A Tale of the Two Worlds of John Carter (The onscreen one, and the offscreen)

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From Adventures by Daddy by Dave Parfitt

Walt Disney Studios’ John Carter opened nationwide on Friday, March 9th, but it wasn’t until last weekend my family and I were able to see it.  Three weeks into its theatrical run, John Carter is clearly on life support – mortally wounded not only by Katniss’ arrow from The Hunger Games, but from Walt Disney Studios itself.  When my family of 4 entered the theater, we easily doubled the audience for that showing.  Disney’s John Carter is about a man transported from Earth to Mars.  However, those aren’t the two worlds I’m referring to in this review.  No, this discussion is centered on the on-screen world of John Carter vs. what went on off-screen.  Continue reading for more about John Carter’s tale of two worlds.

Director Andrew Stanton’s attempt to translate the 100 year old novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs “A Princess of Mars” to the screen was an incredibly ambitious one.  By now we all know (or at least we should know) that John Carter is a tale of a post-Civil War Confederate soldier mysteriously transported from Earth to Mars.  Once on Mars, John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) was adopted by one species of Martians – the 9 foot tall, 4 armed, green skinned Tharks, and Carter becomes embroiled in an age old Civil War between two clans of tattooed, red-skinned Martian Humanoids.  The film starts off with a long, expository scene on Mars telling the backstory of the war between the red-skinned Heliumites and Zodangans, and how another race called the Therns (possibly Martians, possibly from another world altogether) tips the balance of the war in the Zodangan’s favor.  Notice none of these races are the towering, 4 armed, Martian Tharks, they play another role in the war and John Carter’s development.  Confused?  You aren’t the only one.

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  • The reason why – for me at least – it seemed that Stanton, Chambon et al. made a more children/family friendly adaptation, has to do with the way that themes, characters and situations are dealt with. I was not referring to Disney’s obvious failure in marketing or lack of merchandising. That’s their loss. But the annoyingly childlike simplistic and superficial way the movie has been scripted. That’s unfortunately our loss.

    Here is just a couple of examples which made me grind my teeth:

    1. John Carter – tired war veteran, unwilling to fight for anyone

    He as been through a war and has lost his own family. The “War is a shameful thing” scene. Yet, he has no problem masslaughtering countless tharks a little bit later. First, he recognizes Dejah Thoris as “human”, he helps her because the battle doesn’t seem “fair”, but when she presents her case that her people and future of the planet is at stake, he doesn’t want to help, preferring his gold and post-war homeworld. I find it very hard to like or even relate to this character.

    2. The so-called “romance” between John Carter and Dejah Thoris

    There is no initial excitement, no buildup of tension, no flirtation, no courtship, nothing is at stake. Still, he proposes marriage at the end of the movie. What??? He could just as easily have shaken her hand! The extremely few encounters, utter pittens, which I find VERY hard to classify as romantic, are clumsy situations where our protagonist’s emotional range is from catatonic to standing looking goofy. Although, one could say that some tension is suggested in these scenes, there is a hell of a long way to go from tension to proposing marriage. Well, maybe he “jumped” over that part too 🙂 All this from a broken war veteran who had lost his family with kids.

    The directing/scripting reeks of incompetence. It is sad, the movie had such promise.

  • Tom Christensen said:
    “It seems that Andrew Stanton and the scriptwriters development has focused on making a adaptation strictly for small children.”

    There seems to be something true about this. Well, they should have known that such a limited adaption (moreover rated PG13) would never recoup the cost.

    Btw, I read the comment of a father who almost had to force his 8-year-old son to view the movie. The boy just didn’t want to see it. Apart that sometimes children react to their parents’ over-excitement, I think there was really something that didn’t work in the promotion to children.

    In another post I have already pointed out, how the ship design wasn’t appealing to collectors and little boys. Actually they didn’t even try to merchandise them, but I thinks it’s also due to the difficulties in reproducing those dragonfly wings. A compacter “real-ship” design would have had much more chances and appeal.

    Then I’ve come across another strange miss: the fact that they didn’t use the little tharklings in the trailer. Writing my script I’ve discovered that they can be used to much more extense, which could have been really appealing to children.

    Here is a little scene to showcase how:

    KANTOS KAN: Where is my flier? I must hurry to bring the message and mobilize our fleet.
    Lorquas Ptomel leads him outside, where his flier is crammed in a corner, all covered with dirt and excrements from a group of little Tharks carelessly playing around. Kantos Kan has a moment of despair, but then he chases them away and cautiously cleans the seat with one hand, using the other to close his nose.
    KANTOS KAN: Dirty beasties!
    He jumps inside and starts the engine. Fortunately it’s still working and the flier lifts from the ground. He reaches down below between his feet and pulls out another Tharkling by the leg.
    KANTOS KAN: Not for you, bugger!
    He throws him overboard and takes off with the flier, laughing out loud while saluting.

  • To Paladin

    I agree that the scene was fun. I thought that too for a second and laughed. Now I remember even a similar one in a Joe Strummer b-movie where a guy enters a saloon, asking to join the gang, and instead of an answer the heroes draw their guns and shoot him down. It’s stupid, but you can laugh about it. As long as the guy has no importance in the plot nobody needs to care about him.

    In Sab Than’s case it’s different, because he is supposed to be in the film for another 110 minutes. And then applies what you can learn from Shakespeare: the first lines (or actions) of a character are always the most decisive, the ones that tell you where he is bound.

    Sab Than’s action was so destructive, because it revealed the Therns immediately as infinitively superior and thus it killed any possibility for a more intriguing interaction between Sab Than and Matai Shang. When I have two villains, I want to see them bickering, developing differing schemes against each other.

    There was one moment in the movie when Sab Than recovered a bit of autonomy. When he agreed to go to Helium without his army he showed some generosity and courage that made him look much more like a Jeddak. I have already praised that scene in my review (or the comments), but it came to late and it was flawed by the intro and the knowledge about the allmighty Therns. Indeed when you compare the two scenes you must conclude that one of the two should be considered “out of character”, unless we don’t want to admit that here is a real development. But as such it’s completely isolated.

    To Crustbucket

    Eternal love! The lust remains for Tal Hajus. In my script Sab Than has two weak points: his love for Dejah and his dependance on Matai Shang. The both combined will cause his fall.

  • It seems that Andrew Stanton and the scriptwriters development has focused on making a adaptation strictly for small children (botch job, IMO) and taking cliff notes from Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon movie from the 1980s. We are left with superficial and aloof circus act and taken for a ride with “locked in” characters following somewhat artificial created motives mixed with varius misguided attempts to counterweight the paramount lack of depth.

    Information overload? Nonsense, absolutely not! Dumbed-down and childish storytelling? Unfortunately, yes.

    Sadly for us, standing on the shoulders of giants has not helped Stanton, the screenwriters or Disney for that matter.

  • Peter-

    I was just teasing you in my last post, but it really is very strange — the things that bother you in the film are often things that I really enjoy, such as Sab Than immediately turning the weapon on the Therns.

    When you talk about ‘those corrupted by power’, it reminds me of people like Gaddafi or Assad, and thats exactly how I would expect them to react, just like Sab Than. Nobody’s mentioned that scene, but I especially loved that representation. I would guess that it could become a classic scene from this film.

  • To Paladin,

    the problem is not that people don’t understand the intro. The problems is that they don’t relate. Sab Than is depicted so brutally stupid that it’s p…ing you off, especially when he’s turning the weapon against those who just gave it to him.

    I’m currently writing an alternative script in which Sab Than’s first scenes (and last words) evidence how he is desperately in love with Dejah. All in all he comes out almost a lovable guy, if he wasn’t so corrupted by power.
    Now that would have been a real villain you can relate to.

    And where was Tal Hajus? This degenerated ruler, as Burroughs depicts him, would have been a tremendous villain and a challenge for any actor, even if he has only half a page in the novel. I’ve written him six lines that’ll send shivers down your spine. While in Stanton’s movie he is almost the same as Tars Tarkas, with the only difference that he doesn’t like Carter’s leaps.

    Tom, Bob and pascalahad sum it up right.

  • This is the only article ived seen that mentions “tv series” and 1 hour episodes, now thats something i`d discussed with a friend before either of us had seen it, food for thought?

  • There’s a real problem with the way the exposition is handled in the movie, the beginning, and especially the Thern temple scene that for me stopped the movie dead for a moment. A guy pretended to snore in the theater during this scene, and frankly I couldn’t blame him.

    That’s also why the movie improves on subsequent viewings, too. With all the informations understood, it’s easier to focus on the relationships and the way they unfold.

    In the end, I think the heart of the movie wins you over the awkward moments, but there was probably a way to present background informations in a more seamless manner. Unsurprisingly, I’m in favor for the way Burroughs presented them.

  • He should trusted the old master more and not felt that he had re arrange the stories to make them more interesting. The Therns and their machinations don’t even appear in POM. They are not introduced until the second book, Gods of Mars.

    The first story was this intergalactic romance adventure. More focused on John and Dejah falling in love against the dangers of this raging Martian civil war with a little third act crisis, after he got his leads together, with the failure of the atmosphere factory that could kill Dejah as well as everyone else on Mars. Much less political intrigue but much more human drama. Stanton, and nobody else, took this story to the place that favored these power monger plans over more time spent fleshing out the Tars/Sola and John and Dejah relationships. Might even had been a little time left for a couple of more sword fights !

    The first three books as written make a pretty terrific trilogy, with heartbreaking cliff hangers and epic battles. He should have trusted the old master BUT it was Disney’s epic failure of how to handle a property that you have invest 250M in and present this to the viewing audience that is beyond logic or comprehension.

  • I do not understand how people can not understand the intro to this movie. It’s not rocket science. It’s not hard to follow. You just sit back and Stanton takes you on a ride.

    Once again, I agree with Peter Weber’s girlfriend. She’s the one who should be posting comments on this John Carter fan site (instead of Kissinger).

  • I thought the introduction was waaaaay to long. The whole character intro and the scenes with Bryan Cranston just took up an unreasonable amount of time. I don’t get the “fact overload” criticism. In my opinion, Stanton wasted an unacceptable amountl of time on pointless subplots, bad pacing and lack of focus. Time which could have been used on >>CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT<< with focus on the relationship between John and Dejah, instead of the seemingly indifferent : "Hi, I'm John Carter. Even though I've just landed on another planet, have superpowers and have met a sexy princess, I'm depressed and I want to go home to my cave of gold, 'coz I've lost my wife and kids. On the other hand, I want to marry you!!!"

  • “even Stanton may still be learning, and it may be a lot easier to figure this out from the outside looking in, than the inside looking out.”

    It’s always easier to analyze and judge an intellectual work than imagine it and do it yourself. That’s why I prefer to work as an “improver” (as in my plays on Thucydides).

    “it may be that “regular” audiences have a tolerance for not understanding everything like Stanton suggests — but critics don’t?”

    This is a very interesting point that would explain a lot in this case. Indeed it’s really strange: we got a lot of technically bad movies that work quite well with the audience and then sometimes we have excellent movies that just don’t connect.

    As regards Stanton’s interview, I think it proves most of all that he himself is still confused about the dynamics of storytelling in “John Carter”. That’s not a good condition for a director. I really believe that they didn’t do enough effort to analyze the structure of Burroughs’ tale (which has been proved to be working for a century now). They were just too much into creating the fantastic creatures and all that bouncy stuff. And afterwards on how to explain all the outdated or unbelievable things like the teletransport. They did a tremendous job on this and so they thought they could drop the rest of Burroughs’ call. But unfortunately that was the magic core of it all.

  • I did a rough transcription of an audio interview where Stanton talks about this. This is almost word for word — done on the fly, though, so it’s kind of messy. He’s talking about how originally the opening was more complicated, with more going on, until after testing it they went with what you see now:

    i did come in with all guns firing and had too much information at the beginning. way more than what’s in their now i learned over the course of a year with the editor, there’s a different way to dole out this information. it’s only when you’re actually performing it that you learn how audiences are taking information or how the audiences aren’t, which is part of controlling the storytellings. when i can have a better understanding of when people want to know stuff, which tends to be in line with your main character, the more i can push tuff in order of when people are naturally asking these questions, the more exposition an be put in better order…….

    one of the things on the beginning … and it changed quite a bit … we cut it way down to this simple little opening hearing dafoe’s voice….and basically, …saying look it, there’s this place, and these guys, and these guys, and they don’ tike each other, and something weird happens. If you don’t remember anything else … we knew you’d see them again…..

    treat it almost how a little kid would treat a complicated conversation by adults — i don’t know what they’re talking about, but he’s mad at her….and it’s got to get resolved………

    I think that’s an interesting perspective ….. I just don’ know if it’s valid. One thing I keep thinking about is that they did all these test screenings and presumably if people hated it, they would have found out. But I completely agree that what it does is overload circuits — it may be that “regular” audiences have a tolerance for not understanding everything like Stanton suggests — but critics don’t? Critics figure that if they don’t get everything, there is something wrong with the film-making, rather than just saying – well, I got enough.

    In my own — admittedly humble (and humbling)–experience as a film-maker, my first lesson in my first film was: “no repeated beats, the audience gets more than you give them credit for”. Then in my next movie, the lesson was “don’t give the audience too much too fast; they get overloaded and tune out.” I’m not kidding — it was two completely different lessons from two films. So ….even Stanton may still be learning, and it may be a lot easier to figure this out from the outside looking in, than the inside looking out.

  • Please, take the viewer seriously! Dotar Sojat and pascalahad got it right: Burroughs’ exposition is very gradual, while Stanton’s introduction is just mind-filling. It’s the worst part of the movie and most responsible for its failure with the critics.

    I admit that I was a bit sceptic when I went to see the movie. I had read a number of critical or mixed reviews. At the same time I had really liked Disney’s free ten-minute intro. So I went to see John Carter with hope and a bit of mixed feelings. But after two minutes I thought, man, this is much worse than any of the critics told me! Then, as soon as the intro was over, it became very much better.

    When I asked my girlfriend, though, after the movie, she said that she was comfortable with the intro. Surely because she knew nothing of Barsoom before and maybe because she wasn’t flawed by the critics. She actually liked the film much more than Hugo (We saw them one after the other).

    In any case it would be interesting to know how “John Carter” works on new viewers without the intro.

  • Yeah, I don’t get the “I’m so confused!” complaints leveled at this film. Are our attention spans so short these days? We weren’t confused at all the names in “Star Wars” when it was released – and many of those names were derivative of Burroughs’ Mars tales. When going to the movies, calm down, sit back, shut up and enjoy the damn movie! How hard is it?

  • Another reviewer who was confused by the opening sequence. Can’t catch all those crazy Martian names thrown at you? I think there’s three: Helium, Zodanga and Sab Than. Yes, I can see where that would be confusing.

    Perhaps Adventure Daddy spent the first few minutes getting his children settled. Or — as I suspect with many of these confused people — simply walked into the film late.

    If you can follow the opening sequence of “Fellowship of the Ring” or “The Mummy” you should be able to follow the very simple (and comparatively brief) history lesson in “John Carter.”

    P.S. That photo on the banner — where’d that one come from? And what scene is it illustrating?

  • It’s great to re-read APOM after viewing the movie and see ERB’s genius at parceling out the exposition. Absolute genius.

  • As I noted at the site as a comment:

    “Great review, except the “I blame this confusion on Edgar Rice Burroughs” bit.

    Burroughs actually managed to introduce the exposition over the course of the whole novel, which was a great way to do it. If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it.”

  • I seriously don’t get these people who don’t understand what’s going on after the first scene! I’ve taken friends who knew nothing of Burroughs and who I didn’t give any heads up about the story (on purpose because I wanted to see if they were confused) and they had NO problem following it. May I just add that one of these dear friends is mentally handicapped! Yep, and he wasn’t lost at all! He was riveted and completely understood every aspect of what was happening. So, the only thing I can guess with these people who were lost was they weren’t fully paying attention. Can’t fault the film for that, only the viewer.

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