On Facebook, our pal Eric Holland has a poll going — would you rather have John Carter get to Barsoom via a) Science, b) Fantasy/magic, or c) both. There are interesting comments, but no one yet has gone on the kind of colossal rant that this topic deserves. So — I will supply the rant. Not a colossal one — just a modified quasi-polite rant.
This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. Of all the many things that Edgar Rice Burroughs fans find to complain about in Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, I rarely hear anyone complain about the decision to create a scientific explanation for how Carter gets to Mars. Folks, it’s far more than a practical change. It has a profound impact on the whole story. Keep in mind — when you make a change at the beginning of a story, it not only affects that scene, but it can also affect how you perceive every scene that comes after it. It’s for that reason that this is such an important change. It affects how the viewer experiences everything that follows.
Burroughs’ John Carter
In the book, John Carter enters the Arizona cave and almost immediately feels drowsy, and then is overcome and falls to the floor. At this point there is a chapter break — and the new chapter is called, significantly, “The Escape of the Dead.” Carter hears horses approaching and tries to get up — but his muscles won’t respond. He notices a “slight vapor” in the cave (hinting at a possible practical explanation but not confirming it), then five Apaches creep up to the entrance and look at him. He is lying on his side, facing the entrance, and can’t move. Suddenly there is a low moaning sound behind him and they flee in panic.
He hears sounds of someone or something deep in the cave moving toward him. He feels deeply threatened. Then he somehow breaks free of his body
. . . e. . . .And then the moonlight flooded the cave, and there before me lay my own body as it had been lying all these hours, with the eyes staring toward the open ledge and the hands resting limply upon the ground. I looked first at my lifeless clay there upon the floor . . .
My first thought was, is this then death! Have I indeed passed over forever into that other life! But I could not well believe this, as I could feel my heart pounding against my ribs from the exertion of my efforts to release myself from the anaesthesis which had held me. . . . Naked and unarmed as I was, I had no desire to face the unseen thing which menaced me.
He goes to the front of the cave and almost convinces himself to go back in and investigate:
. . . . but first I lifted my head to fill my lungs with the pure, invigorating night air of the mountains. , . . . As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. 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.
Now, first of all, to all those who say he just looks at Mars and goes there — I would submit that there is a whole lot going on here. There is mystery, there is fate, there is destiny. Mars isn’t just any old planet — as a fighting man, it had always held for him the power of “irresistible enchantment” . . . .
And so what does all this mean for the story?
It means that when John Carter arrives on Mars he has first of all gotten there on the wings of a sense of utter conviction that this was a place of destiny for him. When he opens his eyes he knows exactly where he is — he has no doubt whatsoever. He is meant to be on Mars — it is his fate, his destiny.
His attitude towards it is part pilgrim, part explorer. He has no regrets. He doesn’t think about Earth and he certainly doesn’t long to go back there. He has undergone not just a change of venue — he has undergone a transformation and a spiritual pilgrimmage to a place that he seems to know is meant for him as his new home, his next phase of personal evolution.
All of this profoundly affects John Carter attitude toward his surroundings. He doesn’t understand how he got there, but he doesn’t question it. He is as spiritually enraptured by Mars as, just to think of one example, John Dunbar is with the mystical frontier in Dances With Wolves.
And everything that follows has a sense of destiny, or purpose, and spiritual resonance.
Stanton’s John Carter
Now roll the tape back and consider Stanton’s John Carter.
Carter finds his cave of gold–his quest is over. But then the damned Thern medallion kidnaps him to Barsoom. He wakes up there — has no idea where he is, has no sense that this is where he is supposed to be, and is immediately focused on getting back to his damned “cave of gold” — so much so that he has no immediate appreciation for anything on Barsoom. Everything is an obstacle to his singleminded desire to get back to Earth and his fortune.
And that’s pretty much the state of mind he maintains for a big portion of the film. He feels attraction for Dejah and that begins to turn him around, but it’s not until he finally throws the medallion over the balcony that he really buys in to Barsoom and that’s at the end of the movie.
It’s by design that it’s this way. Stanton has his reasons and he articulates them in various interviews.
But here’s the point — it’s not just a trivial change to give it a scientific explanation. It’s a change that alters the entire trajectory of the story; it alters John Carter’s relationship to Barsoom; and it alters the arc o his own character in ways that make Stanton’s character seem almost unrecognizable for much of the movie.
Do I hate what Stanton did?
At the time I was so determined to like it that I largely accepted it, but on repeated viewings (thirty or more of them) I have become increasingly annoyed by the way Barsoom is robbed of so much of it’s magic through a decision that seems to have been almost casual. When asked about it, Stanton’s only explanation was along the lines of, we figured we needed to make it scientific or people wouldn’t buy it. It was as if there was no awareness at all that this casual change could rob the very essence of the magic that had Carl Sagan and the rest of us standing in our front yards with our arms outstretched to Mars — but in a very real way, it did that. Oh, John Carter does eventually get to that place but that’s at the end of the movie and by having him not want to be there . . . . .Well, in the books we share John Carter’s sense of destiny, his sense of wonder, his sense that this is where he fits in the universe and must make his way in life. We want to be part of that — to escape our own mundane existence and emerge in a place of beauty, adventure, and destiny.
Instead, in the movie, Barsoom is mostly a prison.
For most of the movie, Carter is like Taylor in Planet of the Apes, he just wants to get the hell out of there.
Carter does finally get there — he does finally become John Carter of Mars, and if we’d had more movies, think the Carter we would have seen, and the Barsoom we would have experienced, would have been closer to what we experience in the books simply by virtue of the fact that we would have the origins story behind us, and would be into the rest of it.
So I’m not hating on Stanton.
Just pining a bit for what might have been.