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Mark Strong on the Whys and Wherefores of John Carter

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

Most of the participants in John Carter have been pretty circumspect in their comments about what happened with the release of the movie.  Brad Turner just tipped us to the fact that Mark Strong has just come forward with some thoughts in a TV interview as reported by ComicBookMovie.com:

“Well I really liked it, and I thought people were really harsh on it. It suffered from the fact that we have seen everything in it before. It was written at the turn of last century, and every thing Star Wars, Star Trek, even Tarzan all comes from it really. The idea of science fiction, he (Edgar Rice Burrough) was the granddaddy of it all really. So there was nothing in there that really surprised anyone, and it looked a bit dated. I really enjoyed it, my kids enjoyed it, and people I know enjoyed it.”

While I don’t agree with his comment that “nothing in there really surprised anyone” — (judging from the reaction of so many uber passionate fans, something surprised people), I do think Strong’s comment are in essence the comments that should have been at the forefront of Stanton’s mind as he developed the film,  and Disney marketing’s collective “mind” (!!) as they attempted to develop a strategy for marketing the film.

With a film like John Carter, you either embrace it for what it actually is, which is the grandaddy of all interplanetary sci-fi  stories and the inspiration for Star, Wars, Avatar, Flash Gordon, etc.  You make sure everybody understands that: “This is the true origins story for Star Wars and Avatar” . . . . .and build interest an intrigue on that basis, while at the same time “inoculating” (marketing term) against any “we’ve seen this before” reactions by prepping people to understand that this is what actually came first.

Ahem . . . . a visual aid comes to mind.

Herewith, our fan trailer, “Heritage”, which I know you’ve all seen but what the hell, reading Strong’s comments made me think about it.

 

12 comments

  • Really, the only archaism I can see in Burroughs’ writing is that the action takes place in what is the past for us.

    I just finished reading “The Son of Tarzan”. Whaow. Meriem keeps getting abducted, all the time, for good or bad reasons. It’s pretty much her history all book long, but boy is she strong… From being abused by her “father” to grow into a she-ape as fearless as Korak, facing without fear all jungle creatures around, to her daring escapes and resistance to the wrongs that befall her… It’s an awesome book, and a great example of how Burroughs wrote strong female characters.

  • “But there is no denying that the language and some of the attitudes on them are archaic. Yes, the female characters are feisty and courageous, clever and admirable, but all the same they are still “just women” and when they do something amazing the male hero is always awestruck at her ability etc. The sexism of the era they were written in is there, and you can’t (or at least I, as a woman, can’t) deny it. ”

    Actually I can. For example you mention how the hero is “awestruck” when the woman shows her skills. What was John Carter’s reaction to sword-wielding Dejah in this film when they first met? Complete surprise and confusion. So this idea that men can be awestruck by a strong woman isn’t just from Burroughs’ period. It was in this movie, made and released in the 21st century.

    Or for that matter explain to me how the character of Jane Clayton was a lot stronger in Burroughs’ books compared to the film counterparts? Or for that matter the strong female characters in Robert E. Howard’s tales? The women might be there to be mere eye candy in some cases but they are not helpless creatures contrary to this 21st century attempt to prove otherwise. By the same rationale most Jane Austen female characters are prying, annoying characters sticking their noses into other people’s businesses. How is that better?

    “And as for the changes made to the Therns? Why is that a problem? Why are shapeshifting beings less acceptable than the idea that John Carter can magically transport himself across the galaxy to Mars just by sheer power of thought and force of will? Stanton made the Therns the “mystical” beings that the people of Mars *believe* them to be, rather than made them something new entirely. ”

    Well let’s see. One problem is that they were added for one reason, to setup a sequel that is now not coming. So they’re dead weight to the film’s story since there is no payoff, no resolution.

    Also have you read The Gods of Mars? The idea of them as shape shifting super beings goes against Burroughs’ idea of them as mere mortals who believe they are gods. They didn’t have super powers, just arrogance from centuries of blind allegiance and faith. Turning them into Super Sith Lords with T-1000 abilties destroys that completely. Also turning Matai Shang into your garden variety Bond villain (Hey let me tell you my evil scheme and then fail to kill you) combined with Ming the Merciless without Max Von Sydow or Charles Middleton wasn’t an improvement or made them “mystical.” It made them boring and pointless to the story, especially now that a sequel is dead and buried.

  • Oh, I’ve not just read “some comics”, I’ve read all the books, not just a few bits and pieces. And I love them, I really do, just like I love Robert E Howards work, it’s *proper* adventure stories, with heroes of passion and principle. Some of the ideas used in them are brilliant, surreal and light years ahead of their time, and have inspired so many others (Seriously, Jack Reacher, am I the only one who thinks he’s a modern day Solomon Kane?) I’m comfortable enough with my Nerd credentials and don’t really feel I need to prove myself.

    But there is no denying that the language and some of the attitudes on them are archaic. Yes, the female characters are feisty and courageous, clever and admirable, but all the same they are still “just women” and when they do something amazing the male hero is always awestruck at her ability etc. The sexism of the era they were written in is there, and you can’t (or at least I, as a woman, can’t) deny it.

    And as for the changes made to the Therns? Why is that a problem? Why are shapeshifting beings less acceptable than the idea that John Carter can magically transport himself across the galaxy to Mars just by sheer power of thought and force of will? Stanton made the Therns the “mystical” beings that the people of Mars *believe* them to be, rather than made them something new entirely.

    These stories are filled with outlandish ideas and weird and wonderful concepts, some of them work for some of us, but not for every body. The film was never going to please all the die hard fans of this kind of writing, but it was good enough to bring new people to these stories, and re-kindle interest in them.

    I’m deeply saddened by the way Disney deserted this movie, no matter what you think of the film, with regards to how faithful is was to the stories, theres no denying they abandoned it before it was even finished. If the marketing machine had been put to work on this, and lunch boxes, role-play toys and action figures had been deployed, who knows how different this could’ve been.

  • Pascalahad that’s a really good way to put it — that Dejah’s plot function and character are two different things. At the plot device level Burroughs does often place the damsel in distress in the same way that espionage authors almost always use a “maguffin” — that thing the two sides are vying for. But the character of the woman in question is never that of a shrinking,fearful, frightened waif. But somehow that idea — that she was a handwringing, no-backbone creature, has entered into the consciousness of many, including many who actually read the books at some point. But John Carter himself calls her a “heroic daughter of a heroic world”, which just about says it all, and says it right, about Dejah Thoris.

  • A Princess of Mars is neither dated nor ridiculous, that’s why it’s still read nowadays. I saw some comments on discussion boards where people who discovered the novel after seeing the movie were surprised by how fresh and accessible it was. I love Stanton’s version, but no, I can’t let anyone write that it did “improve” on the book. Quite the opposite, if anything it showed a surprising shyness in embracing some of its appeal.

    Regarding Dejah (and all of Burroughs’ female heroes), I’m always surprised to read comments about how helpless they are. OK, “damsel in distress” is more often than not their function in the novels, but it doesn’t describe their character at all. They are not as physically strong as men (is it THAT unrealistic?), but in their mind, they are stronger than any character in the stories. They are fearless, independent-thinking, stubborn and brave, but you have to read between the lines and beyond their plot function.

    Regarding Mark Strong’s comments, I can only concur with Abraham Sherman, it’s not because some components have been utilized that it invalidates the “real deal”. And it’s always surprising to me that Stanton and co didn’t stick more closely to Burroughs’ descriptions, since it would have given a never-seen-before atmosphere to Barsoom (the yellow, dustless moss covering the ground, the two huge moons, one-man airships less reminiscent of speeder-bikes, everybody clad in harnesses…). I don’t think it was going too far in “fantasy” territory, and it wasn’t something already done onscreen.

  • “MCR, if they had stuck more faithfully to the books much of the film would’ve been at best laughable, at worst painful to watch. I love the stories, I really do, but like Robert Howard etc, Edgar Rice Burroughs work is incredibly dated, and in places, plain ridiculous.”

    I just love how people claim they love the books but at the first to throw them under the bus, so to speak, in favor of the Stantonian view that they don’t work. That adding Shape shifting super aliens with Force powers, having Woola do the Road Runner or a moving city is somehow not more laughable or painful to watch but what Burroughs wrote is.

    By that rationale isn’t Superman sort of laughable? A guy from another planet who can fly and is virtually invulnerable? Yet they just rebooted him. How about Iron Man? Or even Sherlock Holmes? No one is that smart (despite what the Stanton minions claim) yet Holmes can solve any crime no matter what. That’s pretty far fetched too. So I don’t buy this whole excuse that they adapting them and being faithful would have resulted in a laughable movie. What was laughable was the botch job Stanton did, claiming he was being respectful of Burroughs and his work. That was painful to watch.

    As for Dejah, Michael covered that pretty well and it’s a good defense. There is no defense for Shape Shifter Sith Lord Shang however. Him and his Super-Therns were pointless and a complete trashing of their original origins. They worked because they were normal men, not gods and definetly not because they were ripoffs of Palaptine/Ming the Merciless/Or any other role Mark Strong has played recently.

    I know this will be criticized as mean but I just don’t get the idea that someone claims to like the books but calls them laughable and condones Stanton’s bad ideas as making it work. I just don’t.

  • Jehefinner, it’s always cool to hear a new voice with a depth of interest in the books. Stick around, no matter how heated some discussions may become! :-)

    The core issue brought up in Strong’s comments is the so-called strip-mining of ERB’s novels. As Michael mentions in his book, there are a lot of films that have been influenced by the Barsoom novels, but none of those films have captured what Barsoom itself captured.

    Naturally, none of us here are defending the clunky aspects of the novels. Those aspects are things that any adaptation with a pulse will seek to remedy with minimal impact to the faithfulness of the film overall. Very few people advocate for a full warts-and-all adaptation, or if they do advocate for that, they haven’t taken the time to imagine how painful that could be in the theater. But for every clunky element, there are a great many more utterly brilliant elements which dwarf them into insignificance.

    Many, many writers have spent their careers trying to emulate ERB’s method of putting stories together, a method which was seemingly instinctual to him. After a century, no one has been able to replicate ERB’s results. The unique brew of Barsoom includes:
    -deep history
    -an exotic and varied planet
    -chivalrous heroes
    -WOOLA
    -classic romance
    -Tharks with tragic personal history that makes them at least as human as the human characters
    -super-science
    -airborne naval fleets
    -WOOLA
    -Homeric land battles between sword-wielding armies (on Mars!)
    -telepathy
    -self-teleportation
    -WOOLA
    -mental projection of flesh-and-blood beings
    -etc.

    Other novels and films have used some of those elements, but nothing has put enough of them together, nor in the right combination, to evoke what ERB evoked.

    While the books are often referred to as light-hearted adventure romance stories, there are undertones to ERB’s stories that are much more dramatic and substantial than many discussions about him ever touch on. The story of Tars Tarkas, Gozava and Sola and the related social commentary about the debased Thark culture is NOT the stuff of light adventure stories. The brutal nature of the wars, the gladiatorial combat, and the depraved actions of many of the villains takes things into hard PG-13 territory. “The Gods of Mars” raises some very grown-up issues about manipulation, tyranny, deception and enslavement. The Carrion Caves and the Guardian of the North are grim spectacles in “Warlord of Mars”.

    Thankfully, while ERB delved into serious elements, he always remained an optimist, and never dwelt on the darkness for its own sake. His style is fast-paced, reader-friendly, and adventurous in tone, but also often dramatic in its content and implications. An adaptation that seeks to leverage everything that ERB put on the page will turn out to be a bit more substantial than the “pulp adventure/romance” that is generally attributed to him. While many people discuss a “light” Barsoom, they actually FEEL a heavier and more insightful world, and any film that stops short of that will never fully deliver on what Barsoom is.

    Done to its full potential, a Barsoom film could capture and combine the strengths of historical epics, fantasy, science fiction, adventure and romance. That is a synergy we have never fully seen. Star Wars and Avatar have come the closest (and there is something very familiar about the “feeling” of the Lord of the Rings films as well) and those films stand among the most beloved and successful movies ever made. Barsoom could have all of their strengths in one franchise, plus that “something” that only ERB captured. Among many virtues, ERB’s confidence in the classic, timeless appeal of heroes of exemplary character who fight with enthusiasm for worthy causes would be refreshing for today’s audiences, as demonstrated by the success of Avatar and, recently, The Avengers. In the cycle of what feels “fresh” to audiences, it’s time that we got to see ERB at his best.

    The experience of reading ERB can be re-created for film audiences, by leading viewers beyond the modern cinematic frontier. That means the storytelling AND the technical aspects, and the potential for both is right there in ERB’s works. Burroughs took his readers beyond the frontier of storytelling as it stood in 1912, and any Barsoom film that wants to fully tap into the “Burroughs magic” will have to perform the equivalent for modern film audiences.

  • Jehefinner thanks for wading into the fray on this. I think that most of your comment is pretty reasonable and I’m glad you and your kids and friends loved the movie . . . . . but there is one portion that I want to jump in and respond to gently before the Typhoon MCR hits. It’s this part:

    Dejah Thoris in the books is remarkable only for her petite size, physical frailty and apparent helplessness, the movie version is closer to Thuvia or Tara, as she is handy with a blade and can get herself out if trouble without having to be a damsel in distress completely dependant on John for her rescue.

    Dear me . . . dear me . . . (wringing of hands)

    It sounds like you’re quoting what certain detractors of the original Dejah say based upon . . . I dunno . . . reading comic books? Because Dejah Thoris in A Princess of Mars a) Leads a scientific expedition into hostile territory, b) Shows courage and passion when dragged before Lorquas Ptomel, c) Attacks 15 foot tall Sarkoja with a dagger when Sarkoja tries to blind John Carter with a mirror, d) sacrifices her own happiness to save Helium by marrying Sab Than, and insists on going through with it even after JC shows up alive after the Warhoon attack, and e) — there’s more. Please read my post: In Defense of Dejah Thoris……

    Now . . . MCR I imagine you’ll want to respond . . . be nice! Jehefinner is a first timer here and we’d like to see more of her!

  • HAZL … I saw that thread on Amazon. I think I’ll do a post on that here in the next day or so. Thanks for bringing up the question.

  • Michael – I put in my JC/GoH Amazon review that one question I didn’t get clearly answered in the book was who on Disney’s team decided that the JC marketing campaign would not make good use of the ERB name or history and influence of the books. Someone commented on my review that Stanton was the one who decided there would be no Heritage trailer, and that’s what I had figured. Do you agree that this is on Stanton and his influence on the marketing dept?

  • MCR, if they had stuck more faithfully to the books much of the film would’ve been at best laughable, at worst painful to watch. I love the stories, I really do, but like Robert Howard etc, Edgar Rice Burroughs work is incredibly dated, and in places, plain ridiculous. The version that we got in the movie was improved and updated. Dejah Thoris in the books is remarkable only for her petite size, physical frailty and apparent helplessness, the movie version is closer to Thuvia or Tara, as she is handy with a blade and can get herself out if trouble without having to be a damsel in distress completely dependant on John for her rescue. The tweaks with the Thurns and Matai Shang also made the transportation between planets less random, but still leaves enough unsaid about the Therns for future films to explore, if that chance ever becomes available.

    The truth is all the *good* original ideas have been borrowed or stolen from the Barsoom stories, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth re-telling, or that the film was dull or boring. Far from it. I loved the return to an old school tale of adventure and fantastic beings. Good escapism is always fun, and that’s what John Carter, the film, and all the Barsoom stories, offers us.

    The politics that saw the marketing of this film sabotaged and left it floundering at the box office is not something I claim to understand. It could’ve been so much better promoted and supported, and far worse films were hailed as worth watching over this one, and the whole thing is a crying shame. I loved the movie, my kids loved the movie, and most of my friends loved it too. Disney dropped the ball. Simple.

  • This agains does show the failure of the marketing and how Disney should have went “pulpy” as Mark Rahner said during your interview.

    But (and there is one) how much does Mark Strong really know about the books? Or is he just reciting the Stanton-approved version of them since a lot of what was in this movie that “suffered from the fact that we have seen everything in it before” did not come from Burroughs. Definetly not aliens made to be comic buffoons or John Carter’s Josey Wales imitation or for that matter Matai Shang’s turn towards the Dark Side of Predictabilty. You have to wonder if Stanton had bothered to remain more faithful would there have been this feeling that we had seen it all before?

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