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The following originated as a comment on a different post, but I think it’s significant enough to warrant its own post and discussion thread. The following was written by our friend Jack Lescanela who was responding to a comment I made, to the effect that to the ERB purists–even those who, like me, generally like the movie–Andrew Stanton seemed a little “tone deaf” to some of what we perceive the strengths and charms of ERB’s work. Jack’s response is provided below in full:
Michael, you came to the movie with decades of being an ERB fan and expectations of what a movie of ‘A Princess of Mars’ would be like. I’m sure you and many other Burroughs fans have read it so many times it’s in your DNA by now.
I read the book for the first time a year and a half ago. So I come to the story with not even a trace of nostalgia.
Like most, I was blown away by Burroughs’ imagination (that he wrote this in 1912 is astonishing). He was a born campfire storyteller, spinning one amazing idea after another. For all the wonderment though, he misses a lot of opportunities to make the most of what he’s come up with. He tells the story instead of letting it play out between the characters.
One of the things I found deeply frustrating with the novel was that Burroughs never misses a chance to make things easy on himself as a writer –and how this also extends to Carter as a character.
Within the first few chapters we’re told upfront that Carter is immortal, then he finds a goldmine which is great, then none of that matters because -whoosh- he’s on Mars! He knows immediately that he’s on Mars and totally belongs there, and soon after falls in love at first sight with the princess –a feeling he’s never had because in all the thousands of years he’s been alive, he’s never been in love before.
Show me a man who’s never been in love, and I’ll show you a man who’s never lost anything or been hurt. How much could he have possibly been risking up till then?
It’s all very convenient and too easy for Carter. He doesn’t really have to work for anything. He might have to fight a bit, but that’s not going to be a big problem for him, right? Burroughs felt such a failure in his own life at the time that he gives his hero every advantage, and in so doing robs the story of much of the dramatic impact it could have.
I love that John Carter, the hero who unites the warring factions of Mars, started out as a Confederate Cavalry officer of some distinction. It’s an interesting bit of character detail. It indicates a sadder but wiser man. Someone who’s been around a bit, and learned from his mistakes. You know, because he fought on the wrong side.
In the book it’s just one more interesting detail. Burroughs is in such a hurry to escape the reality of his own life, that he never slows down enough to figure out what the reality of Carter’s life situation might be. To be fair, he could get away with that in 1912. 2012 not so much.
The Civil War means something different to us than it did to people a hundred years ago. We have far more knowledge about it than they did. Unlike them, we have access to Ken Burns’ documentary, all the letters the soldiers wrote home, the various books on the subject written, etc. We’re more honest with ourselves about it.
So yes, Carter is a broken veteran of a terrible war. He doesn’t view battle through ERB’s rose colored glasses (opinions that he changed when he covered WWII), but as we know actual Civil War veterans did. This grounds him in a recognizable reality with which to contrast the fantasy coming later.
Giving him a wife and child on Earth is also important. It shows what he was fighting in the war for. The Carter of the novels presumably fought because he thought owning human beings was a valid business practice. I think the book even says “the slaves loved him.” That’s not a valid heroic reason to fight for the South. Not for most people at any rate.
The distinction between the book and the movie for me comes down to between LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT versus A LOVE STORY.
Have you ever experienced love at first sight? I have, and the experience was very powerful –internally. Externally, nothing much happened. And while I could tell people about how intense my feelings of love were (and I did, often, and unceasingly) –nothing much played out dramatically in real life. No matter how strong the emotions I felt were though, it didn’t make for a compelling story to share with others.
I’ve also fallen in love. It wasn’t immediate. There were ups and downs, give and take, reversals, missed connections, troubles, doubts and self denials on the way. Eventually there’s a realization and surrender to one’s feelings. That’s a story.
The novel is a case of love at first sight, with how hopelessly internal it all is. It’s like a dream (which is also of course, internal). The movie is a tale of a man falling in love, with Dejah Thoris and the planet she represents.
The novel is about a man who has a destiny on another world. The movie is about a man who finds his destiny on another world. The outcome is the same –a man with a destiny on another world– but one is a journey and the other is a journey of discovery. The hero in the latter has to work harder for every victory.
I’ve said before I thought Carter being immortal was a really dumb idea. Burroughs never explains it, and to me if feels like one thing too many. It turns what I find interesting (a human having superhuman adventures) into what I find dull (a superhuman having superhuman adventures).
I was wrong though. Like much of Burroughs’ ideas it’s fantastic. What isn’t ideal was his placement of it. He frontloads it into the beginning of the narrative.
Upon watching the movie again over the weekend, I realized that of all the planned adaptations of ‘A Princess of Mars’ Stanton’s is the only one that uses Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character. Isn’t that odd? At the time I thought that element was meant as just a nod to the writer (as well as coming directly from the novel). But that’s not it at all.
At the end of the movie, this exchange occurs:
NED: I was just… bait?
CARTER: No, you’re far more than that. I really do need a protector. That is, if you’re willing.
They hug. Carter steps into the crypt and turns back.
CARTER: Goodbye, Ned. Oh, and Ned: Take up a cause. Fall in love. Write a book. It’s time I went home.
A couple things. At the end, Carter knows that Mars is his true home. He never plans to return to Earth. Better though, that knowledge was hard earned. It wasn’t just given to him.
The conversation with Ned also hints at what’s to come. In the commentary on the Blu-Ray Stanton definitely indicates “Edgar” (he says Edgar not Ned) would be back in a sequel. In my naivete I assumed that meant Darryl Sabara would return in the role.
I don’t think that’s the case though. It seems more likely the next time we see Edgar he’ll have aged to about forty, making him outwardly older than Carter –whose body has been kept in perfect suspended animation in the crypt.
Neither of the characters are expecting this turn of events, so it’s a shock. But now it’s a surprise solidly grounded in story logic, humanity and emotion. Burroughs’ creativity is given a chance to play out dramatically instead of just being offered up at the beginning with no explanation forthcoming. That makes the payoff far more emotionally poignant.
See, I don’t think Stanton was a little tone deaf. I think he’s a definite Burroughs fan who understands the appeal entirely. However, on top of being fans he (and Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon) also understand the story on another level. As dramatists.
They know having a lot of brilliant ideas and a loose narrative isn’t enough. You have to have a structure that will hold up. You have to take those ideas and then weave them seamlessly into a story where they show up and seem natural, surprising and yet inevitable.
I offered the following as a preliminary “holding” response:
Jack, thanks for the detailed explanation of what you see as the deficiencies of Burroughs that were remedied by Stanton. It will take a while to digest and others may jump in before I do. I’m officially asking that when others jump in, we try to keep this civil and dont heap scorn upon each others’ ideas. My hope is that we can break this down a little bit and go through it in a way so that those on both sides might gain some insights that aren’t there to begin with — rather the just jumping on people and having it become a foodfight.
Maybe I’m wrong — maybe it would never go that way. But judging from my own emotional reaction to some of the assertions in your piece, I’m pretty sure that some other ERBists who aren’t as restrained as I am might see red at it — and I’m just asking for a civil tone, as you (Jack) have maintained in yours.
Also, just so you (Jack) understand — I think that you, like Stanton, don’t “get” fully a lot of what was good in Burroughs. You’ve done Stanton a service in articulating it as well as you have. But now you’ll start hearing some response from the other side, who see other things in the ERB than what you are seeing.
And now I’m going to open it up for comments. I think this could be an interesting discussion but am concerned that it not become, as I said above, a foodfight. I may be overestimating the tendency in that reaction but I have to confess that a number of things Jack said — which I think are not that different from what Andrew Stanton might say if he were willing to talk about it — kind of got the fires burning, and if that happens to me. . . . . and I’m a peacemaker . . . . well, you get the point.
The questions I ask myself before replying are:
Are these deficiencies legitimately deficiencies?
If so, was there a solution to them that could have kept more of the spirit of the original? If so, what?
The other thing I will say by way of framing any discussion, is that what Stanton did, and what Jack espouses, are both examples of what I see as a very standard “Hollywood school solution” to modern story structure and character build. I don’t mean that to be disparaging — I mean that the principles Jack cites are principles that would be discussed in any story meeting trying to chart a course for a modern adaptation of APOM for the kind of massive global audience that a $250M hast to attract.
And finally, rather than not show my hand at all — my belief is that what Jack has outlined represents a certain kind of resistance to the story as it exists, and an eagerness to leap to familiar school solutions rather than dig deeper into the Burroughs story and try to mine that first, before resorting to modern school solutions.
This is a tendency that I’ve observed many times when dealing with adaptations — whether watching the big budget ones, or working on smaller budget ones. The writer and/or director are quick to discard the original when it seems problematic, and quick to impose a school solution — rather than take the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding (particularly in the case of a book as successful over a 100 year period as APOM) path of mining everything that can be mined from the original before resorting to wholesale changes.
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