I know quite a few science fiction writers and professionals, and many of them are flummoxed by how poorly John Carter was received; the general line among the scifi cognoscenti is that it’s a fun adventure film that doesn’t deserve the abuse it’s gotten. And they’re correct: John Carteris not the best science fiction film you’ll ever see, but it’s fun and enjoyable and worth catching on the big screen.But in Hollywood — and this has always been the case — it’s not just whether a movie is good. It’s everything else around the movie as well: The marketing and gossip and even the reviews.John Carter wasn’t a bad film, but neither was it good enough to get in front of everything else about it.The flip side of this is the terrible movie that everything else makes a hit: See anyTransformers film for this. The Hunger Games could have been lackluster as a film and still have done very well; fortunately for it, it’s also generally considered a good film, which will extend its box office reach.
2. When Making a Literary Adaptation, It Helps if Audiences Are Familiar with the Source
To go back to my scifi professional friends, a lot of them knew about John Carter as a literary figure because they are generally fairly well steeped in the history of the science fiction genre; they can also tell you about Odd John and Gully Foyle and Lazarus Long, which are three other names from classic science fiction literature that will draw a complete blank in the general population. In a very interesting article on the failure of John Carter, New York magazine’s Vulture column notes that John Carter director Andrew Stanton apparently believed John Carter was a household name. In the Stanton household and in the households of science fiction nerds? Yes. Everyone else’s? Not so much.
Contrast this with The Hunger Games. The books have sold millions — and more importantly, have sold millions in the last decade, so that even if folks in the audience hadn’t read the books, they knew someone who had, and had loved them. This was the same advantage that the Harry Potter and Twilight series had going into film adaptations. Sales and familiarity alone are not enough to make a hit — see the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as evidence of this — but in terms of generating excitement for a film adaptation, it’s better than not.