I write this blog because I feel like I have something worthwhile to share with the world. It seems everyone and their dog has a blog these days, so it's understandable that some consider the currency to be about as valuable as a Weimar Papiermark. But there are days when the sense of self-consciousness is overridden. There are some things you just have to yawp from the rooftops, screaming at the stars, begging for someone to listen, for the message to be heard and understood. This is one of those occasions.
John Carter is one of two things on the internet: it's either a hyperinflated, safe, cynical, lifeless flop destined to be considered along the likes of Ishtar and Heaven's Gate, or an unappreciated future classic unfairly dismissed by the media worthy of joining the ranks of similarly originally maligned films like Blade Runner and The Thing. Ever a man to instinctively side with the underdog (even though the underdog, in this case, has a $300 million budget: there's a turnup for the books) I figured that this is a classic case of schadenfreude against the Evil Disney Empire, a meme which got tiresome before I was on the 'Net.
But then again... I figured, perhaps the critics have a point? The advertising campaign for the film has been nothing short of horrendous. Burroughs fans obviously don't need to know who John Carter or Dejah Thoris or Tars Tarkas are, but the masses don't. Trailers for, say, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring do a great job of not only appealing to the Tolkien fans, but hooking non-Ringers in with a straight outline of the plot and basic ideas of the characters, with a few "greatest hits" clips for flavour. What's more, there are some parts of the trailer that were actively baffling, not to mention misleading ("Earth is next!" - that line's not in the film I saw, although the threat of the Therns is implied).
Complicating matters is the fact that many of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances are bending over backwards to promote the film. I'm not kidding, just about everyone loved this film, on the forums, on the message boards, mailing groups. I was concerned that I might be turned off the film by simple hype aversion, as happened with Firefly and A Song of Ice and Fire - both of which I enjoy in parts, but not nearly to the extent of my compatriots. So even going in as I always do, with the best will in the world and desire to enjoy the film, that fear that my friends and colleagues were delusional - and that if I enjoyed the film, my gushing review would create the same problem for those still undecided.
So I'll say some things, and again, I implore you: if you've read this far, please read the rest, so you can understand where I'm coming from. I saw John Carter. I understand why it's doing so poorly. I think this is a perfect illustration as to why directors like Andrew Stanton rarely get the chance in this era. This is a tremendous missed opportunity. I didn't like it.
And hopefully when you finish reading, you'll understand why I say these things.
Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
- C.S. Lewis, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" (1952)
I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.
- Ray Bradbury
It was only when watching this film that I came to something of an epiphany. The above quotation is near and dear to my heart, as a nice shorthand rebuttal to anyone who deigns to impose their myopic worldview about adulthood and maturity. The second is from my dear, wonderful sister, who only a few days ago shared it with me, yet it's something that speaks to my being as if I read it as a child.
Then I wondered, what's really the difference between my adult tastes and my childish tastes? The more I assess the things I liked, the more I wonder if there's a difference at all. As a child I enjoyed such "adult" fare as Dickens, Asimov, Clarke, Salinger, Keyes, Hugo. As an adult, I discovered "childish" works like that of le Guin, Brian Jacques, London, and works by authors I enjoyed as a child. All in between there are supposed "boy's adventures" like The Lost World with glossaries that would give Clark Ashton Smith a run for his money - can you name many other children's books that throws around terms like mental inertia and cerebral paresis? - and alleged "adult" works which I felt I could've enjoyed as an eight-year-old.
Then it hit me: my tastes haven't changed. I just became more discerning through longer experience and accumulated knowledge. When I go back and read some stories, I find them just as enjoyable as I found them upon my first encounter, sometimes more. I appreciate the historical significance of Dumas and Stevenson now more than when my knowledge of the time period was comparatively smaller. I've been lucky, in that most of the books I've read were pretty darned good, but when it comes to the ones which I no longer enjoy, it's usually because I realise how I was tricked and manipulated by formula.
Formula's a problem for me, because if you're too careless with it, I quickly get resentful. The famous "story arc" is an example, this idea that a character has to change fundamentally over the course of a tale, as if it's the only form of character development. If done poorly, it feels forced, perfunctory, artificial: the reluctant warrior who must be forced into fighting for a true cause, the doubtful hero who fears he isn't good enough, the selfish anti-hero who sacrifices his happiness for the good of the cause. I used to think this sort of thing was important, but if it's just added in because "there needed to be an arc," then it quickly turns me off. The best authors either provide a character who needs no such arc, or undergoes the arc in a way that isn't insulting and tiresome.
So we come to Edgar Rice Burroughs and A Princess of Mars. I'm a Burroughs fan, naturally, but I'm not nearly as well versed in his wider works as I'd like to be. Rather than Tarzan, Pellucidar or Venus, my favoured Burroughs cycle is that of Caspak, which Amicus memorably adapted into The Land that Time Forgot (scripted by Michael Moorcock!) and The People of Time Forgot. That said, I read and greatly enjoyed A Princess of Mars for the reason I enjoyed Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker: the ideas. The society of the Tharks, the fauna of Barsoom, the mystery of Issus, the politics of the Martians, the aether-based technology, the solar system - I ate that up. Yet unlike Star Maker, A Princess of Mars had characters, each of which were strong enough to be instantly recognizable, yet nuanced enough to surprise.
From the moment I encountered Tars Tarkas and Sola, I knew that these were the characters I would love. Sure, I like Carter himself, Dejah Thoris, Kantos Kan and Woola (come on, who doesn't love Woola?), but there's something about the maligned sensitive soul in a brutish society that speaks to me, the desire to be more than just a savage beast that lives for blood and death. So naturally, the two most compassionate Tharks on Barsoom fascinated me, especially Sola. The character dynamic between herself, Carter and Tars was the strongest and most compelling part of the story for me.
Travelling through Barsoom, discovering the strange life and new civilizations, wouldn't have been nearly as rewarding without characters to invest in. Yet even given their comparative brevity and apparent simplicity, these characters felt real. Dejah Thoris felt like an imperious princess of incomparable beauty and grace... who was also a real woman, with emotions, pride, hopes and fears. Kantos Kan felt like a dashing, devil-may-care warrior who was also a real man, headstrong, brash, impulsive. So the same can be said of Sarkoja, Tal Hajus, Tardos Mors, Dak Kova, Sab Than...
So yes, I enjoyed the book quite a lot. Perhaps ill-advisedly, I read the book just before going to the film: combined with prior knowledge of the changes, I felt prepared to go to Andrew Stanton's Barsoom.
Prior to John Carter, I had seen only two Stanton films: Wall-E, and Up. While I may be controversial and say the films are far from perfect - I feel Wall-E would've been a masterpiece if it ended at around the forty minute mark and wasn't dragged down by an insultingly ham-fisted and redundant second half, and the villain in Up was forced and entirely unnecessary - I still feel they are immensely well-crafted, thoughtful and worthy pieces. In an age where we have Immortals, "Star Trek," Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia cluttering up the multiplexes, these films are neither pretentious, pandering vanity projects nor cynical, calculated, soulless tie-ins. I'm not enamoured with Pixar's work to the point of considering their films perfect by any means, but they are clearly experts at their craft in the way Disney, Bluth, Bakshi and Miyazaki were in their prime. So while I was intrigued to see how Stanton would handle live action, I wasn't at ease either. I read the interviews where he stated a desire to get away from Frazetta, which naturally didn't sit well with me at all. Then the trailer came out, and the marketing for the film has been soundly thrashed for good reason. And then the media leapt on it, and I started to lose my patience.
One of the most frequent refrains I read in regards to the film's lack of "originality" due to decades of films mining the material. "It doesn't matter if the book came first, the film didn't, so Star Wars/Avatar/Conan the Barbarian/Prince of Persia are, in fact, "first," and John Carter is, in fact, derivative of those films." To this argument, I say... don't. Just don't. If that made any sense, then people would've dismissed Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark for repeating the successes of Flash Gordon and Secrets of the Incas - only in this case, the earlier films did come first. It's a non-criticism, a glib, meaningless dismissal which seems to ignore decades of films which could be considered derivative of each other, yet aren't.
So I went into the film, fully expecting the little voice in my head to say "calm down, grit your teeth, it's just an adaptation, don't worry about it." And I had cause to gripe: there were changes. Changes I disagree with, changes I felt weren't necessary, changes I think made the film less than it could have been. Anyone who's read my blog knows just what a tremendous stickler I am for fidelity to the source material, so prepare to be shocked as I say that even considering the divergences from the novel were pretty big... I enjoyed the film so much that I didn't even acknowledge them. They were there, but everything was so well done, committed with such surety and confidence that this was the right way to go, that I couldn't help but go along with it. I went in there ready to hate the Therns, Dejah Warrior Princess, Reluctant Anti-Hero John Carter and the myriad alterations. But Stanton, Chabon and everyone involved were so earnest and determined that they made sure that even a pedantic literature aficionado like me didn't even notice.
I really wish Samantha Morton's Sola got more screen time.
That is what a good adaptation is all about. When changes are made, they are not done because "the studio mandated it," or "because this is more cinematic," or "because it was stupid in the source material and needed changing." They are because "this is necessary for the story I'm trying to tell, in the way I'm trying to tell it." I missed Sola teaching Carter the Martian tongue, but the alternative is effective enough. I was bothered by the lack of attention given to the Warhoon and the atmosphere plant, but it's understandable not everything could be squeezed into a 2-hour film. I didn't dig the inclusion of the Therns at this point, but at least they weren't made from whole cloth. The fact that everybody's wearing clothes is a damning indictment of 20th century's misplaced compunctions about nudity - all the more hilarious considering this is from a story written in 1912 - but it's something we have to deal with in this crazy world. The use of blue blood to make the violence more palatable (evidently something about the colour red causes moral guardians to squirm) is a decent enough way to get as much brutality as a PG-13/12A could get.
That's not to say I agree with the choices. I really missed the nuances of Sola's back story and Thark society, the poignancy of Woola's devotion is diluted a tad, and I don't think the Therns were woven into the story well enough. Carter's arc is probably the weakest element, being predictable and pointless. I don't know whether it's because I gave the film the chance, or because Stanton & co did a good job condensing, but even these things didn't dull my enjoyment. I don't expect all Burroughs fans to be as accommodating: no doubt there's someone out there who cannot love the film due to the changes, or who wasn't sufficiently drawn into the film. I can respect that, and I can understand Barsoomians who wanted more. I know I wanted more: I would've been happy to sit through a three-hour film. But given all possibilities, this is far better than I expected. It may not be the Barsoom Burroughs fans have been waiting 100 years for, it may not be the closest adaptation possible, it may not be as good a film as it could have been. But to me... it was enough. I'd definitely like to see if some enterprising fan-editor does a "purist's edit": I think it could be done.
Going through all the things I liked about the film would take forever. Taylor Kitsch was pretty far from the John Carter in my head, but he worked. The Tharks are a good deal less broad, imposing and alien than the beings in my imagination, but their personality and design more than made up for that: certainly Tarkas, Sola, Sarkoja and Hajus were more or less pitch-perfect. The creatures, settings and designs were nothing short of spectacular, especially Zodanga and Helium. Woola was awesome, of course. Purefoy's Kantos Kan was immensely enjoyable in the few scenes he appeared. All the other characters save Dejah Thoris were well-acted and portrayed. The Princess of Helium, on the other hand, was one of the most delightful surprises: Lynn Collins brings a perfect mix of the godly and the womanly to the role, a feat I never thought could be done. It's just a shame Sab Than was about as weak as I found him in the book, acting as little more than the whining lackey of the Therns, but it's hard to criticize fidelity to the source material in this case.
There are parts in the film which are so well done, shivers ran down my spine. I got chills, man! Carter's first steps were just like how I imagined them, right up to the incubator and first encounter with Tars Tarkas. Then there are the set pieces like the airship battle, the charge of the Warhoon, the first sighting of Helium. The beauty of this film! When JC rallies the Tharks to ride to Zodanga, I damn near leapt out of my chair - and that's no hyperbole. I don't exaggerate about things like that.
Looking beyond relation to the books and visuals, the film did a great job of bringing something more than spectacle. There's a scene in the middle of the film which, while a smidgen manipulative, is nonetheless just subdued enough to have maximum impact, even if the actionhounds will no doubt want to see JC going wild on the Warhoun without harrowing flashbacks. The commentary on imperial expansion, tribal conflict, frontier ideologies and manifest destiny is happily retained in the adaptation, and there for viewers willing to look for it. Plus you have the usual foreshadowing and Chekhov's Guns in effect adding cinematic stanzas. All well-made, excellently executed, good stuff all round.
Everyone loves Woola, as well they should, he's the best pal a Jasoomian could ever want!
The film has been compared to Avatar for obvious reasons. I think it's unfair: this is a much better film than Jake Sully's wacky adventures. It's certainly superior to a great number of films I've seen over the years. Better than every Harry Potter film I've seen. Better than the Narnia adaptations. Better than Thor, Tintin, Transformers. Although I should probably wait a bit and watch it again (and again, and again: I plan on taking multiple family members and friends). I'm confident in saying that, flawed as it is, I think it's comparable to the better fantasy films I've seen. I'm talking Conan the Barbarian and, yes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This film can hang with them, no problem.
I would even go so far as to say it's on the level of Star Wars. That's right, I said it. Now, before you get your pitchforks, keep in mind that I don't hold Star Wars to quite the same echelon as others do. I saw it quite late in childhood, perhaps affecting my reception to it, but I certainly felt thrills, a sense of wonder, and fascination with the world that was created. It was great, sure, but it wasn't one of the defining narratives of my childhood either. There are mythic archetypes aplenty to be sure, but they're obvious mythic archetypes straight out of Campbell without much twisting and altering: pretty standard stuff. Not to mention a lot of the really great stuff was just lifted from earlier films in the first place. What I'm saying is that watching John Carter, I felt the exact same sorts of emotions as when I first watched Star Wars. As a 27-year-old, who's endured countless atrocious adaptations, repugnant remakes and ridiculous re imaginings. That has to count for something.
If John Carter isn't a success, then frankly... I don't know if that's what we deserve. If we as a people reward the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and bloody Alice in Wonderland with $1 billion in revenue while letting good films down, then perhaps that's our just desserts. But the sheer hypocrisy of decrying John Carter while eagerly awaiting the eighth Batman film, a prequel to a beloved franchise which already has four films, and one of the most obvious licences to print money in the history of cinema absolutely perplexes and infuriates me.
It's not perfect. It's not the best adaptation. But it's good enough for me.
So, what happens when a major studio actually takes a chance, rather than spending money on a sequel to a tired franchise with no creative vision? We pounce on it. We mock it. We turn it into a joke as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not a box office prognosticator, but I am genuinely worried about the box-office returns on the film – but those numbers are so uncertain precisely because it’s not a safe bet, precisely because it’s an”out there” choice. I think that producing John Carter was a very brave move from an institution that we tend to mock for being staid and conservative, and I just find it odd that we are so quick to preemptively punish that sort of bold creativity and risk-taking, especially when we claim that’s exactly what we want.
- Darren of them0vieblog
Let's go back to what I said earlier.
I saw John Carter. I understand. It wasn't my Barsoom: only I could realise my personal vision of that weird, wondrous world. But this was Stanton's Barsoom, and it was a Barsoom I could recognize. I saw John Carter leaping through the sky; I saw Dejah Thoris in her power and beauty; I saw Tars Tarkas in his dignity and might; I saw Sola in her nobility and strength; I saw Woola in his devotion and courage. I saw the spires of Helium, the streets of Zodanga, the pillars of Thark, the depths of the Issus. I saw airships soaring on the aether, white apes on the rampage, the Ninth Ray blazing through the night. I recognized everyone even before they were introduced, which is all I can really expect from any adaptation worth its salt.
I understand why it's doing so poorly. This article highlights the only explanation that makes any sense to me. Conan the Barbarian is instructive, since it also had a largely panned marketing campaign, and it also failed: in contrast, Clash of the Titans had a massive campaign with some good shots & quotes (Liam Neeson's "Release the Kraken!" being widely cited as the only reason to see the film). I'd be hard pressed to pick between Conan and Clash in terms of quality, but John Carter blows them both out of the water. As for the poor ratings: simple. People are stupid. When people start to claim that John Carter's overseas performances can be explained because non-Americans are less interested in plot than Yanks and so are willing to be more forgiving if you don't speak English - quite how this accounts for the film's success in the UK and Australia, which, ahem, speak English - well, one need only look at the success of Transformers in the US to see just what a load of codswallop that "argument" is. Yet this argument is bewilderingly commonplace: either it's too convoluted, or too full of "mumbo-jumbo and wacky made-up words." Pretty sure that's exactly what people were saying when Star Wars first came out.
I think this is a perfect illustration as to why directors like Andrew Stanton rarely get the chance in this era. This is clearly a labour of love. Every frame, every second, every pixel, sound, tone, was crafted with someone who loved A Princess of Mars. And you can bet Hollywood hates that. They have a history of hating genuine invention: always go for the safe choice, the easy choice, the profitable choice. Don't take chances in case they don't pay off, and especially when it appears that the "safe choice" isn't really that safe at all. This is only two years after Avatar, in the same year The Phantom Menace was re-released in 3D, in a period where cinema takings are at historic lows, using source material that has been mined relentlessly since practically the dawn of cinema itself, funded by a studio notorious for spotty live-action films and infamously constrictive. Despite the budget, John Carter was a risky project, which is why it's astonishing it was made at all.
This was a tremendous missed opportunity. I say this, because it looks unlikely that the film will start a franchise - even though it is far from the disaster lazy and disingenuous reporters claim it to be. 21 Jump Street got $35 million in the same period of time John Carter gained $30 million, yet it's being hailed as a success: is the margin between Ishtar-level failure and success really so narrow? I pray I'm wrong, that they're wrong, that the rabid and devoted Edgar Rice Burroughs fans and new-found theatregoing fans fuel enough energy and excitement for a film that deserves success. Other reviews have stated that this was enough: it was a self-contained story made so strongly that it doesn't need a sequel. But after watching John Carter, I definitely want to see Stanton's Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars, Swords of Mars. I know Stanton can do it.
I didn't like it. I say this, because I loved it.
I really hope this doesn't ruin anyone's expectations. I just compared this film to freakin' Star Wars, you know? That's quite some hype there. But really, what's the point of having a blog if you can't say what you want to? I realise I may have led people on with "I didn't like it," and I'm sorry if I annoyed you unduly. It just seemed the best way to convey the pleasant surprise I felt when I realised that I was totally giving myself over to the film. I'm always wary about gushing about things I like, but this time... I think it's worth it.
Go see John Carter.