gross of $282,778,100. So why the bad reputation?
John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood by Michael D. Sellers
The film’s theatrical run came and went without me going to see it; my interest in the film had been stripped away by its poor reception and apparent status as “Disney’s biggest flop ever.” However, several months later, a good friend of mine who knows of my interest in film showed me that Amazon.com was offering a free Kindle edition of Michael D. Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, a book about the production of the John Carter film and why it failed the way it did. I figured that I’d go ahead and download it to read at a later point in time, but I actually forgot about it for quite a while until I randomly came across it on my Kindle Touch a few weeks ago. Since I alternate between non-fiction and fiction books, I put it next in my queue, expecting it to be mildly interesting at best. When I finally picked it up, though, I was completely absorbed.
Sellers opens the book by admitting his own bias; he has been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series all his life, saying that it was Burroughs’ writing that “gave [him] the confidence to pursue a life that has had its share of adventures and misadventures, first in service to [his] country, and later in pursuit of dreams that [he] believed in.” Throughout the book, his passion for the series and sincere hope that the film would do well on the big screen is incredibly evident, which makes the whole book endearing in a way. But, even more than his personal connection to the film, I found his extensive research to be exhilarating, with every detail scoped out and reviews and statements pulled from every corner of the Internet, making the book seem like a very long and detailed dissertation – in a good way! Let’s walk through the contents of the book and what Sellers uncovered through his research.
Edgar Rice Burroughs had no experience in writing before he wrote A Princess of Mars, the first story about John Carter, for a pulp magazine in 1911. He simply needed money and thought that he “could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any [he] chanced to read in those magazines,” so he grabbed some paper and wrote, selling the story rights to All-Story Magazine, who published the story in serial form over several months. It proved to be immensely popular, so the author, who would also create the character Tarzan, followed the first story up with eleven more. Throughout his life, he tried and failed to bring his Barsoom series to film, but the technology of the time was simply not as capable as it needed to be in order to set a film on the planet Mars.
After Burroughs’ death in 1950, filmmaker Ray Harryhausen tried to bring John Carter to theaters, but even he, a Hollywood legend, was unable to convince others that it could be done despite the impossible setting. In the early 1960s, several of Burroughs’ works were republished in a sort of revival, with the stories even coming to Marvel Comics in the 1970s. This revival brought the property to the attention of filmmakers like George Lucas and James Cameron, both of whom would later borrow heavily from Burroughs’ universe in their films Star Wars and Avatar. It was partly due to this revival that the property first came to the attention of Disney in 1986. They purchased the film rights and began production, with producers set, screenwriters hired, and tentative casting of Tom Cruise as Carter and Julia Roberts as Dejah Thoris. When Cruise didn’t like the script, new people were brought in to rewrite it. At this point it was 1992, and the budget estimation was placed at $120 million, which would have made the film the most expensive ever made at that point. More rewrites were ordered, this time by George R. R. Martin (author of A Game of Thrones) and Melinda Snodgrass (who wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation). The project was scrapped, though, and the rights to the project reverted back to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. in 2000.
Paramount bought the rights to the books in 2001, but, long story short, that didn’t work out either, with the company giving up in 2006. At this point, Andrew Stanton, director of Pixar’s highly successful films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, became interested in making a film version. He had become acquainted with John Carter through the Marvel comics of the 1970s and also read the books, so, seeing that the rights were again available, he convinced then-Disney studio chief Dick Cook to purchase the rights and green light a film adaptation. Cook trusted Stanton and his track record, so he placed full control in Stanton’s hands.
Here’s a list of a few of the things that went wrong during the production of John Carter:
- Disney CEO fires Dick Cook (who greenlit the film) and several other key membrs of Disney Studios; Cook replaced by Rich Ross
- MT Carney hired as Marketing Chief by Ross, despite no previous experience with promoting films
- Ross decides to not offer John Carter full marketing benefits like he later would with The Avengers
- Social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter) not regularly updated or promoted
- Decision by Carney to remove “of Mars” from original film title, simply giving it the ambiguous title “John Carter“
- Awful trailers for the film; missed opportunities to bank on Stanton’s previous successes with Finding Nemo and Wall-E
- Failure to engage existing fan base in promotion of film
- Failure to debunk online rumors about swelled budget and reshoot schedule
- Film marketed more towards children than to a broader audience
That’s not a list of everything that led the film down the path it took, but those were some of the major decisions made (or not made) by Disney that helped contribute to the film’s ultimate failure. During production, Sellers did what he could as a fan of the original Burroughs books to promote the film by creating TheJohnCarterFiles.com, contacting Disney directly with ideas to engage the ERB fan base, and making a couple of fan trailers by compiling clips from Disney’s awful “official” trailers. While he did have success with his site and his trailers caught the attention of Andrew Stanton himself, none of it was enough to put the film on a more successful path. It seemed that Disney had not even given the film a chance despite highly successful early test screenings and the track record of Stanton.
So, that’s the history behind the film. Halfway through the book, or maybe even earlier than that, my interest in the film and the series on which it was based grew to such a high level that I decided that I would jump straight into Burroughs’ Barsoom as soon as I could. Sellers’ descriptions of A Princess of Mars, as well as the incredible stories of fan dedication to ERB and his work, convinced me that this was something worth looking into and checking out for myself, so I purchased the first seven books of the eleven-book Barsoom series by Burroughs and dove right in.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The first thing I noticed about this book while reading is the way Burroughs writes. His sentence structure, choice of words, and descriptive prowess all join together beautifully to form sentences that are almost romantic in their presentation; that is to say, not “lovey-dovey” romantic but expressive and artistic. All of these wonderfully composed sentences build into a story that carries with it the largeness of the world and the larger-than-life qualities of the characters within it.
John Carter is the ultimate “good guy”; his intentions are all noble, he always strives to do the right thing morally, and his abilities are such that he may struggle in a fight, but he always comes out on top. What more could you want from a good guy? And truthfully, it’s not so much that he is guaranteed victory but rather that he is guaranteed the opportunity for victory. His immense strength and superior endurance, as well as his previous wartime experience, give him an advantage over most opponents that he crosses paths with, but as his opponents grow more ferocious, the supposed assurance of success becomes less and less assured. He is not a flawed character, but, instead of detracting from his likability, it makes him more interesting. He’s a character of ultimate good, and reading about his outlook, his treatment of others, and his various adventures is always thrilling. The fact that the story is told from his perspective adds a layer of wonder to the book, with the reader experiencing and discovering Barsoom at the same time that Carter is rather than having it spoon fed to us by an exterior source.
The Tharks are probably the most interesting part of the story – a tribe of four-armed green Martians that stand fifteen feet tall. They hatch their young from eggs that are incubated over a period of several years, and, upon hatching, they are randomly divided among the women Tharks, who teach them how to speak and fight. They are a warlike tribe, but they have a strict code of honor that all must adhere to, making interactions between characters fascinating. The politics of the Tharks is interesting as well; when one kills another, the belongings and status of the dead one are transferred to his conqueror, a system that allows John Carter to rise in rank within this society in a short period of time. The Green Martians are typically an emotionless species due to the lack of personal relationships between anyone. They do not marry, nor do they love anyone at all, and even “friendship” is a term not used in their communities, so, when John Carter comes and displays signs of affection for animals, or friendship for Tars Tarkas, it is interesting to see how they all respond to it. The interactions between Carter and Tars Tarkas are probably my favorites of the book, even more so than those between Carter and Dejah Thoris.
Dejah Thoris, like Carter, is a pretty one-dimensional character in a way that makes sense for the genre, so it doesn’t take away from the quality of the story. She is described as incredibly beautiful, and it doesn’t take long for Carter to fall deep in love with her, and, likewise, her with him. Reading about his confusion in her mannerisms and unwillingness to flat-out share her feelings is entertaining because it is something that I’ve gone through before as well…who doesn’t want the object of your affection to express the same affection for you? The lengths to which Carter dedicates himself to a task for the protection of Dejah Thoris is what makes her character so wonderful; she is what Carter is fighting for throughout the book, she is his motivation to commit to fighting against such evils as the people of Zodanga and other enemies he comes across.
Perhaps the best part of the book is that it is simply immeasurably, impossibly fun. From the humor found in Burroughs’ description of Carter’s first attempts to walk on the surface of Mars to the swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-like fights between Carter and his adversaries to the classic tale of the fight for the right to true love, I enjoyed every step of the way through this book and am excited to read the following books in the series. Reading this book was possibly the most fun experience I’ve had while reading in several years. By the time I had finished, I was even more excited to see the film…how could a film based on something this great be anything short of amazing?
John Carter (2012)
Now that I’ve seen and greatly enjoyed the film, I simply can’t understand why it at least didn’t do well critically. Maybe my anticipation for the film gave me tunnel vision so that the only possible outcome was for me to love it, or maybe it was because I liked the book so much and was so willing to accept the changes from the source material. I don’t know for sure the reason, but I definitely liked this film quite a bit.
I must admit that the opening scene, referring to the scene with the Therns giving Sab Than of the Zodangans the weird “Ninth Ray” weapon, was pretty confusing because it wasn’t from the book. Sure, there is brief talk of the nine rays present on Barsoom, but they are not explained in detail and are certainly not used as weapons, nor are Therns present at any point in A Princess of Mars. Despite this, though, the film moves on pretty quickly to what is in the book, that being the news being delivered to a young Edgar Rice Burroughs that his dear uncle John Carter has just passed away. He is handed his uncle’s diary with instructions that he alone shall read its contents, and, with that, we are whisked into the past, where we meet John Carter, a Civil War veteran searching for gold.
The John Carter of Stanton’s film is unlike the Carter of the book in the sense that he is not a flawless hero. When we first see him, he is rude, rebellious, and selfish, disrespectful to authority, etc. All of this, while different from the book, is a means to an end; despite his character flaws, he is still a character with the same deep-down morals as his literary counterpart. These values emerge throughout the film as he’s faced with difficult choices at difficult moments, such as when he saves Colonel Powell from being killed by Indians despite the fact that he had just escaped from a cell where Powell had been keeping him in custody. There are other moments like this in the film, where Carter is faced with the decision to either do what he wants, what benefits him, or to do what is right and protect others. Obviously, he wouldn’t be John Carter if he didn’t go with the latter option. This alteration from Burroughs’ Carter is acceptable because it gives him character in a medium that desperately needs character growth for it to work. If Taylor Kitsch had played the Carter of the book, a man with zero character flaws or chances of defeat, the film would have done worse than it already did, so Stanton made a smart decision here, and Kitsch plays the role as written very well.
Another great deviation from the book is the character changes in Dejah Thoris. No longer seen as nothing more than the object of beauty, she is given the status of head scientist for the city of Helium, and she’s a pretty accomplished warrior as well. This gives the character a chance to have a more active role in the film, allowing her to be a part of the fight against Zodanga for the people of Helium. Despite the character changes, Lynn Collins is still quite beautiful as the princess, so that quality from the book is still present here.
The visuals of the film are incredible, with the use of real-world locations grounding it a bit. However, that doesn’t stop the creatures who inhabit Barsoom, namely the Tharks and Carter’s pet calot, Woola, from being appropriately “out of this world.” The design of the airships used by the Heliumites and Zodangans, though possibly not in line with how Burroughs originally described them (I pictured giant, flying pirate ships while I read), works here because it brings the technology into the 21st century; what’s more “out of this world” from 19th century America than 21st century America? All of the special effects are flawless, with the design of the Tharks being a great example. Because they were filmed using motion capture on actors wearing stilts, the facial expressions and movements of the Tharks are quite realistic, and Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas is one of my favorite aspects of the film.
There were certainly aspects of the book that I think could have worked really well in the context of the film, particularly the story being told from Carter’s point of view, the idea of discovering the world along with him. There are two scenes in the film that feature voice-overs from Kitsch, both being moments when the young Edgar Rice Burroughs is reading from Carter’s diary. During these scenes, we hear the diary being read aloud by Carter, giving us plenty of exposition. It may not have actually worked in the film, which is why I’m not upset that it wasn’t utilized, but I think that there were definitely moments when maybe a montage of time spent with the Tharks could have been compiled, featuring a voice-over detailing Carter’s experience. Like I said, this may not have worked, and I liked the way the film approached the storytelling regardless, so it’s not a strike against it. I can also understand why the episodic nature of the book, which I really liked, was not carried over into the movie; A Princess of Mars is more like a series of short stories, each with its own mission and antagonist, which can be attributed to the fact that it was originally serialized in a magazine. The lack of a central antagonist or villain in the film, though, might have caused unnecessary confusion, so it makes sense that Stanton consolidated bits of the story for the purpose of centralizing one general plot.
Michael Giacchino’s score is fantastic as per usual, with it definitely being in the same vein and style as John Williams’ scores to Lucas’ Star Wars saga without ripping it off. It has all of the grandeur of the planet and the adventure at hand, but it also captures the more intimate moments, such as the scene at the Temple of Issus or the interactions between Carter and Dejah Thoris. He utilizes the choir especially well, with the wide range of possibilities of the voice being used in several different styles, from ethereal to warlike to romantic to adventurous. Giacchino has always been a master of diversity and variability, with his ability to both broaden and focus his music to encompass large, epic moments on the screen or to focus onto the smaller moments with the use of only a small handful of instruments.
Ock, Ohem, Oktei, Wies, Barsoom!
My adventures on Barsoom have been quite a fantastic experience for me. I never expected to like this universe or this character as much as I do, but Burroughs created a world that I was all too happy to be sucked into with zero resistance at all. His world is built with beautiful complexity and a rich culture that is so different from our own that reading about it is an incredible pleasure, and the characters are wonderfully fun to read about. Michael D. Sellers’ book managed to give me a peek into Burroughs’ world, just enough of a peek to make me curious and draw me in. A Princess of Mars is one of the most fun books I’ve ever read, so I can’t recommend it enough, and Disney’s John Carter film, while not perfect, is a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable adaptation that is given a lot more bad criticism than it deserves. I promise that, if you give it a chance, you’ll have at least a small amount of fun…hopefully more, because I had a blast.
All sources used in writing this post have been linked to within the post itself. For individual, less-detailed reviews of each of these items, as well as the ratings I gave them, follow these links:
Thank you for reading! I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it! I’d love to hear your opinion of John Carter, and I’d also love to have your feedback! What other kinds of posts would you like to see here on ChadTalksMovies?