A Teacher Takes on John Carter — the Storytelling

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Dotar comment: I actually excavated this from a comment thread in which Rebecca Baeder Garland — my fav teacher (well she’s the only teacher I know but I wish I could have had a teacher like her back in the day) reacted to an article I wrote called John Carter, the Flop that Wasn’t a Turkey, and I wrote a long reply but didn’t publish it. I think we’re far enough downstream now where this conversation is one I’d like to share.

Rebecca wrote:

Things most fans can agree on…
1. Title was bad
2. Promotion/Marketing was bad
3. Budget was huge

I always like reading your articles Michael as you are able to synthesize all of the known information from the inside out and break it down for the rest of us who don’t have the time and/or the stamina to dig as deeply as you do.

I agree that John Carter was left unattended in what Disney believed to be the completely capable hands of Stanton, but I am wondering more about the story construction itself.

We can agree that we both enjoyed the movie, but as I have watched it over and over again and read so many articles and books, I cant help but notice the story problems. Here comes the teacher…

When Stanton decided to include “the dead wife and kid” he failed to do what he did straight away in Nemo… show their demise at the very beginning of the film. This is a cliche plot device, but we can agree that it is very effective in creating instant sympathy for the main character. Once Nemo’s mom dies, we understand all of Marlin’s irrational behavior and why he is so overprotective with his son and we are with him on his journey in the first 5 minutes.

What if the film started later on, say when Nemo is at school getting picked on and we learned one hour in how his mom died (maybe in the ‘belly of the whale’ scene)? We would have spent half the movie only mildly on-board with Marlin, and then finally understood his behavior and then accompanied him on his journey.

Well that’s exactly the thing that happened with John Carter. We spend an hour with him acting grumpy, pissed-off and selfishly wanting to get out of Barsoom to get his cave of gold and them we get the excellent Thark Battle with the cross-cut scenes of his family’s death. Then we FINALLY feel for the guy and sit back and hope he saves Barsoom.

What if the movie opened with a horrific scene of his family’s death? We’d be right there, understanding his every attitude and why he acts the way he does. Instead we get 3 prologues before the movie really even starts.

Secondary characters. Dory vs. Tars/Sola
Immediate sympathy for Dori, can’t remember sh!t and is an unlikely companion. No back-story necessary… instant character side-kick

Tars/Sola have a complicated back-story which encompasses an entire chapter (or more) of the original text. In the film, we feel kinda bad for Sola because she is picked on by Sarkoja and gets branded for disobedience, but we’re not sure what she’s there for. We get exactly 30 seconds to love Sola when we find out she’s Tars Daughter and suddenly Tars is OK with JC, Dejah and Sola escaping together because JC knows about their relationship. We get one minute to care. Teach us about Tars and Sola in the beginning or just don’t mention it.

Sola has every reason to run away with JC and Dejah because she faces certain doom, do we really need to know about their relationship if the writers are only going to give us one second to care about it?

I believe they wanted to modernize the hero for today’s audience, but in so doing they forgot to bring us with him, to understand why he was acting the way he was. They made him the reluctant hero, almost ashamed of what he had become and ashamed to call himself a warrior. But they took an hour to tell us why.

Burroughs’ John Carter was a fighting man that lost everything he owned and his best friend. We learn that in the first 2 chapters. We’re on board with him in the beginning. This John Carter was a fighting man and knew he was on Mars the second he arrived. Cocky, rash and self-assured… the opposite of reluctant. We are ready to kick some serious ass with him ASAP.

I don’t mind necessarily that Stanton et.al. changed Carter’s character, but if you’re going to do that you need to make us understand him so we can journey with him.

Even with a bad title, terrible marketing and a big budget, the writers could have got a whole lot more people to care about the main character and perhaps the general public would have found the movie less “confusing”.

This poor film had everything against it from the start, but better story construction could have helped. I do think that what they came up with was very good, but it could have been brilliant.

Dotar replied

The subject of the story itself and how it was told is something that I’ve been gradually working toward as a “fair game” topic. I’m glad you’ve kind of opened it up here, as I find that responding to comments is a good way opening a topic and exploring it a bit.

I think one of the most perplexing things about John Carter is how it has two of the greatest storytellers of all time bundled into one movie — ERB and Andrew Stanton — and yet the storytelling choices seem at times to be less deft than either A Princess of Mars, or in Wall-E or Finding Nemo.

In your analysis you focus on the late reveal of the wife and kids. I agree and all I can think is that the film-makers thought that they had foreshadowed it much earlier. When Carter, in the jail says, “I’ve already paid” we see a closeup of the two rings on his his finger and perhaps the film-makers thought we would “get it”. I didn’t the first time I saw the movie; I did the second time. One of the reasons the film is so satisfying on repeat viewings is that we understand Carter’s actions in light of our knowledge of his situation gained by watching the movie the first time.

But although the existence of the dead wife and child is often cited as “the” major change from the character in the book — I think there is something else that is equally if not more profound in the way it changes the core experience of the story.

In the movie, Carter has reason to believe he has finally found his “Cave of Gold” and thus immense riches await him — but because of the Thern medallion he is rudely snatched, kidnapped in a way, to Mars. When he arrives on Mars he doesn’t know where he is; he doesn’t care where he is; he just wants (he thinks) to get back to his cave of gold and this dictates his reaction (or non-reaction) to Mars, and his overt motivation for most of the movie–in fact he thinks this is what he wants right up to the Warhoon battle when he in effect “pledges metal” to Dejah Thoris while simultaneously paying homage to his dead wife and child, and moving on from them emotionally.

Contrast this to the book, where John Carter is in the cave and is overcome by what he eventually comes to believe is poisonous gas (he smells a strange odor and remarks on it) and lies as if under anesthesia on the floor. He might be dead – he’s not sure. He is made fearful by the moaning sound from behind him, and on the strength or power or intensity of that fear, he summons the willpower and focus that causes him to break free of his anesthesia like experience and looks down upon his dead body — and finds himself “naked as at birth”, standing beside his dead body. He understands himself to be dead, and his new state to be something inexplicable–the after life? Something else? We’re not sure. Naked and unsure, he then sees Mars, feels an overwhelming, intense longing, and suddenly is drawn there. He wakes up and from the moment he arrives he a) knows where he is, b) understands that it is his destiny to be there, and c) has no way back, nor gives any thought to going back to Earth, for he is dead on Earth.

This death/rebirth cycle is an essential aspect of the story and is profoundly satisfying on multiple levels to the audience.

Yet most of the commentary talks about how Burroughs approach just kind of skimmed past any science and had Carter just suddenly and magically transported to Mars–as if this is a deficiency when in fact it is very carefully crafted and touches on very primal aspects of our human experience.

But — Stanton evidently accepted the argument that a modern audience would want a scientific explanation. It is in essence the “conventional wisdom” to believe this. But would a modern audience require a scientific explanation? Burroughs version involved something bordering on the supernatural. Modern audiences accept the supernatural or inexplicable all the time, and it would have been possible to retain the Death and Rebirth (extremely powerful audience experiences) and also build in the sense of destiny in being drawn to Mars. This would also eliminate the worries about “people know there is no life on Mars” because the supernatural nature of Carter’s transport to Mars would leave open the possibility that this is an alternate reality; that there is time travel involved; any number of explanations for the presence of life on Mars.

The impact of Burroughs choice was to create a situation where, once on Mars, we and Carter regard it as a wondrous of destiny for Carter, and once there he understands his mission is to explore, survive, and flourish there and we are in that journey with him. He has escaped the bonds of earth – and so do we. He exits the dreariness of existence here and finds something suited to his character and hence more richly satisfying than earthly life, and we go on that journey with him. On Mars he is a keen observer (remember how the students in the reading group talked about how he “described things”) ….he viewsd himself as an explorer who noted and appreciated the details of everything round him. Knowing he could not go back — he looked forward, and tried to make his way in his new environment which he felt destined for. He earned respect (Tars), won friends (Sola, Woola), and when Dejah Thoris appeared he had been 30 days thinking he was the only human on Mars, only to suddenly see the “Fair Captive From the Sky” and be drawn to her as a kindred soul.

I am of the opinion that the Burroughs story approach touches some very, very deep and primal yearnings in our spirits. I think that Burroughs story is transformative – that it allows us to do what John Carter did, leave behind the “clay” of our mundane human existence and be reborn into a fascinating world that is intriguing, alluring, and is bound by notions of honor and comradery. Men don’t kill women on Barsoom; Tharks never lie (hence their willingness to leave Carter untethered when he gave them his word he would not attempt to escape); warriors use swords whenever possible and don’t take advantage of each other by using guns to gain advantage. Underlying everything is a deep sense of a chivalric code — a life of service to a cause or a person — with Carter finding that in Dejah and losing himself in it. What Burroughs accomplished — even if rough around the edges in its “literariness” — was deeply spiritually satisfying.

By contrast, Stanton — who as the storyteller of Nemo and Wall-E had every reason to be supremely confident in his own gifts and aware of what it was about Burroughs that made it so special — made a series of cautious, one might even say timid choices. He accepted the idea that modern audiences would need a scientific explanation for travel to Mars; he accepted the idea that Carter must be a modern hero, broken and reluctant, who has an arc that ends with him realizing in the latter part of the movie that he is meant to be on Mars.

And so instead of having a deeply spiritual and emotionally engaging story of death on Earth and rebirth on Mars into a powerfully satisfying culture, in the movie we have a story of, in essence, kidnapping and a desire to escape the kidnapping and get back to — what? A cave of gold? Not family, not longing for anything spiritual, but rather simply wealth and greed so powerful that it makes him, for much of the movie, unable to appreciate either Barsoom or Dejah Thoris. This story idea — Carter wanting to get back to Earth as his main motivation — is something that was introduced in some of the earlier screenplay adaptations going back to the 90?s and I wonder if Stanton came to it from those screenplays, or somewhere else. But it’s a very, very profound change in the story dynamics at a very deep and primal level.

And so — as much as I love the movie — my reaction ends up being similar to yours — I feel like much of the first portion of the movie fails to draw us in, and what frustrates me about that is that it was all there in Burroughs and this is not just the same old “don’t change the book” trope. It’s that it seems like Burroughs gave us something profound that Stanton — who came to Barsoom through the comic books first, and the novels second — may not have appreciated — or for sure didn’t appreciate because he abandoned it in favor of over “modern-ness” that in some fashion robbed the story of some of its very special and essential charm.

And yet that charm is there because I think the reason so many viewers become so attached to it is that even if John Carter himself does not experience Barsoom the way the John Carter of the books did — they (the audience) are experiencing it in that way. Because while Stanton changed story and character elements, he didn’t change the world — he labored magnificently to bring the world to life on the screen in every small detail and in doing this he accomplished the imaginative transport that Burroughs did, and it seems that some audience members are really responding to this. They are getting their Barsoom and it’s magical for them.

Anyway, this is a preliminary ramble ….but I do want to get around to exploring this at some point.

One other thing …. a director deals with so much more than story. He makes decision after decision after decision that have nothing to do with story. What will Woola look like? The tharks? The flyers? Helium? Zodanga? — then drill down — what does a Thark harness look like? are there markings? Weaponry? Step by step Stanton had to build an entire world and for the building of the world, about the only thing I can think of that really deviated from Burroughs was the dead city of Korad — it didn’t have the murals, paintings, and evidence of the grand civilization that came before. That’s really the only area where he seems to have deviated — the rest of it is extremely faithful, and it seems to have resonated with many audience members, providing them that transport that Burroughs did. But I think it could have connected in a greater way, with more audience members, if he had kept the death and rebirth structure.

Ha…another very long comment. Much to think about.

Epilogue from Dotar

I decided to publish this previously unpublished comment now because I’m really struggling with — “what was the Burroughs magic”….I’m looking for someone out there to wave their magic wand and explain it to me.  Because I can feel it, but I’m struggling to articulate it.  So anyway, if anyone out there reads this and is moved to comment, maybe you’ll figure it out and explain it to me.  Hope so.


  • Wow, so many excellent insights above and below here. I strongly agree with almost everything I’m reading here.

    Regarding ERBs particular magic with Barsoom, it’s also important to highlight Mars itself.
    Unlike Middle-Earth, Pellucidar, Tatooine, Hyboria, Mt. Olympus, Oz, Wonderland, (etc., ad nauseum), Mars is not just a real, tangible world, it’s one you can literally see in the sky on the right nights – no matter where you are.

    There is nothing mystical about Barsoom. Mysterious, but never supernatural. There is a rational, scientific explanation for all that transpires… except the method by which the hero, and the reader, is transported there. Barsoom might be another time or an alternate dimension of the cold, lifeless(?) Mars we know today, but there it is! Right up there!

    Mars has been visibly with us since we stepped out of the cave, indeed since we slimed our way out of the seas, blah blah blah. That he took care to recount this tale conforming to known reality is among the most vital of the many deep currents of the human experience that Burroughs tapped into.

    The physical abilities Carter gains on Mars are approximately those that an actual human with the athleticism of a fighting man could expect to have… if they could only get there (+ a breathable atmosphere). Anyone transported to Mars would indeed find themselves 3x stronger, able to leap 3x farther. You or I might feel empowered almost exactly as in the novel, however not the invincible, inconsistently turbocharged superman onscreen.

    Thus, the wish-fulfillment is sufficiently grounded to be more irresistible than any ‘superhero’ before or since. Burroughs did his homework, and wrote of a fantastic world that conformed to everything known about the actual planet in his day. The lesser gravity, air pressure, rotational period, landmass, the size/shape/speed of her two moons. That the Mars we find in our era is without breathable air or liquid surface water only adds to the desperation of a Barsoom losing water to air, and air to space. The global climatic awareness of today only deepens the threat of environmental disaster faced by the nations of that dying world. (Alas, the movie did not even attempt any of these things.)

    It’s a palpable, specifically rational “fantasy” world whose greatest mystery remains spiritual and unanswered: how to get there. There’s enough science to get under our rational defenses, and enough left unsaid to make us wonder. That is an important ingredient in the ‘magic’ formula this story has, in addition to the many wonderful points made throughout this discussion about the character.

    As for John Carter himself, as stated before by so many – he is the better man you want to be. I am nourished, strengthened, made better by re-reading the trilogy as told in his voice.

  • Pulp action heros are cool avatars because they can defend their honor
    without repurcusions. They don’t have to tolerate other people’s BS.

    Almost anywere you go, anything you do, you will encounter a
    jackass who wants you to know that they are judging you.

    The more you try to express your individuality, the more you do not
    conform to the herd, the more often a jackass will pass
    judgement on you.

    In most situations a jackass will not cut you down to your face, instead
    the jackass will cut you down barely out of earshot as their “friends”
    snicker at your expense.

    Of course it’s obvious what is going on but you can not do a damn thing about it.
    If you continually confront every jackass that you encounter you will eventually rot in a prison.

    Instead of confronting the jackass like a pulp action hero would, you walk on and pretend like nothing happened as a little bit of you dies inside you.

    Conan would rip out his sword and split a jackass’s skull in twain.

    John Carter would rip out his sword then announce, “I will kill you at exactly
    two xats past the eighth zode”.

    A little over a century ago if a man felt belittled he would slap a jackass
    in the face with a glove then they would go outside and have
    a dual.

    I speculate less people acted like jackasses back when men carried swords and guns and were “touchy” about their honor.

    A short life I suppose.

    I always though it was odd that barsoomians with their 1000 year life spans were
    so eager to go to war. Seems like they would have way more to lose then opposed to a earthman with his relatively short lifespan.

  • Fiction writing is a cooperative venture that cannot succeed without the reader’s participation. The novelist’s greatest challenge is to stimulate the reader’s imagination so that each and every scene comes alive. If the author fails, his novel fails. For my buck, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the master of masters in unlocking a reader’s imagination so that the most outlandish scene takes on an air of reality. That kind of sheer talent is pure magic.

  • Dotar Sojat wrote:
    “But where’s the respect?

    He doesn’t get it. He gets “pulp adventure writer” and that’s it. Any attempt to treat his genius seriously begins with the disclaimers, “while never being regarded as good literature” ……..

    Help me figure this out. It’s really crucial to what I’m trying to write.”

    Part of it has to do with the genres ERB worked in. Most critics and high minded literari don’t think much of science fiction, fantasy or adventure fiction. To them its escapist stories with nothing underneath. (The only exceptions seem to be Harry Potter and I think that has to do with how big Potter became but even then JK Rowling has had critics dismiss them). It’s also a mindset that since Burroughs never lied about why he started writing he can’t be taken seriously as a serious writer. Even Michael Chabon showed that in that inteview you posted a while back as he was dismissive of Burroughs’ skills and abilities.

    A lot it was also covered by Abe: His stories were for the most part positive stories where the guy gets the girl and saves the world without hesitation. That was the biggest change with the movie-it was almost like Stanton was busy trying to make John Carter for those critics who fawn over “artists” like him or Chabon by making Carter “damaged goods” and almost trying to avoid the “falling in love with the girl” and “save the world” aspects to avoid making Roger Ebert and his ilk from thinking it’s just a mindless movie. The thing was Burroughs had more depth than what they gave him credit for. It wasn’t just the surface details that Stanton mentioned in that Hero Complex interview that has made those stories last.

  • Thanks Dotar! I’ve been waiting for your response for months:) For me the magic of APOM is the whole “fresh start” notion…. the dying of the old-self and the rebirth of the new. In the Gods of Mars, I like the exploration of the false gods and the notion to challenge authority, continually seek answers and to think for yourself.

    I love the parallels between ERB himself and John Carter. It’s obvious ERB needed a do-over… all his failed business attempts and extreme lack of success was probably just devastating for him. John Carter was his way to leave it all behind and start anew, but with vigor and confidence, ready to face anything unafraid and unfettered. To rediscover friendship, loyalty, chivalry and the like. That’s the magic for me. The chance to start over. Let’s just wash it all away and get another chance where we are never afraid to take risks and seize every opportunity with zealous fervor. Where we won’t be afraid to fail, even though we might anyway. That’s what I get out of APOM. The imagination of it all. The story of how he was afraid to share his work with anyone because they might think he’s nuts! I love that. I love the risk-taking. And then to think that so many people related to his book that they demanded a sequel. The general populace was feeling the same way… give us a do-over. Let us try again. Let’s go to a place where we can be heroes. That’s the magic of ERB for me.

  • Having read the books several times, first time decades ago, and then seeing the film couple of times in big screen 3D and now seven times on 2D Blu-Ray I have to say this: the more I saw JC again and again the more I forgot comparing it to the books and appreciated the great adventure and scifi movie that John Carter is.

    If a director would have honored the text and created a desolate, humorless, dark, almost void-of-dialogue and ultra realistic 3.5 -hour movie of the first book it would have been great. But, this version, with all the uplifiting extravagance, humor, color and changes to the plot works very well in bringing world of Barsoom to the new audience.

    I like Stantons version a lot, and I’m very critical with this genre. I love the music, CGI integration is best I’ve seen in making those aliens look they are real beings and _there_ (unlike bit hit saga Star Wars where all look like silicon puppets), the story is good when you forget much of the books and acting is very good, I especially appreciate Taylor and Lynn, well done.

    What I try to say, the book is a loved classic but then again this adaptation captures much of it in its own way, it is Barsoom nonetheless.

    It needs a sequel!

  • With ERB’s wish fulfillment literature, it’s a couple things:

    (1) You feel safe with his protagonists. No matter how wild the world, no matter how high the stakes or dangerous the circumstances, you know that his heroes will be extraordinarily competent and will make the best choices and take the best possible actions.

    (2) Serious literature is focused on catharsis, on bringing up the darker side of humanity in a conflicted protagonist and putting him through real life in a way that the reader can say, “See, nobody is perfect and we all have it rough, but there is hope.” In contrast, ERB’s wish fulfillment literature is about providing unmistakable role models, people we wish we could be, the example to aim for in our life and personal character. And ERB’s heroes have unique personality and enough foibles and eccentricities to still feel real – just like real people of a sort of mythic goodness and unbeatable resolve.

    The idea of being presented with an ennobling example of the good to inspire readers upward in their thinking is considered by some critics today as idealistic and merely a distraction from the seriousness of “real life”. Those critics think that people who dwell too much on “impossible” goodness will do themselves a disservice by not grappling with reality. I say that the navel-gazing typical of “literary” characterizations can create a myopic view of what is possible in life. And if Burroughs was an iconoclast against any idea, he was against the human tendency to let other human beings define what is possible. His unmatched imagination was practically one big protest statement against letting others limit us.

    His worlds touch on the limitless and his characters on the exemplary.

  • Abraham Sherman wrote:

    Among other virtues, ERB gives the reader a chance to become another person, in another world, and to have adventures the likes of which we could never have in real life. Burroughs’ aesthetic was profoundly cinematic, when cinema was still in its infancy. And his imagination was truly unrivaled.

    Thanks for this statement because it’s a big part of why I posted this, and why I’m trying to stimulate some discussion that may help me with John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (and all commenters here are going to get a big thank you in the book….)

    Okay, let’s talk about “wish-fulfillment” literature and how you make it work, or rather how ERB made it work in a way that no one else in my own experience never did.

    Help me navigate through the issue that “serious literature” seems to always require a protagonist who has flaws, or a lack that needs to be filled, or in some way evolves psychologically or emotionally — and that is the hook for the reader. Great writers are geniuses at crafting these kind of characters, and they get credit for it.

    But in wish fulfillment literature, there is another kind of force at work. The reader needs to inhabit the character like an avatar, while at the same time believing in him as a character. I think Burroughs genius was somehow profound in this regard, yet because there doesn’t’ seem to be any serious criticism out there acknowledging how such literature can be profound, there’s not much to work with.

    I’m struck by the fact that a writer, like a film-maker, does a whole lot more than create characters and let them do their thing. In Burroughs case; he created worlds and made us want to go there. He had a genius for knowing how to roll out the exposition without interrupting our journey with the story. He knew how to make sure that the reader always knew what was at stake, and what the characters’ objectives were. When drawing alien cultures, he instinctively (it seems ) made choices against stereotype–thus we have the Tharks who are cruel and cold-hearted, bereft of emotion, but honest and honorable, trustworthy, and so on. These are unexpected choices and they make the experience of the culture so much more.

    But where’s the respect?

    He doesn’t get it. He gets “pulp adventure writer” and that’s it. Any attempt to treat his genius seriously begins with the disclaimers, “while never being regarded as good literature” ……..

    Help me figure this out. It’s really crucial to what I’m trying to write.

  • So many great thoughts in the original post and the comments! This discussion is getting at what makes ERB unique, and what has kept him popular for a century.

    Among other virtues, ERB gives the reader a chance to become another person, in another world, and to have adventures the likes of which we could never have in real life. Burroughs’ aesthetic was profoundly cinematic, when cinema was still in its infancy. And his imagination was truly unrivaled.

  • Dotar Sojat wrote:
    “MCR, did you hear that? It’s not that the fans are saying that Stanton can do no wrong, just that he did a lot more right than you are willing to acknowledge because of your bitter disappointment”

    Hey, I write something where I don’t snap at someone and this is the thanks I get?

    I’m kidding but I thought at least you would have responded and said I was wrong. 😉 With the fans that’s fine if they can admit there is imperfections, it’s just that most of the time they’re defending the things I felt didn’t work and for some-not all of them-they just can’t see it from the other side, the flip side of the coin if you will. I will admit the movie got some things right but yes it was a disappointment to me. It wasn’t Barsoom I felt but some fan’s distorted version of it.

    On the plus side I would think at least Khanada would be happy that I loved Solomon Kane since she seems to be a huge Purefoy fan. I wonder if she’s excited that it will be finally coming out in the US? I know that’s off topic, sorry.

  • Khanada wrote:

    Even with the changes to John’s character, I felt he was a jumbled up emotional mess in a very similar way to how the book Carter would have been in the same circumstances.

    I think this is an interesting comment and I want to reflect on it before you get bashed.

    Of course (or should I say) OF COURSE John Carter as he presents himself to us in his 1st person narrate is not a “jumbled up emotional mess”, but the discerning reader (i.e. Khanada) should sense that any 1st person narration may or may not be 100% reliable. There is a filter — the character is telling us his story and he is shaping the telling of the story in ways that suit him. It then becomes necessary to read between the lines and in some cases, question the very veracity of the the narrator is saying. I think that when one reads APOM with an awareness of this, first of all John Carter’s character becomes a lot more interesting and the “vanilla-ness” of it begins to change. There are nuances that creep out, and hint that he’s not exactly treating this like a trip to the psychologist, he’s telling a story with himself at the center of it and he’s conscious to not let us invade his privacy all that much. He tells us a lot about his feelings for Dejah Thoris; and in other areas he leaves it to us to infer some things.

    Now …does that get me all the way to JC as a “jumbled emotional mess” — no, not quite. But it does humanize John Carter (the character in ERB’s book) for me and make him more real than many critics are willing to acknowledge. And I do think it’s not unreasonable to project other things on him as Khanada has done. Burroughs leaves space for us to do that — it’s part of his genius, to give us enough to let us buy in, and leave room for us to personalize it.

  • Khanada wrote:

    I think for me, to sum it all up as to why I love the film despite the differences, is that I got to go to Barsoom! I got to watch Tharks, and Woola… Carter and Dejah… and all the rest in a way never experienced before. And beyond the film, I love the people. The cast, crew, Stanton… because I understand what a passion project is and as an artist myself, my heart goes out to them for the wonderful effort they put forward and I support it fully! It’s fun to discuss the details and I admit there are things I’d change if I could have written JC. But it doesn’t make me hate the film. I do tend to enjoy more than I hate anyway. Life is short.

    I think that’s a great summation of your reasoning and I wanted to jump in and acknowledge that. Also that you — one of the strongest and most passionate fans — are prepared to acknowledge imperfections. MCR, did you hear that? It’s not that the fans are saying that Stanton can do no wrong, just that he did a lot more right than you are willing to acknowledge because of your bitter disappointment, and because they appreciate both the humanity of the film, and the humanity of the situation in which the film-makers have in effect bonded with fans and made them feel part of the process.

    Good points, Khanada. Thanks.

  • When I first saw John Carter I really was very disappointed that Sola’s story was changed. For me that was the biggest thing that struck me, because even with the changes to John’s character, I felt he was a jumbled up emotional mess in a very similar way to how the book Carter would have been in the same circumstances.

    But Michael, how you very deftly explained the changes in his transport to Mars, all those details from the book that spoke deeply to me, I can see where the film lacks in that area for me. Though Iove the medallion just from a moviegoer’s perspective. It’s a neat way to get him there while bringing in the Therns early (I want to see Stanton finish his story – trilogy – so all that was missing in the first film comes to light).

    I think for me, to sum it all up as to why I love the film despite the differences, is that I got to go to Barsoom! I got to watch Tharks, and Woola… Carter and Dejah… and all the rest in a way never experienced before. And beyond the film, I love the people. The cast, crew, Stanton… because I understand what a passion project is and as an artist myself, my heart goes out to them for the wonderful effort they put forward and I support it fully! It’s fun to discuss the details and I admit there are things I’d change if I could have written JC. But it doesn’t make me hate the film. I do tend to enjoy more than I hate anyway. Life is short.

  • I’ll respond and take my lumps.

    I don’t agree with Becky-or Baeder as I got used to knowing her on IMDB-about starting the movie with the dead wife and kid, and not just because of my usual ranting about it but because that would really be too close to The Outlaw Josey Wales and its opening. She is right about it being a cliche but using that opening would make it really obvious.

    “Yet most of the commentary talks about how Burroughs approach just kind of skimmed past any science and had Carter just suddenly and magically transported to Mars–as if this is a deficiency when in fact it is very carefully crafted and touches on very primal aspects of our human experience.

    But — Stanton evidently accepted the argument that a modern audience would want a scientific explanation. It is in essence the “conventional wisdom” to believe this. But would a modern audience require a scientific explanation?”

    I know I’ve ranted enough about the medallion but I think I finally figured out why I hated it. At the end of the book John Carter suffers not one but two heart-wrenching events. First he’s ripped away from Barsoom, his adopted home world and the woman he loves and he cannot return. He doesn’t know how, its beyond his control. To me the movie loses that sense of loss because Stanton decides to explain it by just saying “find this medallion and say this phrase and you can go back.” To me that is why I felt it was “cheap” as I ranted earlier, it felt too much like a deux ex machina device just to get Carter back to Barsoom and robbed it of the emotion of him not being able to.

    The second event was he doesn’t even know if Dejah or anyone is still alive after the Atmospher Factory failed. He doesn’t know if his last act saved their lives or if Barsoom is just a dead planet. Imagine if you did your best to save a woman or man you loved and you don’t know their fate. It would leave an emotional scare that wouldn’t heal until you found out. I feel if these two things had been kept that would have made audiences interested in getting back to Barsoom in the movie. Stanton I felt went for “have your cake and eat it too” solution: Let’s rip our lovers apart but allow him to return. It was unsatisfying (not to mention my complaint about Carter taking 10 years when he could have just fooled that Thern quicker) because it robbed the story of its emotional ending.

    I hope that wasn’t too grouchy.

  • For me Burroughs’ magic really lies in the sense of wonder the Barsoom books provide. I don’t necessarily agree with you when you say of Andrew Stanton: “he didn’t change the world”, because to me, he did that in a profound way. Not just on a cosmetic level (no yellow moss covering the surface of Barsoom like a carpet, no huge moons roaming the skies), but also on a spiritual level.

    Tharks in the books are primitive scavengers, occupying cities abandoned by the red men. In the movie the live in a city clearly created by some ancestors of them, and they are humanized as far as emotions go (Tharks in the book would have laughed when Carter kills one of them). Tharks in the book are hulking emotionless monsters, and that’s all the more impressive that John Carter is able to befriend Tars Tarkas. (a pet theory of mine is that since Carter’s journey is spiritual in Burroughs’ books, his destination is a kin of spirit on Barsoom. And both time, in Princess and Gods, he appears on Barsoom near Tars Tarkas!)

    The cities in the novel are huge, as beautifully crafted as they are empty, bordering oceans long gone. You’ve got to have atmospheric plants to produce air. You have a sense in Burroughs’ books of the end of this world. In Stanton’s movie, it’s a desert, and we earthen people know you can survive in a desert, people have done it for thousands of years, and will continue to do so. And there’s water to be found, see this huge river. You don’t get the feeling that this world is dying in the movie. The contrast between this dying world and the swashbuckling action has always, to me, set apart the Barsoom novels from other universes.

    The red men also are “humanized” in their feelings. They’re more relatable to a movie audience, but also more mundane. Tardos Mors retorts to a forced wedding, as nearly every king on earth has done. Dejah Thoris flees instead of facing her duties as a royal princess. It’s almost a complete reversal of what Burroughs wrote.

    John Carter, on the other hand, and surprisingly, sees his capacities exploding. In the novel, apart from his “immortal” status, he’s not that superhuman on Barsoom. He can leap, but not that high, he has enhanced strength, but not to the point of slaughtering a whole green martian tribe. You don’t get a chance of jeopardy out of his feats in the movie, since we’re shown he can fall from thousand of feet and land unhurt (I think it’ in A Princess of Mars where we have that awesome climbing scene to the top of a tower, where you sense that any misstep will end his life). John Carter in the novels, struggles, gets desperate, overjoyed, hopeful, we always know where he stands emotionally, but we seldom get that sense in the movie, since the “real” Carter is buried under his guilt. Carter in the novel is the underdog on this planet, so we root for him to succeed in the goal he actively pursue. I write “Carter”, but I could also write “Carthoris”, “Gahan”, “Ulysses”, “Tan”… In the movie, his goal is nearly always unclear, until after the “I am alone” scene, and even at that point, there has to be the “Thern reveal” to give him an extra motivation.

    At the end, I won’t say the changes didn’t work, that would be preposterous of me. If that was the case, no one would have loved this movie (me included!). But the sense of wonder could have been greater. I, as an audience, can experience some of it, but I think it would have been better to see it through the eyes of the main characters (like this wonderful scene in the novel where Dejah looks at the paintings in Korad). We have glimpses of that, when Carter admires the airships, or when he jumps in the air at the beginning, but as a whole, we experience it from afar, not with the character. I think the notion of “audience surrogate” is important to have in any movie. In this one, it could only have been John Carter himself, since he’s the only human. I don’t think it was completely successful in that regard, it creates a barrier between the audience and the main character. Dejah appears more relatable than Carter in the movie, and a more fully rendered character to many, I think, for this reason.

  • Poor Marketing. Poor name. Poor story. =

    what I’ve been saying all along. Crappy movie.

    Your teacher friend has identified a large portion of the problem with the story telling – that stems (oh how boring it must be to hear the same things coming back months after they were originally articulated) from CHANGES made to the original story by someone you, Dotar, identified as “a great stiory teller”.

    Please. Stanton may be a great director of animated full length features, but is far from being able to step into the shoes of a greatest story teller. (As this movie amply demonstrates, lol.)

    But your friend the teacher didn’t go far enough. The second thing that ruins this movie in the story telling department is the OTHER introduced from whole cloth example of Stanton’s vaunted story telling ability: the shape shifting Therns.

    Once you start asking yourself why the Therns used or didn’t use their “abilities” at different points throughout the plot, you realize that there is no reason why shape shifting couldn’t have solved all of their “problems” and that not using that ability when appropriate makes them look stupid, silly and completely in the “bad guy who tells his dastardly plans just so the hero can thwart them” category of BAD and worn out tropes.

  • I, perfhaps for one, like the fact that we don’t learn of JC’s wife and kid’s fate until later on – it’s such a powerful moment. I like not being manipulated into instant sympathy for the character. I like how he won me over, establishing his quick-thinking, his disdain for war, his determination and so on… As you get to know John Carter, you get to like him and care for him. I say No to an earlier, Nemo-esque reveal. I don’t want films to be the same!!

  • you gotta look a little harder for the majesty of the old civilization, but there is a bit of it there 🙂

    lots of statues, writing, and things on the walls

    I am especially fond of the harbor, you can tell that once ships docked there

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