Maryann Johanson, writing at Flickfilospher.com, poses the question today: Are classic pulp novels too dated to make faithful transfers to the big screen. Johanson is a balanced, respected reviewer who is included among most “top reviewer” lists. Her post, which contains her own thoughts, seems mainly designed to elicit opinions. Obviously we’re got one or two opinions over here about this question, so first of all, here is Maryann’s invitation:
So, John Carter is now on DVD in the U.S. [Amazon U.S.] and Canada [Amazon Canada] (and coming next month in the U.K. [Amazon U.K.]), so those who missed it in cinemas — which would be most of you, based upon its dismal box office — can finally see what the lack of excitement was about.
For me, two major overarching issues sink the film: it feels dated, and it feels derivative. The derivative thing is slightly unfair, because the fact is that it’s all the other pulpy B-movie stuff since that has been copying Edgar Rice Burroughs… but that doesn’t excuse the makers of this film (or any future film based on really old and really influential material) from making it not feel as if it’s aping all the stuff that actually ape it. Which goes for the dated side of the matter, too. Burroughs is dated, which is why that needs to be addressed in some manner in any modern adaptation.
(I’m talking, of course, about huge blockbustery adaptations of classic pulp material, as John Carter is. The motives and intentions would be different for a filmmaker wanting to make something arthouse or deliberately kitchsy and retro, like The Artist meets Jules Verne, for instance.)
For me , her point about it feeling “dated” and “derivative” is something that really was never addressed meaningfully in the promotion of the film, much to its detriment. As a Burroughs fan who’s carried the John Carter story around in my head — I was deeply thrilled — almost awed — so actually see it come to life on the screen (and let’s not “go there” as to whether it was a perfect adaptation or not) — and there was a sense of wonder that I was watching not just any old sci-fi story, but the story that had started it all and been the inspiration for Star Wars, Avatar, etc. I really think that as a viewer, having that perspective — that this is the original source material — was absolutely critical for an appreciation of the film.
Yet Disney elected to not position the film that way at all.
There is term that gets used in marketing meetings — “inoculate against” — that refers to marketing maneuvers that inoculate the film )or product) against certain potential pitfalls. In this case, everyone knew that “it’s derivative” was going to be a potential pitfall. Given that this was a potential pitfall, there were two ways to deal with it — either by altering the story to mask the potential “it feels derivative” problem, or use marketing to inoculate against the problem, deal with it, and attempt to at least neutralize it as a problem, and if possible turn it into an asset.
In the case of John Carter, although Andrew Stanton made some attempt to modernize the depiction of John Carter and Dejah Thoris (no comment about the Useless Mrs. Carter, please), generally speaking the attempt was to present the story in the context of how it might have looked/feeled/been imagined by Burroughs or his readers at the time. Hence the “steampunk” design, and so on.
Given that this was the approach by Stanton, Disney arguably had to do something in the marketing to deal with it. As it worked out, the marketing campaign mainly ignored this issue, and it came back to bite the project very painfully.
Our own “Heritage” trailer was in essence an experiment to see if viewers who did not have the “ERB Background”, could be induced to form an appreciation of the film based on a presentation of its heritage. Our thought process was to awaken within the viewer the same sense of wonder and awe that what you are about to see is THE ORIGINAL source material for all those things that you’ve seen in cinemas the last 30 years of so. Judging from the comments and the response across the web, it does seem that this approach had merit.
The other aspect of this that is interesting is the this all played out over a period of time. When the main theatrical trailer first appeared on December 1, 2012, there was a huge hue and cry about it appearing derivative. In fact, that hue and cry is what actually caused this website to come into existence as a “setting the record straight” endeavor. But while “little guys” like JCF perceived a need to counter the accusations, first with articles and blog postings, then with the Heritage Trailer, Disney never really dealt with it at all and the film reached theaters without the audience every having been “inoculated” or positioned. It’s a damn shame.
I’m curious what other think.
Oh, and just as a memory refresher — here was our attempt to craft a trailer that deals with this issue: