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John Carter 2012 vs John Carter 1912: Breaking down the differences and similarities

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The single biggest hot button issue in Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” is the handling of the character of title character John Carter.  In both the book and the movie,  John Carter is a former Virginia cavalryman who is searching for gold in Arizona when he is inexplicably transported to Mars.  In both cases he is a talented swordsman; accomplished fighting mannd principled human being operating under a “code” that  is grounded in a sense of what is honorable and what is not.  And in both cases he ends up identifying with Barsoom and adopting it as his home planet.  But his path in getting there is vastly different in the two treatments.  With the movie winding down its theatrical run, the time is right to drill down into this issue and see what we find.  (See also: In Defense of Dejah Thoris: “Heroic Daughter of a Heroic World”.)

The Character of John Carter in “A Princess of Mars” – the 1912 Novel

I have found that when ERB fans debate these kinds of things — some have a very fresh recollection of  the details of the book in mind; others are relying on memories of something they read decades ago. With that in mind,  let’s take a few minutes and read some key passages that reveal the character of John Carter as depicted by the old grandmaster, Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the novel, our first glimpse of John Carter is in the frame story, through the eyes of the narrator Edgar Rice Burroughs, who describes John Carter before the civil war thusly (even though the real Burroughs wasn’t born until 1875, but that’s a quibble):

He seemed always to be laughing; and he entered into the sports of the children with the same hearty good fellowship he displayed toward those pastimes in which the men and women of his own age indulged; or he would sit for an hour at a time entertaining my old grandmother with stories of his strange, wild life in all parts of the world. We all loved him, and our slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.

He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.

His horsemanship, especially after hounds, was a marvel and delight even in that country of magnificent horsemen. I have often heard my father caution him against his wild recklessness, but he would only laugh, and say that the tumble that killed him would be from the back of a horse yet unfoaled.

Next, as John Carter takes one the narrative and begins to tell his story,  we hear John Carter describe himself:

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.

This unexplained lack of aging injects a note of implied spiritualism into the character, for even if Carter doesn’t understand why he is different — he knows he is not like others, and while he never addresses the poignancy of watching others grow old around him, it is the natural state for John Carter to feel his “other-ness”, and this sense of John Carter as a man apart from others clings to his narrative, and helps define our impression of him.

In the book, John Carter is propelled to Barsoom in a way that adds to the of spiritualism, taking place as it does in a manner that suggests  death, and rebirth.  At night, alone in a cave in Arizona, he is overcome by something….he thinks a poisonous gas…. and lies immobilized as if under anesthesia.  He hears a moaning sound from the cave behind him,and the fear of this (yes – he acknowledges the fear) terrorizes him to the point that in his wild effort to move his immobilized body something inexplicable happens — he breaks free of his body. He looks down, his body is as if dead; standing above it, he is naked but corporeal (he pinches himself to confirm) and he knows that rejoining his former body is not an option. He steps outside the cave, filled not with fear but with wonder,  unsure what he is experiencing,  and in this condition his gaze alights on Mars:

 As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination—it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron…..My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness.

On Mars, John Carter awakes and has no doubt where he is.

“I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I.”

And so it is that Carter in the 1912 novel is “reborn” naked on Mars, a new arrival in a world to which he feels a special connection.  His “newborn” nature is echoed by where he has arrived — adjacent to a Thark incubator, and his first encounter with Tars Tarkas and the Tharks results in him arriving at the encampment of the green martians in the company of the hatchlings who, like him, are newly arrived upon Barsoom.

His jumping ability having gained him a reprieve from instant execution,  he is taken by Tars Tarkas and his warriors to the Thark encampment. On his arrival there he is harassed by a young warrior and, benefitting from increased strength and agility due to the lower gravity of Mars,   fells his fifteen foot high tormentor with a single blow — winning respect from the warlike Tharks.  He is given the stature of an honored prisoner — not allowed to leave the dead city where the Tharks are encamped, but not restricted in his movements within the city, with Woola acting as guard and companion.  Sola is assigned to train him and for thirty days he learns the language and culture of the Tharks, a task he undertakes with enthusiasm; he is curious about his surroundings, about Thark culture, about the ancient dead city they inhabit; he learns the language; he asks questions; he does not seem to regret where fate has brought him.  He does not yearn for Earth; he accepts his lot and begins to make his way among the Tharks.

He tries to elude Woola and ends up in a fight with a white ape (a powerful but lesser greater than the Kong-like denizen depicted in the movie) ; defeats the ape and keeps Tharks, who observe the fight,  from mercy-killing Woola who is injured.  He now has respect of Tars Tarkas, and Sola.  By his actions he demonstrates to the reader strength, fearlessness, and compassion.

After Woola recovers, and thinking of the day when he will have to strike out on his own, he tests where the calot’s loyalty lies by intentionally going beyond the bounds of the city, and in so doing  confirms that Woola is now loyal to him, and not his captors.

My morning’s walk had been large with importance to me for it had resulted in a perfect understanding with Woola, upon whom Tars Tarkas relied for my safe keeping. I now knew that while theoretically a prisoner I was virtually free, and I hastened to regain the city limits before the defection of Woola could be discovered by his erstwhile masters.

He first learns that there are humans on Mars 30 days after his arrival when he sees Dejah Thoris taken captive.  (He does not participate in any warfare associated with her capture.)  Later, when she is taken before Lorquas Ptomel, he watches Dejah Thoris implore Lorquas Ptomel in an articulate and impassioned speech to “live in amity” with red men; she is a vision of intelligence, courage, and beauty, and when a young Thark strikes Dejah, John Carter immediately defends her, killing the Thark.  Tars Tarkas tells him he will be treated now as a Thark Chieftain, but must not attempt to escape until Tal Hajus has a chance to decide his fate after they reach Korad. Carter replies:

As you know I am not of Barsoom; your ways are not my ways, and I can only act in the future as I have in the past, in accordance with the dictates of my conscience and guided by the standards of mine own people. If you will leave me alone I will go in peace, but if not, let the individual Barsoomians with whom I must deal either respect my rights as a stranger among you, or take whatever consequences may befall. Of one thing let us be sure, whatever may be your ultimate intentions toward this unfortunate young woman, whoever would offer her injury or insult in the future must figure on making a full accounting to me. I understand that you belittle all sentiments of generosity and kindliness, but I do not, and I can convince your most doughty warrior that these characteristics are not incompatible with an ability to fight.

In  this speech, Carter is established as a “cosmic knight errant” who has found in Dejah Thoris an object of honorable service — and it is this concept of knight-like service that is central to Carter’s self image, and to the emerging character as the reader gets to know him.   Alone with Dejah Thoris and responsible for her, he tells Dejah Thoris he is from Earth; when she doubts it, implying he could be dissembling,  he says: “in my own Virginia a gentleman does not lie to save himself;”  Then, he says:

I am of another world, the great planet Earth, which revolves about our common sun and next within the orbit of your Barsoom, which we know as Mars. How I came here I cannot tell you, for I do not know; but here I am, and since my presence has permitted me to serve Dejah Thoris I am glad that I am here

Again, Carter is one with Barsoom and a sense of spiritual inevitability pervades not only his presence on Barsoom, but his connection to Dejah Thoris.  He soon realizes he is in love with Dejah Thoris and muses about it to himself:

So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women and urging opportunity; in spite of a half-desire for love and a constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world, of a species similar possibly, yet not identical with mine. A woman who was hatched from an egg, and whose span of life might cover a thousand years; whose people had strange customs and ideas; a woman whose hopes, whose pleasures, whose standards of virtue and of right and wrong might vary as greatly from mine as did those of the green Martians……

To me, Dejah Thoris was all that was perfect; all that was virtuous and beautiful and noble and good. I believed that from the bottom of my heart, from the depth of my soul on that night in Korad as I sat cross-legged upon my silks while the nearer moon of Barsoom raced through the western sky toward the horizon, and lighted up the gold and marble, and jeweled mosaics of my world-old chamber, and I believe it today as I sit at my desk in the little study overlooking the Hudson. Twenty years have intervened; for ten of them I lived and fought for Dejah Thoris and her people, and for ten I have lived upon her memory.

Aside from professing love, this passage reveal much about Carter: an admitted “half desire” for love and a “constant search for my ideal”……and then, at the end, a testament to his loyalty — a loyalty that meant ten years of living and fighting for Dejah Thoris, and ten years living “upon her memory”.    Carter’s virtue and steadfastness is apparent; his decisiveness; his self-knowledge; and his ability to recognize his “ideal” when confronted with it even though she is “a creature from another world, of a species similar possibly, yet not identical with mine: — a compelling decision indeed, from a Confederate cavalryman.

Carter as drawn by Burroughs is, for the male reader, a heroic avatar — the person we would like to be, or to become when we arrive at manhood. He bears all the characteristics we, the male readers, aspire to, or which the female reader imagines in the “man of dreams” — grace, civility, fighting prowess, intelligence, a sense of humor, loyalty, honor, and steadfastness. His fighting prowess is enhanced on Mars due to the lesser gravity — making him arguably the first “super-hero”.    His flaws?  An impetuousness born of his confidence in his own powers, and a vaguely endearing obtuseness when it comes to reading and understanding the attentions and intentions of women.

His  miss-steps stem from lack of knowledge of the culture in which he has been thrust, and and his fighting man’s earnest lack of guile when it comes to women.   He blunders in his first moment with Dejah Thoris when she makes a hand signal that he fails to grasp, causing her to initially reject him  as unfit, but when he subsequently fights for her honor matters are rights.  His next miss-step is also cultural — he refers to Dejah Thoris as “my princess”.  Dejah Thoris reacts:

“What a child! A great warrior and yet a stumbling little child.”

“What have I done now?” I asked, in sore perplexity.

“Some day you shall know, John Carter, if we live; but I may not tell you. And I, the daughter of Mors Kajak, son of Tardos Mors, have listened without anger,” she soliloquized in conclusion.

Then she broke out again into one of her gay, happy, laughing moods; joking with me on my prowess as a Thark warrior as contrasted with my soft heart and natural kindliness.

“I presume that should you accidentally wound an enemy you would take him home and nurse him back to health,” she laughed.

“That is precisely what we do on Earth,” I answered. “At least among civilized men.”

This made her laugh again. She could not understand it, for, with all her tenderness and womanly sweetness, she was still a Martian, and to a Martian the only good enemy is a dead enemy; for every dead foeman means so much more to divide between those who live.

He comes to realize:

I loved Dejah Thoris. The touch of my arm upon her naked shoulder had spoken to me in words I would not mistake, and I knew that I had loved her since the first moment that my eyes had met hers that first time in the plaza of the dead city of Korad.”  He contemplates telling her of his love, but decides not to: “My first impulse was to tell her of my love, and then I thought of the helplessness of her position wherein I alone could lighten the burdens of her captivity, and protect her in my poor way against the thousands of hereditary enemies she must face upon our arrival at Thark. I could not chance causing her additional pain or sorrow by declaring a love which, in all probability she did not return. Should I be so indiscreet, her position would be even more unbearable than now, and the thought that she might feel that I was taking advantage of her helplessness, to influence her decision was the final argument which sealed my lips.

Again, the knightliness of Carter is at the forefont — honorable to a fault, overtly focused on the welfare of his lady more than his own, although to the discerning reader there is the possibility of subtext–is Carter unsure of himself, unable or unwilling to admit it even to himself?  Either way, his actions are honorable; we can only hope that in similar circumstances we could display such honor.When he unintentionally offends Dejah Thoris and she says he is “not fit to polish the teeth of teeth of my grandmother’s soak”, he sinks into dismay and, for the only time in the book,  longs intently for the comfort of home:

I longed for them as I had never longed for any mortals before. By nature a wanderer, I had never known the true meaning of the word home, but the great hall of the Carters had always stood for all that the word did mean to me, and now my heart turned toward it from the cold and unfriendly peoples I had been thrown amongst. For did not even Dejah Thoris despise me! I was a low creature, so low in fact that I was not even fit to polish the teeth of her grandmother’s cat; and then my saving sense of humor came to my rescue, and laughing I turned into my silks and furs and slept upon the moon-haunted ground the sleep of a tired and healthy fighting man.

His solution to the problem of Dejah Thoris’ rejection of him is, once again, that of the self-effacing chivalric knight who places the welfare of his charge above his own.  No Achilles demanding his Briseus — Carter’s solution displays the character of Galahad, the “Perfect Knight” of Arthurian tradition– “perfect” in courage, gentleness, courtesy, and chivalry.

Dejah Thoris, I do not know how I have angered you. It was furtherest from my desire to hurt or offend you, whom I had hoped to protect and comfort. Have none of me if it is your will, but that you must aid me in effecting your escape, if such a thing be possible, is not my request, but my command. When you are safe once more at your father’s court you may do with me as you please, but from now on until that day I am your master, and you must obey and aid me.”

She looked at me long and earnestly and I thought that she was softening toward me.

“I understand your words, Dotar Sojat,” she replied, “but you I do not understand. You are a queer mixture of child and man, of brute and noble. I only wish that I might read your heart.”

“Look down at your feet, Dejah Thoris; it lies there now where it has lain since that other night at Korad, and where it will ever lie beating alone for you until death stills it forever.”

She took a little step toward me, her beautiful hands outstretched in a strange, groping gesture.

“What do you mean, John Carter?” she whispered. “What are you saying to me?”

“I am saying what I had promised myself that I would not say to you, at least until you were no longer a captive among the green men; what from your attitude toward me for the past twenty days I had thought never to say to you; I am saying, Dejah Thoris, that I am yours, body and soul, to serve you, to fight for you, and to die for you. Only one thing I ask of you in return, and that is that you make no sign, either of condemnation or of approbation of my words until you are safe among your own people, and that whatever sentiments you harbor toward me they be not influenced or colored by gratitude; whatever I may do to serve you will be prompted solely from selfish motives, since it gives me more pleasure to serve you than not.”

“I will respect your wishes, John Carter, because I understand the motives which prompt them, and I accept your service no more willingly than I bow to your authority; your word shall be my law. I have twice wronged you in my thoughts and again I ask your forgiveness.”

If Burroughs’ characterization works as intended,   the reader’s reaction is:  “What a man!”, with the reader wishing to ether be such a man, if male, or to find such a man, if female.

And so John Carter of the novel A Princess of Mars is a spiritually whole fighting man who is drawn to Mars in a moment of profound personal transition; who accepts that he is on Mars as a matter of destiny; who relishes his new life and new world, learning the culture and winning respect and allies from among the culture where fate has cast him, living by his own code of honor at all times; who knows his own heart and knows his “ideal” woman when fate brings him together with her, even though she was “hatched from an egg” and is not even of his own species.   He impulsively and effectively  defends first himself, then  Woola, then Dejah Thoris’  honor and places himself in her service, making sure that she is safe and properly cared for,  repeatedly displaying self-denial  in favor of her well being.   Though never referred to as a “knight” — Carter is everything that the chivalric code demands:  courageous, honorable, gentle, courteous, and spiritually aware.  He treats Dejah Thoris in a manner consistent with courtly love, placing his service to her above his personal desires, inwardly committing himself to her in a deep and spiritual fashion without demanding that she love him in return.

That is the John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  It is a character that captured the imagination of readers in its day, evoking the “want to be like him” emotion in a deeply archetypal way.  For countless male readers who came upon Burroughs’ creation in adolescence, John Carter was the embodiment of the “better self”, the “masculine man” who was everything one could hope to be.  For women readers, he was the elusive man of dreams – the reason to not “settle”, because out there somewhere is a John Carter.

Stanton’s Perspective on Burroughs’ John Carter

In 2006, Andrew Stanton thought enough of Burroughs and John Carter that, when Paramount dropped the property after 6 years of development, he reached out to studio head Dick Cook and expressed his keen desire to take on the project as his next movie after Wall-E, which was then in its final year of production.  Stanton professed to having loved the material since childhood, and having followed the on-again, off-again development as a fan hoping to see the Burroughs material realized on the screen.   Cook and Disney acquired the rights, and a few months after first bringing up the project to Cook, Stanton found himself at the helm of the development of a film adaptation of Burroughs novel.

A core question confronted Stanton: Would a 2012 audience, 98% of whom had never been exposed to the books and who were unaccustomed to the “perfect knight” model of hero that Burroughs’ Carter embodied, respond to such a full on, knightly classic hero?  Was such a character compatible with 2012 society?  Would it be viewed as an anachronism, difficult to “root for”?

Ironically, in this case the bold choice would have been to say “yes” — and go about working with Carter as Burroughs had drawn him.  The more conservative choice would be to say “no” — audiences have evolved, there needs to be a dark side to the character, a flawed nature that will produce the all important and indispensable “arc”.

Had Stanton himself, in his experience of the Burroughs novels,  “bought into” the Carter character the way that earlier generations of readers did, perhaps he would have felt that fidelity to the Burroughs’ conception of Carter was a risk worth taking.  ERB’s Carter was clearly was not what audiences of 2012 think they want — but Steve Jobs, whom Stanton knew well from Pixar and to whom he dedicated the film,  liked to say:  People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.  Perhaps the same was true here.  Perhaps, a retro classic hero was just what cinema audiences of 2012 need as an antidote to the reluctant hero, the anti-hero, and every other variation on the modern hero that comes with obligatory character deficiencies.

But by all accounts, even without taking into consideration the tastes of 2012 audiences, Stanton himself, in his own reading of the books, had connected with Barsoom and Carter’s situation — but had felt himself not quite able to fully buy into the ‘perfect knight’ version of Carter that Burroughs had drawn.  To hear Stanton describe it, he found the knightly, chivalrous Carter a tad  difficult to relate to as a teen, and he carried that reaction into the production of John Carter:

“…the thing that has got to work first and foremost is that the story overall works. And that I invest in the character. To be honest, I never actually invested in Carter 100%. He was always a kind of Prince Valiant, did-it-right-from-the-get-go kind of bland, vanilla guy. I think it was his situation that was more fascinating to me. It was a stranger in a strange land, guy thrown out to circumstances. Also, there’s the oddity of the time period. I really love that somebody from the Civil War gets thrown into what we would consider the antiquated past of Mars. That’s been something that I’ve really tried to embrace on this and give it its special thumbprint.”(http://collider.com/andrew-stanton-john-carter-interview/143238/)

And:

Again, not to diss anything, but it was almost in spite of John Carter that I liked the books. That was where we put a lot of our work in. How to make him somebody to root for, not that I wouldn’t. But it’s not that unique to just this story. It’s often that the hero is the least interesting person and that the interesting characters are the people around him. I felt like I’d rather watch damaged goods than somebody who has their act together. I went for someone who pretty much resigned himself to the fact that his purpose in life was over and sort of went with the thinking that it’s not for us to say what our purpose in life is. You may think it’s done or finished or ended or been missed, but life’s not done with you sometimes. It may take awhile to figure out what your other purpose is or what your greater purpose always was. That’s sort of the tact I took with Carter and it’s really what made Carter perfect to play the role. He’s the bad boy/wrong side of the tracks and that really worked a lot better. (Slashfilm Interview)

And so it was that Stanton would be guided by his own, more “modern” sense of a hero that one could root for as he molded the 1912 Carter into a 2012 hero that he, the director, could more easily relate to. Stanton’s approach would set him on a collision course with a small but intense group of Edgar Rice Burroughs enthusiasts who found in Burroughs’ simple formulation a true hero — someone to look up to, to aspire to be like.  “We still live!” was the literary Carter’s mantra, embodying a ‘never say die’ fighting spirit and centered spirit.

Stanton clearly saw it otherwise.

Stanton’s solution?

Andrew Stanton’s 2012 version of John Carter

In the movie, Stanton retains Burroughs’ basic setup:   John Carter is a Virginia cavalryman, an accomplished swordsman and fighting man who in 1881 is searching for gold in Arizona just as  in the book.   But unlike the perfect knight of the novels  — Stanton’s Carter is “damaged goods”.  He is haunted by something — the past, we assume — but we don’t know exactly what, or why.  He is engaged in a quest for gold that doesn’t seem to bring him passion or purpose — just diversion and a quest.  There is an intense, brooding quality to him.   When Powell attempts to press him into service for the Union Cavalry, he resists with a sullen demeanor and the reckless fearlessness of someone who has nothing to lose.   He makes is clear that no external cause has meaning for him; “whatever you think I owe……I have already paid.”  Carter’s message: Leave me alone!   Instead of Burroughs Carter as a  classic “knight errant”, Stanton’s brigns forth a modern “knight erring”, an ex-cavalaryman who possesses the skills of Burroughs’ original, but whose soul is scarred and who reminds the viewer at every opportunity that he feels no loyalty to any cause and is not looking for one, nor is even open to the possibility of one.  He is a man whose purpose in life has evaporated, and who is going about his quest for gold with an almost zombie-like sense of leaden persistence.

This external package of John Carter the damaged loner is a jolt to viewers familiar with the original — yet is comfortingly familiar to the 98% of viewers whose frame of reference is not the Burroughs books, but rather the accumulation of expectations gleaned from movie heroes of the last several decades.   Reluctant, self-absorbed, resisting the call to action, yet skilled and capable, it could be argued (and would be, by Stanton and his creative team)  that Stanton’s John Carter of 2012 is as  familiar and easy to root for to modern audiences as Burroughs more classic rendering was to audiences in 1912.

But although Stanton radically changed Carter’s exterior, what of the core character?

What of his character-revealing choices made by Stanton’s Carter, what of his actions, over the course of the movie — were they the actions of a completely different John Carter?  Or was the underlying Burroughs character there, embedded in the unconscious self of Stanton’s John Carter?

Setting aside the matter of demeanor and external characteristics — consider the underlying “true character” of Stanton’s John Carter as revealed through key choices and actions he takes.

The Impact of the Medallion

In the book, Carter is transported inexplicably to Mars in a manner that conveys to him a sense that he has experienced a spiritual rebirth on Barsoom,  is destined to be there — and that there is no possibility of return to Earth.  This has a profound impact on Carter’s relationship to Barsoom from the start.

In the movie, it is more as if Carter is kidnapped from Earth via a technological device — the Thern medallion — that leaves open the possibility of a return to Earth, and it is this — the return to Earth and his cave of gold — that becomes Carter’s overt objective.  Thus the existence of the Thern medallion that truly “muddies the waters” of John Carter’s character because, by providing a mechanism to get him back to Earth, it dramatically changes the nature of Carter’s manner of experiencing Barsoom.   One wonders what would have been the reaction of John Carter in the book, had he been “kidnapped” to Barsoom and had the means to return to Earth.  Would he have looked back to Earth and yearned for it, as he does at one point later in the book when Dejah Thoris has rejected him?  Would he have been as attentive to the details of Thark culture?”

In any event — a look at the series of character defining choices that Stanton’s Carter makes, reveals that beneath the sullen exterior is a man who is very much like Burroughs’ John Carter — honorable, noble even, with compassion, a sense of fair play, courage, and steadfastness:

The Rescue of Powell

In Arizona, after refusing to cooperate with Powell and stealing his horse, Carter finds himself in a moment where Powell has been shot by Apaches.  He has not allegiance to Powell; in fact Powell is his antagonist at that point in the story.  But at great personal risk, Carter returns and saves Powell — an act worthy of ERB’s John Carter and a character moment which Stanton clearly expects the audience to register.

The Defense of Woola

In the movie, as in the book, Carter attempts to elude Woola.  As in the book, Woola is injured, although in the movie it is the Tharks, not white apes, who injure the Calot.   Carter defends the calot, in the process showing compassion.  (This moment is almost lost in the way the scene is mounted, as Carter has barely finished protecting the wounded Woola when Tars says “You killed him with one blow”, and Carter responds with “I understand you!” – and so the impact of Carter’s defense of Woola is somewhat lost.  But Stanton expects — demands, even — that the audience pay attention, and this is another clue to the fact that Stanton’s Carter in spite of his refusal to acknowledge any loyalty or allegiance, is nonetheless operating from a code of honor very similar, if not identical to,  to that of the novel’s John Carter.

Rescuing Dejah Thoris and Fighting for Underdog Helium

Next comes the arrival of the warring Zodangan and Heliumite warships.  Carter: “That don’t look like a fair fight,” another evidence of his sense of a code of honor.  Then he sees Dejah Thoris, realizes there are humans, and intervenes in the conflict, first to save Dejah Thoris (chivalrous behavior), and then to conclude the conflict in favor of Helium — the party who was on the receiving end of the “not a fair fight” comment.   He attempts to place Dejah Thoris in a position of safety behind him as he fights (something John Carter does in a  variety of circumstances in the books), then acknowledges her prowess with rueful humor when she demonstrates her mettle (perhaps I should stand behind you).

Acceptance of a Thark Chieftainship in Spite of Desire to be Left Alone

Next he is awarded Dejah Thoris, as in the book, and then is given the name Dotar Sojat with Tars Tarkas exulting, “he will fight for us!”.  As in the case with Powell, Carter immediately rejects fighting for anyone, and says no, he does not fight for the Tharks.    But when he is told that unless he does so and becomes a Thark chieftain, the safety of “your red girl” (Dejah Thoris) cannot be guaranteed–he does the chivalrous thing and accepts appointment as a Thark chieftain, for no reason other than to protect Dejah Thoris.  Again, in spite of “I don’t fight for anyone” words — John Carter’s choices and actions are largely consistent with the book.

Allegiance to the Woman he Loves–it’s just not Dejah Thoris (yet)

Up until this point — Carter has displayed courage by trying to escape power; displayed honor by saving  Powell;  courage and chivalry by saving Dejah Thoris and taking on Sab Than’s airpower; and chivalry by accepting a Thark chieftainship purely to protect Dejah Thoris.  His protestations that he doesn’t want to take up a cause are meant to be read not as true expressions of Carter’s character — rather that are the overt expression, while his actions those of a chivalrous warrior, same as John Carter of the novel.  We are given clues as to why he is reluctant to serve –in the jail he says “I’ve already paid”  and Stanton cuts to a closeup of the two wedding bands on his ring finger, and the dream of his wife and child lets us know that there was a wife and family — we don’t know what happened to them but we should understand that his current rejection of cause is related to them, that’s why he dreams of them, and is separated from them.

But now, having met Dejah Thoris,  Stanton introduces a dynamic that is very different from the book.  Stanton pits Dejah Thoris against Carter; she wants him as  a weapon in the war against Zodanga, and he–with Dejah evidently not in need of his protection–reverts to “return to earth” as a mission.  It’s interesting — when Dejah  Thoris needed his protection (Tars Tarkas: “I can’t guarantee your red girl’s safety if you refuse this honor”), Carter compromised his unwillingness to join a cause in order to protect her.  But once she no longer needs his basic protection and begins to pursue her own agenda – she gets the same response that Powell and Tars Tarkas both got — no thanks.

But as Carter spends more time with Dejah, he is drawn to her.  There is a spark when he leaps with her to the hieroglyphs in the temple; then more undeniable sparks as she volunteers to taking him to the gates of Iss, and he knows she may be playing him – with each understanding the other’s agenda (hence the “matter of trust” gag at the end).  There is a moment at the watering hole where she catches him staring at her in the glint of her knife blade, and is pleased; and another “electric moment” after he leaps with her to the Thern pyramid, and finally the kiss in the Thern pyramid which immediately evokes in Carter the image of his wife and a flood of guilt.

Although the dead wife and child have been cited by many Burroughs fans as a change they abhor — in this moment, the John Carter of the movie reacts as one would expect the John Carter of the book to react — he is a “one-man-woman” and now, in Stanton’s rendering, we have the beginnings of the information we need to understand the conflict between Carter’s attitude (which has not been chivalrous), and his actions, which have been honorable and chivalrous.

After the pyramid scene, Carter and Dejah are immediately pursued by the Warhoons and in the movie as in the book, Carter realizes that to protect Dejah Thoris, he must send her away with Sola while he remains behind to face the Warhoon horde.   In the book it is an act of simple chivalry, toss away with a gallant statement to the effect that Carter has been in tough spots before, and survived, and he will find her.  In the movie, the moment is bigger. It is on the thoats, riding away from the Warhoons, that Carter looks down, sees Dejah’s hand clutching his, and comes to his moment of commitment.  When he sends her away he says, “I was too late once before, I won’t let it happen again” – and the audience knows he has made his choice, arriving at his moment of choice later than the Carter of the book – but never deviating from the kind of chivalrous actions and choices that the book Carter displays.

(Comment: Before I am called out on this, I will acknowledge that there is a confusing beat in the movie because, after Carter says ‘I was late once, I won’t be again”, the audience reads that he has made the commitment to Dejah Thoris — but then in the next scene between the two of them,  the scene in Zodanga, where Carter discovers that Dejah is about to go forward with the wedding, she asks him to “give me a reason not to marry”, and Carter, in what appears to be a “backsliding moment”, is unable dot make the commitment, and almost returns to Jasoon until, at the last possible moment, he does finally, once and for all, commit to Dejah.  I have to confess that this last scene perplexed me — he had made his choice before facing the Warhoons, why was he not staying true to that choice?   While the scene must stand as it appears in the final film — I was intrigued to learn that this is a scene that was rewritten for the reshoots.  In the original screenplay and as originally filmed, Carter called upon Dejah to escape with him rather than marry Sab Than, to which Dejah replied that she could not, that her duty demanded that she marry Sab Than and save Helium in the process.  From a character point of view – this makes more sense than what we have in the final edit of the movie.  But even this bit of raggedness does not change the fact that by his actions as opposed to his words and demeanor, Stanton’s John Carter at his core is closer to Burroughs’ John Carter than his outward attitude suggests.)

In Stanton’s formulation we, the viewers, are supposed to understand even when Carter himself doesn’t consciously understand it, that there is a hero within him who has lost his connection to a cause, but who needs to connect with a cause to be complete–and we are supposed to be drawn along his journey unconscious chivalry  to self-awareness, conscious commitment to a cause.

To those who grew up with Burroughs’ “perfect knight” John Carter, it doesn’t “feel” quite like John Carter. Yet when it is finally revealed what the source of the “damaged goods” nature is — it turns out that it precisely the honor and loyalty that defined Burroughs’ Carter that is devastating the conscious portion of Stanton’s Carter.  It is his loyalty and love of his wife and family that has left Carter damaged–and it is loyalty and love of the wife and child that impedes his ability to connect with his new circumstances.

What Does it All Mean — Is John Carter John Carter?  Or Not?

Stanton’s “John Carter” is, at its core, what has come to become known as an “origins story”  — a story that tells the backstory of a super-hero before he became that super-hero.  Because of the flawed, taciturn rendering of the character that prevails throughout much of the film,  Burroughs’ purists will  have difficulty accepting Stanton’s John Carter — but the good news for all is that by the end, after his journey and transformation is complete — his conscious and unconscious selves are at last in synch and he becomes a John Carter who is in all key respects, the John Carter of the books.

Now that the backstory has been told — what is missing are the tales themselves — tales that will only come to life on screen if the franchise, like Carter himself, defies the odds and with a “We still live!” invincibility is able to continue for a second  and third installment.   The odds are against it happening — but then John Carter has a history of beating the odds.

24 comments

  • Thanks for the breakdown, Dotar. I found some things in this that I had missed in the movie. When I first saw the film I spent most of my time looking for differences from the book. After that, each time I watched it I found myself just going along for the ride. If you take it as a given that Hollywood would re-write the story, and take a look at other novels that are almost unrecognizable in the film version ( Tarzan of the Apes?) this version is quite faithful. I have seen it 5 times now and each time it has been a singular experience. I know it is not a masterpiece but I think it is a pretty darn good movie experience. The story has been plundered so much over the years that I expected it might seem somewhat tired. But there was still a lot of ERB’s visions that came alive that it still seemed fresh to me. You said it well. Just sketch out the plot and tell me when you ever heard of a movie that had a plot like that. Unless you want to boil it down to “boy meets girl. boy looses girl, boy gets girl back, boy looses girl again. But you can do that with over half the movies ever made. I sure hope something will happen to cause Disney to try a sequel.

  • I was looking forward to seeing John Carter, mainly with the Frazetta and Valejo/Bell illustrations in mind, but also knowing it wasn’t that kind of movie since it wasn’t rated R. It had been ages since I read a couple of the pocketbooks and had forgtotten much of them and I only collected the comics in the 90s but never read them. So I was going in very open looking for a good sci-fi film. Then I heard it was bad. From a movie critic I work with. He did not like it. I hadn’t heard or seen any other negatives at that point. I went expecting the worst and was very pleasantly surprised that I had no problems with it at all and loved it! Multiple viewings later I still love it!

  • Henreid wrote:

    Beyond that tastes and opinions differ, I suspect it takes an awful lot of wanting to love this movie, and projecting, to feel the emotions some of you are talking about. That’s fine by me. I’ve done that plenty about other films. The sad state of megabudget filmmaking today requires that thinking people make concessions and excuses about the parts that suck to get them through to the visual splendor that usually doesn’t. Isn’t it possible we’re doing this a bit?

    I know I’ve swerved through many topics now, but our common ground is a love for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels about Mars.

    I am almost envious of everyone who is in love with this film, I wish I could join you. But just because I don’t doesn’t mean I’m being irrational. You feel it is good storytelling with actual emotional value separate but perhaps equal to the text. That’s great. We can’t argue how we feel, but we can certainly debate the subject at hand – that being the differences and similarities between the character who has lasted 100 years on the page, and his modern counterpart.

    The first time I saw it I really wanted to love it, and it didn’t quite happen I did respect it. I felt that changes had been made which were not unreasonable — but that something of the hard-to-pin-down “ERN-ness” had been lost, or had been changed. At that time, before the critics had responded, I actually thought the changes were thing that, while I didn’t respond to them so well, would be welcomed by the critics. So what I’m saying is — there was a lot going on–I wanted to love it, I didn’t — but I guess I wanted the critics to love it, and modern audiences.

    After the critics reacted the way they did — mixed for sure — I thought that maybe my instincts were better than I gave them credit for. And so I went through a phase where I was more critical of it.

    But here’s what I’m getting at – -my final position on it is not the product of wanting to love it — just letting myself be open to it. That’s the message. Maybe we hardcore ERBists need to anesthetize at least part of our brain because I feel there is value there that we, more than anyone, have a hard time seeing.

  • I am genuinely glad you are able to enjoy it so much, Paladin.

    You misinterpret many of my arguments, though, and attempt to dismiss all of the problems raised by putting everyone with a different strong opinion into some strict unthinking-purist camp. I’m not advocating by-the-word adaptation, and neither is MCR or anyone else to my knowledge. Everyone knows things have to change in adaptation. The discussion here is about whether they were good ones, specifically regarding the complete re-writing of the central character.

    In all fairness, I think you are responding more to my aggravated tone than to what I’ve actually said.

    For instance, (to sidebar a moment) my much-maligned critique about the Scientific or Historical reality of Mars has nothing to do with a ‘requirement’ that these things be observed. I was merely pointing out that the 1912 novel, which tried to get it right, is somehow still more scientifically accurate than the 2012 film, which didn’t really bother. My complaint is that at every intersection, Stanton chose the most normal, earth-like and ‘grounded’ road, and thereby missed endless opportunities to make Barsoom more unique while simultaneously teaching the audience something real about the planet Mars (which is an important part of what the novels did in inspiring so many scientists). You don’t have to agree with me that this would have been better, but you can’t really argue that the observation isn’t true.

    Back to character —- I notice that despite lengthy replies, no one has anything to say re: the additional comparative examples between the two versions of the character that I listed far below. The changes go farther than just the perfect knight vs. damaged goods into ethically agnostic traits, specifically his intelligence and physical abilities. Tactical know-how is another hallmark of John Carter, just as warrior prowess and swordsmanship, and there are stark differences between the novel and the film there. You’re ready to pivot the conversation to other matters, though, largely on emotional rather than analytic terms. There’s a lot of sidestepping the actual points being made here, selectively responding to the one sentence in a page that can be ‘taken down’.
    [ I’ll admit I’m guilty of it, too. ]

    Micheal’s balanced analysis (that you rightfully adore) acknowledges that the character gripes described throughout here are much more than minor nitpicks.

    We all know the legacy of these stories, and their impact on popular culture for the last century. For all that time, Barsoom was protected from Hollywood hackery by the sheer scale and technological wizardry required to even attempt an adaptation. I’m sorry, but the history means this is not a film that can be judged simply by it’s own merits. My tone comes from my passion as a fan, but I could make the same arguments about intellectual property I have no personal stake in.

    I would still call BS on a film of ‘A Christmas Carol’ that rewrote Scrooge as a charitable grandfatherly figure. Or an adaptation of ‘The Odyssey’ where Odysseus was a slow-witted oaf and a bad sailor. Or a ‘Moby Dick’ with an Ahab that doesn’t really care all that much about white whales.

    The stakes are higher, here, though, because those are characters who have remained in the public consciousness, who have been adapted so many times that another film will have little impact — where this was essentially the modern debut of a literary icon who had fallen into the realm of well-kept secrets. The world had largely forgotten John Carter of Mars, and then, after 80+ years of failed cinematic development, the guy who finally gets the reins decides to change the fundamental nature of nearly all the characters.

    That’s just not cool in my book, no matter who the character is. This is exactly the kind of disrespect and dishonor typically shown to literature when it gets ground through Tinseltown, so it shouldn’t be a surprise… but by all accounts this was anything but a typical Hollywood production.

    Through the diligent research of this website, we know that Stanton basically had free reign to do whatever he wanted with Two-Hundred and Fifty Million dollars, that he stood almost entirely unopposed by studio executives and focus groups trying to sand the edges off what should have been his visionary epic. Sure, they pushed him on the title —- but by and large the stars aligned for him. He was free to make the best godsdamn Princess of Mars imaginable, with a limitless budget and no one to tell him no.

    Did he really do that? Did he even come close? Did he respect the mantle of that history?

    That all the other screenplays for prior unmade versions were far worse is very small consolation to me.

    Beyond that tastes and opinions differ, I suspect it takes an awful lot of wanting to love this movie, and projecting, to feel the emotions some of you are talking about. That’s fine by me. I’ve done that plenty about other films. The sad state of megabudget filmmaking today requires that thinking people make concessions and excuses about the parts that suck to get them through to the visual splendor that usually doesn’t. Isn’t it possible we’re doing this a bit?

    I know I’ve swerved through many topics now, but our common ground is a love for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels about Mars.

    I am almost envious of everyone who is in love with this film, I wish I could join you. But just because I don’t doesn’t mean I’m being irrational. You feel it is good storytelling with actual emotional value separate but perhaps equal to the text. That’s great. We can’t argue how we feel, but we can certainly debate the subject at hand – that being the differences and similarities between the character who has lasted 100 years on the page, and his modern counterpart.

  • Paladin — well said as always. I’m in a rush so I’ll just address this part now:

    Lastly, for me the tearful “I am….. alone” moment was a powerful pinnacle, and not at all another anticlimactic backslide. It was the seminal moment when JC can finally leave, but doesn’t, can choose to leave, but won’t. Totally heartrending – Dejah knows he would fight and do anything to save her – he’s proven that – and all she need do is ask, but instead she pushes him away because she loves him more than her whole world, and in that moment when she’s reciting the words for him – in effect begging him to go and save himself – when he actually can finally leave by just saying one last word, he forsakes everything back on his own home world just to stay with her. They’re willing to literally sacrifice their own entire worlds for the safety and love of each other. Powerful stuff! It ranks right up there with all the greatest, most tender, beautiful love scenes ever done in film.

    Yes, but think of how it was probably originally written. JC wants Dejah to flee with him; she looks at him; “I can’t.” She’s saving Helium. JC realizes she’s right. They have moment — cosmic love with no solution. She says….”I figured out how to get you back to Jasoom”…..everything else from there is the same…….

    So you still get what you’re looking for, without the backsliding–plus Dejah gets to CHOOSE to save Helium — more poignant yet! 😉

  • Okay, now I understand why the Kitsch/Stanton version of JC could initially be such a bone-jarring shock to the ERB faithful. While my love of these books never waned over the decades, my memory certainly has. Your revealing character deconstruction, Dotar, also makes me see that we don’t really disagree on much of anything, but just approach it from different directions.

    The 1912 John Carter was a hero fitting to his era, and so is the film version. I believe ERB was hip, and would completely approve of our modern Carter. Our world has changed. My dad returned from WWII having survived hand to hand combat in the South Pacific. People told stories how for the first several months he would just sit on the couch staring into space, motionless for hours without speaking. In those days they called it ‘shell shock’ and advised that you should just leave them alone and they would eventually get over it. But in today’s world, post-Nam, currently entering our 11th year of continuous war, could Stanton really dare to give us a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who would blithely jump right into yet another civil war?

    You’re absolutely right that the bold approach for Stanton would have been to keep JC as the old time classical knight on a mission. It’s easy for us to sit here and say we would go ahead and take that risk with a ¼ billion dollars. And maybe you’re right that it could have been a grand slam. Modern audiences still do love the tales of King Arthur, but even there, I believe Galahad is usually considered the most caricature character, and the conflicted Lancelot the most compelling. In classical tales, though, the conflicted hero like Lancelot was also typically a tragic figure. But part of what keeps the story of Arthur alive is that he is surrounded by several other knights who exhibit all the many different faces of knighthood, so that things don’t ever get flat or boring. Of course I’m not certain, but I do suspect, however, that today a story of a lone knight in the 20th century would come across as a comic book character, too flat, too 2 dimensional, too caricature. Since all we get out of Hollywood now is comic book characters, I would guess that Stanton found it unworthy of JC and wanted to avoid it out of respect for ERB.

    I actually prefer the Thern medallion plot device to the original way JC got to Mars. It’s more sy-fy oriented, less fantasy. To a modern 21st century audience, that ‘spiritual journey’ stuff might come off a little bit like New Age mumbo jumbo. To each his own with that particular aspect, though – it’s a matter of personal taste. I do like, however, the way his return to earth can be used to help drive the story. And I also really enjoy that he is the master of his fate and not captive to it, that he has free will. It gives his journey more gravitas, and his actions more urgency, because his destiny is his to choose.

    JC’s struggle is not just the dichotomy between the conscious/subconscious self, but he must also overcome his new-found core belief/philosophy that war is wrong. That battle he has within himself is all played out on a conscious level – “I fight for no one” – and it is a profound subject worthy of a place in this film. We live in an ironic age where God’s chosen few kill other different God’s chosen few – everyone always has God on their side. I admire a hero who is ambivalent about rushing into war and cautious when choosing his side.

    Dotar’s article is super insightful, but my problem is with some of the True Believers who post comments on here wanting to set us heretical folks straight with The Truth For All. I think it was in the late 1970’s that the fundamentalists adopted the slogan ‘One Way.’ They would say it and then hold up their index finger, indicating that there was only one route to salvation (their way). That’s what I’m reminded of now by some of the harsh attacks against Stanton – a strident, whiney, pissy litany of nonsense complaints about JC’s so-called ‘moping’, his sword fighting ability, or there being craters on Mars. Like inquisitors, they ask of Stanton – does he sufficiently adhere to the letter of the text, does he really love the material, does he secretly dislike JC? [Not to overstate the case, but the very first guy able to make the journey to the surface of another planet did so by gazing on the heavens with his telescope. And he was dragged before the Inquisition, too, but now is considered brilliant.] I’m starting to think that they do indeed just want the comic book type hero – nice and simple, black and white, good and bad. That’s fine, but it doesn’t make Stanton a traitor for adding more nuance to the story.

    Lastly, for me the tearful “I am….. alone” moment was a powerful pinnacle, and not at all another anticlimactic backslide. It was the seminal moment when JC can finally leave, but doesn’t, can choose to leave, but won’t. Totally heartrending – Dejah knows he would fight and do anything to save her – he’s proven that – and all she need do is ask, but instead she pushes him away because she loves him more than her whole world, and in that moment when she’s reciting the words for him – in effect begging him to go and save himself – when he actually can finally leave by just saying one last word, he forsakes everything back on his own home world just to stay with her. They’re willing to literally sacrifice their own entire worlds for the safety and love of each other. Powerful stuff! It ranks right up there with all the greatest, most tender, beautiful love scenes ever done in film.

  • I saw Avengers yesterday, that was quite a ride to me, as it was with John Carter, but less bumpy. A whole bunch of heroes from my childhood perfectly adapted for the movies. But what I would like to point out is the positive attitude of every character in the movie, even Banner/Hulk is shown in a proactive, positive way, and it’s a blast all the way! If you said to me before the movie that Hulk would have stolen every scene he’s in, I wouldn’t have believed you. There’s a common motivation denominator, that happens at the eleventh hour, and to the expense of a really secondary character, but otherwise they don’t really needed that push. There’s an swashbuckling enthusiasm that permeates the movie that is just a joy to behold.

    All this to say that I still think Stanton did a hell of a job, but that another approach would have worked. Better? We will never know.

  • Dotar Sojat,

    I really enjoyed your analysis and comparison of John Carter – book vs. movie.
    Although I liked the movie better the second time around, what really upset me the most was John Carter as the reluctant hero. ERB’s character was anything but reluctant. I bought into it 100% and still do! I’ve re-read the books since the movie came out ( I’m on book 10). Give me a hero who likes being a hero any day. This movie portrayal of the reluctant hero has been done and redone to death! I can’t believe Stanton thought this is what the audience of 2012 wanted. I don’t think was a matter of what the audience wanted, it’s more of what Hollywood has been shoving down our throats for years. Stanton took the safe route and passed up an opportunity to give us something great.
    Remember how Clint Eastwood’s role “the man with no name” and “Dirty Harry” broke new ground and gave us anti-heroes we could love? We didn’t care what his underlying issues were. We didn’t want to know about any excess baggage he might be carrying around. Somewhere, somehow, Hollywood got lost and started to give us that feely-good stuff. Maybe ERB, along with giving us science fiction, should be credited with giving us the first anti-hero we could root for and identify with. I was hoping John Carter, the movie, would bring back to Hollywood the hero who was comfortable with the role. That’s what I think the ERB’s vision of John Carter was. He wasn’t perfect, but he did know who he was and relished in the fact that he was a born warrior and always had been a warrior, a man of action who always took huge risks and often leaped before he looked, and the best swordsmen of two worlds. He didn’t mope around worrying about the past. He knew the minute he got to Mars where he was and never looked back longing to return to Earth . He had a code of chivalry that most of us accepted and understood. He was ruthless but fair with his enemies. He was , to bring back an old phrase . . . “ a knight without armor in a savage land”. That’s how ERB’s wrote him and how Stanton should have left him.
    I don’t care about what other baggage my hero is carrying around. He should be someone with exceptional courage and nobility. Someone I can only hope to emulate and look up to, relate to, and someone who can just get the job done. Men want to be like him and women want to be with him. What more could a man ask for? As an example from the writings of ERB, numerous women fell in love with john Carter, but true to himself and his character, he remained faithful to the incomparable Dejah Thoris. What a man! Is that too old fashioned for today’s audience? I don’t think so . . . at least I hope not.

    The point you brought out about Stanton saying he didn’t “invest in Carter 100%” and “did-it-right-from-the-get-go kind of a bland, vanilla guy” is VERY telling and explains a lot. Your analysis helped me to resolve some underlying issues that still bothered me and I’ve become more favorably acceptable of Stanton’s version of John Carter. It may have worked out better in the long run had there been two follow-up films for Stanton to complete his vision.

    Thank you for all your hard work in support of John Carter’s legacy. I’m sure you would have been one of the people he sought out on one of his visits to Earth.

    Well done.
    Ken

  • If Stanton felt he had to change John Carter, I do wish he had rather just made him harder, not bitter and self-centered. Somebody who perhaps would still have refused Powell, but not because he refused to fight for anybody anymore but because the cavalry would not have paid well enough for him to abandon his search for the cave of gold. And maybe somebody who would have treated the whole thing as a joke. Somebody who would have been quite willing to save the princess – hey, a princess, surely her people will reward her savior, or let’s at least pretend that’s the reason – but would have fought falling in love with her because while he would not have been reluctant to get involved he would not have wanted to care. I think that a badass who tries hard to deny his inner knight would at least been easier to like. I found Stanton’s ‘damaged goods’ JC a bit too unlikeable, and it took too long before he started to change. And as MCR said, the character used in the movie is as much a cliche as the knightly hero, and the knightly hero has gotten so little use in movies during the last decades that he might actually have felt fresher now, so the knight would perhaps have been the best choice.

    And this JC was not very convincing as a fighter and a soldier – we were told that he is good, by Powell, but didn’t get any real proof of that. While he did win several of his fights on Mars he seemed to win mostly because of his advantage as somebody from a higher gravity world, not because he showed any obvious skill either as a sword fighter or as a military tactician. He acted really smart only in the framing story.

    For me one of the bigger regrets about the likelihood of no sequels is the fact that Stanton’s John Carter did start to resemble the ERB John Carter towards the end of the movie. So presumably we would have had the real John Carter for the whole running of the next movie. I merely liked ‘John Carter’, but with the changed JC there is a good chance I might have loved the sequel.

  • That was a very insightful article, I applaud you for disecting that so well. Let us keep in mind that the cinema score of people who actually saw the movie and liked it was at 76%. As pointed out elsewhere here, just the fact that this movie is out there and is touching so many people positively, this only helps keep ERB’s legacy, and works, alive for another generation to enjoy.

    Kevin, don’t confuse your disappointment at the changes to JC from the book, most modern people don’t know the books from a hill of beans, with it’s lack of box office take. The failure of this movie was the marketing from the inception. The first wave of publicity should have stressed that all these movies we have enjoyed, SW, Avatar, Flash Gordon and superheros like Superman, all were directly inspired by these books. It puts it into focus for the general public that this isn’t trying to be the next cutting edge, new thing but a tribute to the creator of this whole genre. The folks who cut together the “Heritage” trailer had the right idea.

    Then the following trailers should have exposed some of the eye candy and shown that there was a strong love story between John and Dejah at the heart of this adventure. The scene in the movie that looked the most derivative, although it actually is the original, the arena scene, is the one scene that they plaster all over the airwaves. The totally “one note” print and bill board advertising campaign featuring the two white monkees looked more like a Monsters Inc, direct to video than the fantastic interplanetary romantic adventure that it is.

    Where ever this discussion goes about the changes and different approaches, it was unequivocably 85% the marketing that sunk this movie at the U.S. box office.

    Michael, you are absolutely right that although there was an added layer of angst and conflicts on the surface of the character, his internal character was very consistent with the JC of the books, and he does get to the same place as the character in the book. If I was making this movie, because I had been influenced by these books in my youth, I would have gone with the straight up hero, which did have it’s own wrinkle in that he was awkward and inexperienced around the women that he loved. I think the detractors are blaming the extra layer of the character for what was actually Taylor Kitsch”s kind of flat reading of the character. He just didn’t bring enough charisma to it. He didn’t imbue the character, even if he was conflicted, with the kind of passion and life that Lynn Collins brought to Dejah.

    But, he was servicable and fortunately Ms. Collins did bring the heat and the goods. Everybody agrees that the Warhoon scene was the emotional high point of the film. For me, the second most emotional moment is the beat after the “backsliding scene” when Dejah says “yes, I am alone”. Michael, I think the conflict of the movie character at that moment, and this set up several times earlier, is that this JC is sick of war. It took his wife and child and left him emotionally adrift. In the beginning he says “we are just a warring species”, to Dejah it is “War is a shameful thing”. Although we all know what she is really asking is “will you stay and fight for me” she can only express it as “will you stay and fight for Helium” so after JC disappears and she thinks he has returned to Earth, it is devastating when she says ” Yes, I am ( utterly, completely, abandoned by my own father and the man I love) alone.

    You can say what you want about using the medallion, but it paid off in spades with that whiplash of change ups at the end. Oh! shit, Matie Shang just sent John back to Earth.
    What, John is not dead ! Wait, John conned everybody and flushed out another medallion ! Hold on Baby, I’m coming back to you on Mars. That was a very satisfying ending.

    All this other stuff, it wasn’t scientifically accurate, I didn’t like the sword fighting style, a little too much exposition, this is a FANTASY story and it was a fun, intelligent, beautiful to look at and emotionally engaging, somethings that most of these big entertainment type movies don’t even get close to approaching.

  • I also completely agree with what you said about the spiritual nature of his being called to Mars. We’re absolutely on the same wavelength regarding the ideal way to present the character and the onset of his experience.

  • Sorry for the miscommunication, Michael — my second comment was actually directed towards what Kevin said, but when it got more broad I decided not to address it to a single individual.

    I fully understand your journalistic perspective on this stuff, so I didn’t mean to imply that you were endorsing all the Stanton calls. I understand a bit about the uncontrollable nature of film production, too, and really appreciate the way you’ve dug into those decisions that don’t always get made public.

  • Henreid
    Sometimes when I try to explain what someone (typically Stanton) was trying to do, people react as if I’m blindly endorsing it and saying it was genius. Although I think he did an overall good job and am eternally grateful to him for being the prime mover behind getting this movie made — I am not 100% in agreement with all his creative choices, probably no more than 80% and remember that 80% includes a lot of choices — design, costume, etc–that most people don’t even think of as choices, since people always fixate on story and character.

    This article, like the special reports, is more attempting to be “journalistic” in explaining what I think went on, the thought processes etc — and analyzing what is there to analyze — as opposed to saying this was a great idea and this, not so much. On another thread I commented about what I think would have been a better approach — finding within Carter’s “otherness” brought on by in explicable aging a kind of poignancy, loneliness (people getting older while he doesn’t) that keeps him separated; and then Barsoom as a spiritual awakening and eventually a connection…his true home … etc. For what it’s worth — I personally don’t relate to the modern reluctant hero nearly as well as I do to a John Carter type hero — or any willful protagonist who knows who he is and what he wants and overcomes obstacles in his quest. But one thing I know from personal experience is that Hollywood is pretty dogmatic that that “old school” kind of hero is just what Stanton called him — “vanilla”, a little boring and outdated. I personally think they are wrong and the world may well be ready for a larger than life heroic hero. But Stanton didn’t make that choice…..he made the choice he did, largely for (I believe) the reasons I stated.

    The other thing is … being in “the business” doesn’t give me any particular wisdom, but since I constantly think about movies in development, I’m just used to not getting my way all the time or even much of the time. Even when I’m producing a film the director will drag it off somewhere different from where I want it to go … and when I direct one, the damned movie itself will drag itself away from time to time because of actors, or external factors that force changes on it. It’s important for the film-maker to be resolute and willful in pursuit of his/her vision — but also flexible and able to “listen” when the story tries to talk to him/her in one fashion or another, either during the filming or, more commonly, during the editing when the difference between the movie you set out to make, and the movie you got, starts becoming apparent. All of which is by way of saying that I speak about the process without judging it so much, and when I do get around to writing an opinion piece or judging something, I make clear thats what Im doing.

    So no, in this piece, id didn’t in any way mean to “argue that Stanton made all the right choices”. He just made choices that he thought were right.

  • I would say that the book Carter’s impulsive, act-without-thinking personality is evident in the movie. He may claim to not want to get involved in Mars’ problems, but his moral center would not allow him to ignore a woman about to fall to her death and his muscles reacted without thinking. I believe the book Carter would approve.

  • I’m not sure you can argue that Stanton obviously made all the right choices in getting a massive modern audience to connect with this character, given the slightly-less-than-incredible commercial success of the film.

    The failure of the recent Superman film really can’t have much to do with his bold, heroic nature, considering Singer & Co. gave us a more angst-filled, depressing version of that character.

    I find it interesting for this stark ‘re-imagining’ of John Carter’s character to come on the heels of the success of Captain America, where the filmmakers basically said ‘damn the torpedoes, this is who Cap IS and we’re not going to change it for a modern bunch of disillusioned cowards’. The optimistic decency of Chris Evans’ portrayal of Steve Rogers was the key point of praise in nearly every review of that film.

    Look those up on RT if you wish—– people were ready for a real John Carter.

    My own personal opinion aside, one could argue the returns speak for themselves.
    Stanton absolutely made the wrong call — and he even did it at the wrong time, just as American audiences were softened up to the idea of a ‘Prince Valiant’ dashing, virtuous hero.

  • Interesting that Stanton almost got one of the key scenes right, but then re-wrote it to backslide his protagonist and (as a bonus) also undermine the idea of Dejah Thoris making her own moral stand.

    You also didn’t mention the scene where DJC pisses on the floor inside of a building, like a filthy animal.

    Agreed, MCR — Disney John Carter is barely a passable swordsman.

    He’s also no tactician and a bit of a dolt — compare the careful use of resources and stamina in the novel’s escape to the film, where he sets Dejah’s thoat loose in the middle of the desert just to make a sloppy point that he doesn’t need her. Or compare his clever strategy for gaining ingress to Zodanga in the novel to the film, where he leads everyone to the wrong city just for a joke about him being stupid.

    In DJC’s favor, you could say it only took him a few seconds for his Civil-War era intellect to learn how to pilot a one-man flier better than his trained pursuers (and while falling in mid-air as in Avatar) whereas it took ERB’s JC weeks of military training to believably learn how to fly a complex vehicle that moves many times faster than anything he has ever imagined.

    You could also compare his jumping abilities, which you started to in another thread. How JC is roughly limited by what earthly muscles could accomplish on Mars, while DJC is able to jump seemingly almost a mile (or however far is convenient for the screenplay in a given moment) while wearing a full-grown Kantos Kan backpack. A film version of ERB’s JC would have had to climb that tower silently in a harrowing, vertigo-inducing sequence (perhaps not unlike what Brad Bird accomplished in MI4) while in Stanton’s film DJC effortlessly bounces up the tower like a Gummi Bear.

    This is a good start, but there are so many more differences to explore.

  • Dotar Sojat wrote:
    “Ha, MCR! That’s a pretty mild response, all things considered."

    What can I say. It's early.

    "1. Powell, reading from his file, says he’s an accomplished swordsman and recounts his accomplishments, six decorations, etc. "

    OK you must have the dialogue remembered from those 6 viewings. Powell might say he's an "accomplished swordsman" but John Carter definetly wasn't in the action scenes. Maybe it was the awkward choreography or the whole "hack and slash" style to the fighting. A thing that always stuck out was John Carter playing with his opponent. Here's it basically reminded me of the fighting in The Lord of the Rings films, just not as well edited.

    "Let me pretend I’m Andrew Stanton, just for a moment, and at the risk of riling you up. Have you seen a movie in the last 50 years? Are you completely incapable of recognizing that our conscious self is sometimes at odds with out unconscious self?"

    Actually I'm beginning to think you are Andrew Stanton. Or at least a clone of him :-)

    And yes I've seen quite a few movies and am aware of the whole "conscious self" vs "unconscious self." I'm also aware it's a worn out story telling device. We all know he's going to have the big "change of heart" scene. Here it could have happened sooner instead of having to suffer the whole subplot with the Thern temple and the Medallion. Instead of was badly written bickering scenes with him and Dejah-and her whole scheme to get him to Helium to rescue her people which ultimately went no where. I guess it could be chalked up to the reshooting and constant editing changes but it just felt like a lot of dead weight.

    " So why did he save Powell? Save Woola? Save Dejah? Fight against Sab Than after saving Dejah? Accept the Thark chieftainship to protect Dejah? Send Dejah off and face the Warhoons?"

    Well let's see. Maybe he figures if he rescues Powell he'll leave him alone. Or doesn't want to be accused of murdering him by Powell's men since he was the outlaw they were chasing. As for Sab Than well you have a bunch of guys slashing swords at you. I doubt it had to do with a "code" than saving his own hide. As for the Thark chieftanship well that was after the "big change" scene so of course he needed to get it-even if it ruins Tars Tarkas' character. As for Woola and Dejah well he has to. If he didn't the audience wouldn't like him. It doesn't mean he has a code. He has a formulaic plot to follow and it's a little hard to like a "hero" who doesn't rescue the princess and the cute dog creature.

    "Anyway, I think we’re sort of saying the same thing except that I’m not relegating it to “pointless MacGuffin” because it has such a profound affect on the story, as you acknowledge. But neither of us like it….."

    Hey we agree on something!

    "I would like it if you would address why you feel that Carter’s actions as outlined above and in the movie count for nothing (saving Powell, saving woola, saving Dejah, fighting Sab Than in the first air encounter, sacrificing for the Warhoons) and his outward demeanor and attitude count for everything."

    I didn't say they didn't count. The problem was what was around them didn't count. I'm sorry I dont' go with Stanton's "damaged goods" defense for making the character dull and predictable. Yes we know he didn't really like John Carter the way Burroughs wrote him. But does that mean make him such a cliched character whose story arc could be seen coming miles away?

  • Ha, MCR< that's a pretty mild response, all things considered. 1. Powell, reading from his file, says he's an accomplished swordsman and recounts his accomplishments, six decorations, etc. This is a data-point you are ignoring. Your points are fair, but so is this, and clearly it's intended that he's competent, even though he gets the sword flipped out of his hand once. 2."Stanton's John Carter had no code". So why did he save Powell? Save Woola? Save Dejah? Fight against Sab Than after saving Dejah? Accept the Thark chieftainship to protect Dejah? Send Dejah off and face the Warhoons? 3. "Stanton's John Carter had no code.....he wanted to be left alone...didn't care for anyone or anything. How is that having a code unless selfishness and greedy moping count." Let me pretend I'm Andrew Stanton, just for a moment, and at the risk of riling you up. Have you seen a movie in the last 50 years? Are you completely incapable of recognizing that our conscious self is sometimes at odds with out unconscious self? Are you oblivious to the fact that Carter said one ("moped") and did another (acted heroically to save Powell, Woola, Dejah, etc)..... You're falling for the bait, sir, you're not looking beneath the surface to the real character but instead are only seeing what's on the surface. 4. "Was that it was a pointless MacGuffin. It added nothing to the story except to destroy the spiruality that you describe of John Carter’s character. In Burroughs John Carter doesn’t want to go back. Stanton’s JC spends the whole movie chasing around a bad piece of junk jewelry and having to say a stupid phrase (Klaatu, Barada, Nikto it isn’t) just so he can return home to his cave. Again it was a boring plot, even without being compared to the novel." As someone else pointed out (Peter Weber, I think), this "Relic Hunter" component was really out of place, particularly the quest down the River Iss (although I'm told that this was done to introduce things that will play a big part of the second installment, if/when that ever happens, so they knew it was a compromise to the first story but felt it laid groundwork.) Anyway, I think we're sort of saying the same thing except that I'm not relegating it to "pointless MacGuffin" because it has such a profound affect on the story, as you acknowledge. But neither of us like it..... I would like it if you would address why you feel that Carter's actions as outlined above and in the movie count for nothing (saving Powell, saving woola, saving Dejah, fighting Sab Than in the first air encounter, sacrificing for the Warhoons) and his outward demeanor and attitude count for everything. Actually, there is somebody right here on this board who has a very sour, grumpy, grouchy exterior but who, underneath it, is heroically taking up his sword constantly in defense of ERB. Now if I just reacted to that guy's exterior the way you are reacting only to Stanton's JC's exterior, I would be missing the true honorable nature of that guy. But you see, people have layers, and just like that grumpy guy on the board has good qualities worth recognizing, so too did Stanton's John Carter, however grumpy and pre-occupied with the wrong things, have aspects of his character that were revealed by his choices and showed that yes -- he had a code, and he risked his life for Powell, Woola, and Dejah (multiple times, even while grumpy) to prove it.

  • MCR wrote:

    ‘Really? Stanton’s John Carter had his sword kicked out of his hand by Zodangans and Dejah Thoris had to take them on. Later he was barely able to fight Sab Than and his “light up sword.” ‘

    Perhaps this is only me seeing more than was there, but the Barsoomians had a different fighting style and operated under (to them) normal gravity. In the initial fight with the Zodangans Carter is basically learning to sword fight all over again. (Kitsch mention in one interview — perhaps the “hacking” interview wherein he answered Dotar’s question — that he learned how to handle a sword like a Civil War cavalryman.)

  • Good article. Michael! Best I can compare it to is all the changes and reinventions of Superman over the years. Same basics, but different dynamics to get to the same end. I’ve learned to roll with the changes to my favorite hero, Lois and his cousin Kara.

    The way I saw the scene with Dejah where she is practically forcing John Carter to go back to Earth, it was obvious to me he hasn’t quite decided to do that at the moment… he’s staying to save her. It works better to me, in my humble opinion.

    I’m afraid with your refreshing of the memory of John Carter of old, it’s apparent to me the critics would have eviscerated the movie, even more than they did. They wouldn’t get his character at all and I’m afraid today’s audience wouldn’t either. Sorry, JC purists. Stanton made the right call there. The success of the Marvel and Batman characters in the most successful movies has been that they are all flawed and that’s always the criticism in recent years of Superman, my favorite hero and oldest first memory of TV… seeing Superman flying on TV as I watched my older brothers watch the old George Reeves show through the rails of my crib. I always read anymore that Superman is vanilla, impossible to be like, etc. And that may be why some of the more recent Superman films haven’t done so well. Different times call for different heroes.

  • Regarding the “backsliding” scene in Zodanga, I interpreted Carter’s seeming noncommitment to Dejah as a silent admission that he had failed to save her and that he was (at this point) powerless to do anything more. Sab Than now has Kantos Kan and Tardos Mors (and who knows who else) safely tucked away in Zondanga; escaping yet again with Carter at this point is now impossible.

    Only after the much-maligned “walkabout” with Matai Shang does Carter realize the depth of the opposition. And the only way Carter can take on such opponents is with an army at his back.

  • Sorry Dotar but I’m going to disagree. And like Vito Corleone I’ll will give you my reasons.

    “In both cases he is a talented swordsman; accomplished fighting mannd principled human being operating under a “code” that is grounded in a sense of what is honorable and what is not.”

    Really? Stanton’s John Carter had his sword kicked out of his hand by Zodangans and Dejah Thoris had to take them on. Later he was barely able to fight Sab Than and his “light up sword.” This John Carter is not Errol Flynn.

    As for operating under a “code” the Burroughs John Carter did-the chivalorous code of being a Soutern Gentleman. Stanton’s John Carter had no code-basically as you said he wanted to be left alone, didn’t care for anyone or anything. How is that having a code unless selfishness and greedy moping count?

    “The Impact of the Medallion”

    Was that it was a pointless MacGuffin. It added nothing to the story except to destroy the spiruality that you describe of John Carter’s character. In Burroughs John Carter doesn’t want to go back. Stanton’s JC spends the whole movie chasing around a bad piece of junk jewelry and having to say a stupid phrase (Klaatu, Barada, Nikto it isn’t) just so he can return home to his cave. Again it was a boring plot, even without being compared to the novel.

    “It is his loyalty and love of his wife and family that has left Carter damaged–and it is loyalty and love of the wife and child that impedes his ability to connect with his new circumstances.”

    And dull and boring again. Leaving comparing it to the novel and standing on its own and what is left? An unappealing dull character who mopes through the 2/3rds of the movie, has a cliched riddled backstory-which is usually the least interesting part of the story-and a lack of beliveability to his sudden change of heart. Now some of that could be attributed to Taylor Kitsch’s performance but it has more to do with the writing and the lack of making John Carter anything “human.”

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