Dotar comment: I actually excavated this from a comment thread in which Rebecca Baeder Garland — my fav teacher (well she’s the only teacher I know but I wish I could have had a teacher like her back in the day) reacted to an article I wrote called John Carter, the Flop that Wasn’t a Turkey, and I wrote a long reply but didn’t publish it. I think we’re far enough downstream now where this conversation is one I’d like to share.
Things most fans can agree on…
1. Title was bad
2. Promotion/Marketing was bad
3. Budget was huge
I always like reading your articles Michael as you are able to synthesize all of the known information from the inside out and break it down for the rest of us who don’t have the time and/or the stamina to dig as deeply as you do.
I agree that John Carter was left unattended in what Disney believed to be the completely capable hands of Stanton, but I am wondering more about the story construction itself.
We can agree that we both enjoyed the movie, but as I have watched it over and over again and read so many articles and books, I cant help but notice the story problems. Here comes the teacher…
When Stanton decided to include “the dead wife and kid” he failed to do what he did straight away in Nemo… show their demise at the very beginning of the film. This is a cliche plot device, but we can agree that it is very effective in creating instant sympathy for the main character. Once Nemo’s mom dies, we understand all of Marlin’s irrational behavior and why he is so overprotective with his son and we are with him on his journey in the first 5 minutes.
What if the film started later on, say when Nemo is at school getting picked on and we learned one hour in how his mom died (maybe in the ‘belly of the whale’ scene)? We would have spent half the movie only mildly on-board with Marlin, and then finally understood his behavior and then accompanied him on his journey.
Well that’s exactly the thing that happened with John Carter. We spend an hour with him acting grumpy, pissed-off and selfishly wanting to get out of Barsoom to get his cave of gold and them we get the excellent Thark Battle with the cross-cut scenes of his family’s death. Then we FINALLY feel for the guy and sit back and hope he saves Barsoom.
What if the movie opened with a horrific scene of his family’s death? We’d be right there, understanding his every attitude and why he acts the way he does. Instead we get 3 prologues before the movie really even starts.
Secondary characters. Dory vs. Tars/Sola
Immediate sympathy for Dori, can’t remember sh!t and is an unlikely companion. No back-story necessary… instant character side-kick
Tars/Sola have a complicated back-story which encompasses an entire chapter (or more) of the original text. In the film, we feel kinda bad for Sola because she is picked on by Sarkoja and gets branded for disobedience, but we’re not sure what she’s there for. We get exactly 30 seconds to love Sola when we find out she’s Tars Daughter and suddenly Tars is OK with JC, Dejah and Sola escaping together because JC knows about their relationship. We get one minute to care. Teach us about Tars and Sola in the beginning or just don’t mention it.
Sola has every reason to run away with JC and Dejah because she faces certain doom, do we really need to know about their relationship if the writers are only going to give us one second to care about it?
I believe they wanted to modernize the hero for today’s audience, but in so doing they forgot to bring us with him, to understand why he was acting the way he was. They made him the reluctant hero, almost ashamed of what he had become and ashamed to call himself a warrior. But they took an hour to tell us why.
Burroughs’ John Carter was a fighting man that lost everything he owned and his best friend. We learn that in the first 2 chapters. We’re on board with him in the beginning. This John Carter was a fighting man and knew he was on Mars the second he arrived. Cocky, rash and self-assured… the opposite of reluctant. We are ready to kick some serious ass with him ASAP.
I don’t mind necessarily that Stanton et.al. changed Carter’s character, but if you’re going to do that you need to make us understand him so we can journey with him.
Even with a bad title, terrible marketing and a big budget, the writers could have got a whole lot more people to care about the main character and perhaps the general public would have found the movie less “confusing”.
This poor film had everything against it from the start, but better story construction could have helped. I do think that what they came up with was very good, but it could have been brilliant.
The subject of the story itself and how it was told is something that I’ve been gradually working toward as a “fair game” topic. I’m glad you’ve kind of opened it up here, as I find that responding to comments is a good way opening a topic and exploring it a bit.
I think one of the most perplexing things about John Carter is how it has two of the greatest storytellers of all time bundled into one movie — ERB and Andrew Stanton — and yet the storytelling choices seem at times to be less deft than either A Princess of Mars, or in Wall-E or Finding Nemo.
In your analysis you focus on the late reveal of the wife and kids. I agree and all I can think is that the film-makers thought that they had foreshadowed it much earlier. When Carter, in the jail says, “I’ve already paid” we see a closeup of the two rings on his his finger and perhaps the film-makers thought we would “get it”. I didn’t the first time I saw the movie; I did the second time. One of the reasons the film is so satisfying on repeat viewings is that we understand Carter’s actions in light of our knowledge of his situation gained by watching the movie the first time.
But although the existence of the dead wife and child is often cited as “the” major change from the character in the book — I think there is something else that is equally if not more profound in the way it changes the core experience of the story.
In the movie, Carter has reason to believe he has finally found his “Cave of Gold” and thus immense riches await him — but because of the Thern medallion he is rudely snatched, kidnapped in a way, to Mars. When he arrives on Mars he doesn’t know where he is; he doesn’t care where he is; he just wants (he thinks) to get back to his cave of gold and this dictates his reaction (or non-reaction) to Mars, and his overt motivation for most of the movie–in fact he thinks this is what he wants right up to the Warhoon battle when he in effect “pledges metal” to Dejah Thoris while simultaneously paying homage to his dead wife and child, and moving on from them emotionally.
Contrast this to the book, where John Carter is in the cave and is overcome by what he eventually comes to believe is poisonous gas (he smells a strange odor and remarks on it) and lies as if under anesthesia on the floor. He might be dead – he’s not sure. He is made fearful by the moaning sound from behind him, and on the strength or power or intensity of that fear, he summons the willpower and focus that causes him to break free of his anesthesia like experience and looks down upon his dead body — and finds himself “naked as at birth”, standing beside his dead body. He understands himself to be dead, and his new state to be something inexplicable–the after life? Something else? We’re not sure. Naked and unsure, he then sees Mars, feels an overwhelming, intense longing, and suddenly is drawn there. He wakes up and from the moment he arrives he a) knows where he is, b) understands that it is his destiny to be there, and c) has no way back, nor gives any thought to going back to Earth, for he is dead on Earth.
This death/rebirth cycle is an essential aspect of the story and is profoundly satisfying on multiple levels to the audience.
Yet most of the commentary talks about how Burroughs approach just kind of skimmed past any science and had Carter just suddenly and magically transported to Mars–as if this is a deficiency when in fact it is very carefully crafted and touches on very primal aspects of our human experience.
But — Stanton evidently accepted the argument that a modern audience would want a scientific explanation. It is in essence the “conventional wisdom” to believe this. But would a modern audience require a scientific explanation? Burroughs version involved something bordering on the supernatural. Modern audiences accept the supernatural or inexplicable all the time, and it would have been possible to retain the Death and Rebirth (extremely powerful audience experiences) and also build in the sense of destiny in being drawn to Mars. This would also eliminate the worries about “people know there is no life on Mars” because the supernatural nature of Carter’s transport to Mars would leave open the possibility that this is an alternate reality; that there is time travel involved; any number of explanations for the presence of life on Mars.
The impact of Burroughs choice was to create a situation where, once on Mars, we and Carter regard it as a wondrous of destiny for Carter, and once there he understands his mission is to explore, survive, and flourish there and we are in that journey with him. He has escaped the bonds of earth – and so do we. He exits the dreariness of existence here and finds something suited to his character and hence more richly satisfying than earthly life, and we go on that journey with him. On Mars he is a keen observer (remember how the students in the reading group talked about how he “described things”) ….he viewsd himself as an explorer who noted and appreciated the details of everything round him. Knowing he could not go back — he looked forward, and tried to make his way in his new environment which he felt destined for. He earned respect (Tars), won friends (Sola, Woola), and when Dejah Thoris appeared he had been 30 days thinking he was the only human on Mars, only to suddenly see the “Fair Captive From the Sky” and be drawn to her as a kindred soul.
I am of the opinion that the Burroughs story approach touches some very, very deep and primal yearnings in our spirits. I think that Burroughs story is transformative – that it allows us to do what John Carter did, leave behind the “clay” of our mundane human existence and be reborn into a fascinating world that is intriguing, alluring, and is bound by notions of honor and comradery. Men don’t kill women on Barsoom; Tharks never lie (hence their willingness to leave Carter untethered when he gave them his word he would not attempt to escape); warriors use swords whenever possible and don’t take advantage of each other by using guns to gain advantage. Underlying everything is a deep sense of a chivalric code — a life of service to a cause or a person — with Carter finding that in Dejah and losing himself in it. What Burroughs accomplished — even if rough around the edges in its “literariness” — was deeply spiritually satisfying.
By contrast, Stanton — who as the storyteller of Nemo and Wall-E had every reason to be supremely confident in his own gifts and aware of what it was about Burroughs that made it so special — made a series of cautious, one might even say timid choices. He accepted the idea that modern audiences would need a scientific explanation for travel to Mars; he accepted the idea that Carter must be a modern hero, broken and reluctant, who has an arc that ends with him realizing in the latter part of the movie that he is meant to be on Mars.
And so instead of having a deeply spiritual and emotionally engaging story of death on Earth and rebirth on Mars into a powerfully satisfying culture, in the movie we have a story of, in essence, kidnapping and a desire to escape the kidnapping and get back to — what? A cave of gold? Not family, not longing for anything spiritual, but rather simply wealth and greed so powerful that it makes him, for much of the movie, unable to appreciate either Barsoom or Dejah Thoris. This story idea — Carter wanting to get back to Earth as his main motivation — is something that was introduced in some of the earlier screenplay adaptations going back to the 90?s and I wonder if Stanton came to it from those screenplays, or somewhere else. But it’s a very, very profound change in the story dynamics at a very deep and primal level.
And so — as much as I love the movie — my reaction ends up being similar to yours — I feel like much of the first portion of the movie fails to draw us in, and what frustrates me about that is that it was all there in Burroughs and this is not just the same old “don’t change the book” trope. It’s that it seems like Burroughs gave us something profound that Stanton — who came to Barsoom through the comic books first, and the novels second — may not have appreciated — or for sure didn’t appreciate because he abandoned it in favor of over “modern-ness” that in some fashion robbed the story of some of its very special and essential charm.
And yet that charm is there because I think the reason so many viewers become so attached to it is that even if John Carter himself does not experience Barsoom the way the John Carter of the books did — they (the audience) are experiencing it in that way. Because while Stanton changed story and character elements, he didn’t change the world — he labored magnificently to bring the world to life on the screen in every small detail and in doing this he accomplished the imaginative transport that Burroughs did, and it seems that some audience members are really responding to this. They are getting their Barsoom and it’s magical for them.
Anyway, this is a preliminary ramble ….but I do want to get around to exploring this at some point.
One other thing …. a director deals with so much more than story. He makes decision after decision after decision that have nothing to do with story. What will Woola look like? The tharks? The flyers? Helium? Zodanga? — then drill down — what does a Thark harness look like? are there markings? Weaponry? Step by step Stanton had to build an entire world and for the building of the world, about the only thing I can think of that really deviated from Burroughs was the dead city of Korad — it didn’t have the murals, paintings, and evidence of the grand civilization that came before. That’s really the only area where he seems to have deviated — the rest of it is extremely faithful, and it seems to have resonated with many audience members, providing them that transport that Burroughs did. But I think it could have connected in a greater way, with more audience members, if he had kept the death and rebirth structure.
Ha…another very long comment. Much to think about.
Epilogue from Dotar
I decided to publish this previously unpublished comment now because I’m really struggling with — “what was the Burroughs magic”….I’m looking for someone out there to wave their magic wand and explain it to me. Because I can feel it, but I’m struggling to articulate it. So anyway, if anyone out there reads this and is moved to comment, maybe you’ll figure it out and explain it to me. Hope so.