An interesting article sent along by HRH Rider. The question it poses is, can a film become a victim of “genre success” in that the genre’s conventions become so well known and familiar that it doesn’t work? Actually the author, Greg Ferrara, phrases it better than I just did: “can the progressive efficiency of a genre retroactively make an early example of the form tired and predictable?”
First, here’s a link to the article at MovieMorlocks.com Can a movie be a victim of genre success?
And here’s the piece dealing with John Carter:
Recently, this question was raised with the release of John Carter of Mars (hereafter, John Carter), directed by Andrew Stanton and based on the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. I still haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on the artistic success of the film one way or another but many a reviewer criticized the film for being too similar to many adventure movies before it, including Star Wars. The problem is, Star Wars creator George Lucas used much of what was in the original John Carter stories for his movie and, as bad luck would have it for John Carter, the Star Wars saga became the single-biggest thing in adventure since the beginning of ever. So now it looks like John Carter is copying Star Wars instead of the other way around. But does it matter?
Many critics seemed to think so, or at the very least, claim that, through no fault of its own, it seemed a little old-hat, thus acknowledging backhandedly that John Carter technically got there first but before anyone cared. On the other hand, voices I trust far more, like Roderick Heath of Ferdy on Films (he and Marilyn Ferdinand, for whom the site is named, are two of the best critics out there), felt that the movie succeeded beautifully despite the familiarity of its plot elements. Like I said, I haven’t seen it yet but I’ll be honest, when I do, I’ll probably have Rod’s sensibility in my head more than the “it feels old and tired” one. After all, to me, if something’s been done a thousand times before, it can be done a thousand times more and still work as long as the people doing it know what they’re doing.
My two cents — yes, this can be a problem but it can be addressed in two ways. The first way is within the story itself — this is the obvious one. Stanton certainly did that with John Carter. Whether he did too much or too little updating depends on your perspective. But I don’t there is any doubt that he was aware of this kind of an issue and approached it “with a plan”. But the problem is, that if you try to stay true to the original in any meaningful way, you’re always going to come up short in the eyes of some viewers and especially in the eyes of jaded critics.
But I think the other piece of it has to do with promotion — particularly in the case of John Carter. When the thing that is being created is the original you have to tell people that and sell the notion that it’s a special opportunity to finally see the thing that was the wellspring for the genre. I think by now it’s pretty well established that people who went to the movie with that understanding tended to have a different reaction than those who didn’t.
Having said that — the promotion may solve some issues with audience interest, but what about the critics? Virtually all of the John Carter reviewers who beat up on it for these kinds of reasons, did so with the full knowledge that it was the original and Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Avatar, etc were the derivative stories. They just didn’t care. So I don’t know. Maybe you do have to really re-invent the genre in some way, or fall victim to this syndrome.