posted Saturday 10 March 2012 @ 1:46 pm PST
by Gary Westfahl
For Hollywood insiders, of course, John Carter is merely this week’s attempt to garner large profits with a big-budget, special-effects extravaganza, and their only concern will be tracking the box office receipts to see if they validate the enormous amounts of money the Walt Disney Company spent on this film and perhaps justify a sequel. But for science fiction readers, this film is a matter of greater import, for the novel that it adapts, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars (1912, 1917), is one of the genre’s great holy texts, the evocative story that launched Burroughs’s career and engendered ten sequels that maintained the imaginative energy of the original far better than any of the author’s other series, while also inspiring scores of distinguished imitators in the subgenre it defined, the planetary romance. It is a novel, in other words, which should receive a well-crafted, respectful adaptation, something that nobody has any reason to expect from the contemporary film industry. But like Burroughs’s heroes, science fiction filmgoers always remain optimistic, despite the odds against them.
The frustrating news is that John Carter comes close – so agonizingly close – to being the film that Burroughs’s novel deserved, fitfully emulating its mythic power but ultimately succumbing to the effects of several unwise decisions to update and “improve” its story. One wishes that someone had mandated one more script revision, and/or a little more reshooting, to address the flaws that should have been apparent to anyone familiar with the novel. But let the record show that director Andrew Stanton, and writers Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon, worked very, very hard to make this a Burroughs adaptation that his most fervent fans would appreciate and embrace. Despite the changes to be noted, the film as a whole is remarkably faithful to the novel; for example, I never imagined that Burroughs’s subplot involving Sola (Samantha Morton), the secret daughter of Thark warrior Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and her rivalry with the evil Sarkoja (Polly Walker), would make its way into the film, but the women are if anything more prominent in the film than they were in the novel. Indeed, all of Burroughs’s major characters are included in the film, correctly named and appropriately characterized. No one can complain about the way that the story has been visualized, included a perfectly cast John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and the well-rendered, four-armed Tharks; Carter’s doglike pet calot, Woola, is a special delight; as in the novel, Thark babies emerge from eggs in hatcheries (though the film fails to note that the women of Dejah Thoris’s race also give birth in this fashion); even the iconic image of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle that opens every Disney film is here given an appropriately reddish tint. A key quotation from the novel – “A warrior may change his metal, but not his heart” – is artfully deployed in the script; someone made an effort to have Carter’s journal, and the pages of writing seen in the closing credits, resemble Burroughs’s own handwriting; and every detail of the film’s Barsoomiana seems accurate, right down to use of the proper Barsoomian names for the Martian moons (Thuria and Cluros) and planet Earth (Jasoom).
So, what went wrong? Part of the problem is that the novel was, after all, written one hundred years ago, and social attitudes have changed a lot since then. Now, a contrarian might simply advise filmmakers adapting such a story to begin with a disclaimer: “This film is based on a novel written in 1912, it reflects the commonly held views of an American adult of that era, and if this is going to bother you, please leave the theatre now.” But, I suppose, the film’s financial backers would not be pleased, and so, the perceived racism and sexism in A Princess of Mars had to be diligently expunged. Burroughs got his story off to a brisk start: after a quick account of how Burroughs obtained the manuscript, Carter and Colonel James Powell are prospecting in Arizona, they are attacked by Apaches and forced into a cave, and Carter finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars. But no film made in 2012 can possibly cast Native Americans in such a negative light. Thus, the story must replace Burroughs’s sequence with a series of tedious contrivances to establish that Carter was only near that cave because of his efforts to escape the bizarre efforts of Powell (Bryan Cranston) to draft him into the United States Army, and the Apaches were only attacking because, after Carter’s desperate attempt to keep the peace, one trigger-happy soldier shot and killed an Apache. And, since this extended sequence functions as the film’s third prologue (after a brief, enigmatic scene on Mars and a frame story about young Edgar Rice Burroughs [Daryl Sabara] reading the journal of his uncle Jack Carter), the film ends up taking an eternity to get to its central story, the adventures of John Carter on Mars. (Strangely, after wasting so much time on these dull preliminaries, the film later rushes through two events that should have had a major impact – the death of Sarkoja and Carter’s victory over the evil Tal Hajus [Thomas Haden Church] – so quickly that viewers hardly notice them.)
As for Dejah Thoris, Burroughs’s assertive but defenseless woman must now become not only an accomplished swordswoman in her own right, fighting alongside a John Carter who no longer needs to defend her, but also one of her planet’s leading scientists, on the verge of a breakthrough that might save her people from extinction. (Thus, instead of calling her “princess,” Carter incongruously addresses her as “professor.”) And, although she briefly wears a revealing outfit right out of a Frank Frazetta painting for her impending wedding to the evil Sab Than (Dominic West), she complains that this genre-appropriate garb is “a little vulgar for my taste,” emphasizing her unwillingness to conform to chauvinistic expectations regarding alluring princesses.
Another perceived deficiency in Burroughs’s novel is that his Carter, despite his mysterious background and apparent agelessness (which the film does not reference), is basically a straightforward, likable hero – strong, brave, and unfailingly polite – who brings no apparent baggage to his exploits. But all film heroes today, it seems, must have some baggage, although Carter’s issues are so poorly explained in the film that, despite my general inclination to avoid any “spoilers,” I think it actually helps to tell filmgoers beforehand that, after fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War, Carter returned to find his house burned down (perhaps by the infamous General Sherman himself, even though Carter was said to live in Virginia, not Georgia) and his beautiful wife and daughter killed. Saddened by his failure to be there to save them, then, Carter was long reluctant to fight for any causes or become involved in another romantic relationship. Perhaps there were internal debates about whether the film really needed to include this information, which could account for the fact that Carter’s backstory is conveyed solely through brief, puzzling flashbacks that only start to make sense when one watches the film again. (In fact, since other aspects of the film are equally difficult to figure out, John Carter is definitely a film that is more enjoyable to watch the second time around.)
However, the film’s most grievous departure from Burroughs relates to a recurring error Hollywood makes in adapting books for young readers, previously noted in reviews of Jumper (2008) (review) and the ill-fated Mars Needs Moms (2011) (review) – the spectacular failure of which surely inspired Disney’s odd decision to take the “of Mars” out of this film’s title, as if to avoid jinxing it: the belief that such stories always require immensely powerful and implacable villains, in order to provoke the most exciting and dramatic conflicts imaginable. Now, one might think that Burroughs’s novel, filled with numerous evildoers and monsters, required no emendations of this sort, but someone evidently decided that villains in airships, sword-wielding, four-armed giants, and huge, vicious white apes were simply not enough. Thus, the film decided to borrow the Therns (and their headquarters, the river Iss) from Burroughs’s second Mars novel, The Gods of Mars (1913, 1918), and to considerably elevate them in stature: no longer merely the remnants of an ancient Martian race, whose evil schemes are soon thwarted by Carter, they are now immortal aliens with seemingly limitless powers, including teleportation and shapeshifting, who are secretly manipulating events on Mars as part of their unending campaign to destroy planetary civilizations by forcing them into endless wars. These Therns also provide a new explanation for the way that Carter gets to Mars: instead of apparently wishing himself there, as in the novel, he now sees a Thern materialize in that cave, and after killing him, unknowingly employs the medallion he is holding to teleport himself to Mars. (And, as something to note in passing, if Harlan Ellison, having abandoned efforts to extract money from the makers of In Time [review] is looking for other filmmakers to sue, he might note that this film’s device of medallions, usually worn around the neck, which instantly transport people to distant places seems directly borrowed from Ellison’s Outer Limits episode “Demon with a Glass Hand” , although its medallions sent people through time instead of space.)
This change is particularly ruinous to the film because the power of Burroughs’s original story, after all, lay in the fact that it represented the ultimate in wish fulfillment: you look up at another planet, you transport yourself to that planet, you find that you can beat the crap out of everyone and everything around you, and you marry a beautiful princess and become that planet’s Warlord. This is the story that inspired many people to become interested in space travel, like Carl Sagan, who related how he as a child, after reading Burroughs, had similarly looked up at the stars and dreamed that he might be transported to another world. Significantly, he did not dream that he might somebody run into a powerful alien with a magical device that could take him to another world; it simply isn’t the same. And this sort of story must end with the complete, transcendent triumph of the hero, something that the film’s John Carter is denied: no matter how long he remains on Mars, the film suggests, he will always be gazing suspiciously at every person he encounters, fearful that he or she is a disguised Thern plotting his demise. Perhaps this was justified in story conferences as laying the necessary groundwork for a possible sequel, but one might respond that Burroughs himself, after nervously providing his early novels with cliffhanger endings, began giving his novels complete, satisfactory conclusions, confident that he could always devise some pretext for one more sequel without any obvious hooks; and certainly, Hollywood itself has never failed to find some way to keep a profitable franchise going, even contriving to produce three more sequels to a film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), that ended with the complete destruction of planet Earth. In sum, since Burroughs’s novel already offered a sufficient number of dastardly opponents, there was no reason to add the Therns in the first place, and every reason to remove them in the final, chartreuse version of the script.
The Therns further provoke the filmmakers to add a message to the film that is utterly at odds with Burroughs’s story: in a conversation with Carter, the head Thern, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), explains that “the game” his people “feed off” involves provoking constant warfare so that each world’s inhabitants are too distracted to notice their deteriorating environment, and their “neglected planet slowly fades.” Thus, underlining these remarks with stark images of desiccated ruins in the deserts of Barsoom, the film argues that people must avoid war in order to nurture and protect their world, neatly merging pacifism and environmentalism in an eminently politically correct fashion (and perhaps recalling the environmental message in Stanton’s previous film, Wall▪E  [review]). Now, it is true that Burroughs’s Carter regularly announces that different groups of Martians must stop fighting and learn to work together; however, since he usually achieves this goal by defeating some resistant faction in armed combat, and since each victory is regularly followed by the appearance of another band of miscreants that Carter needs to clobber, it is hard to argue that Burroughs was a pacifist at heart. (Indeed, reflecting the character’s combative tendencies, one of the film’s narrative arcs involves Carter’s gradual willingness to commit himself to fighting on behalf of Barsoom, despite muttering some antiwar sentiments, leaving the film almost at war with itself on this point.) And any concerns about the environment in Burroughs’s works were balanced by a boundless belief in the power of science; thus, when Mars started to lose its atmosphere, the Martians simply built a factory to manufacture more atmosphere, and they somehow managed to do so even while continuing to engage in the incessant battles that only abated, somewhat, when Carter appeared on the scene. In any event, none of this is related to what makes Burroughs’s stories appealing; no boy ever dreamed of becoming John Carter so that he could bring about world peace and protect the trees. The good news is that such themes are very muted in the film; the bad news is that they found their way into the script at all.
As a final complaint about the film, while Burroughs’s heroes are given to self-deprecating humor, they are never mocked in quite the way that Carter is mocked in this film, perhaps due to the work of an anonymous script doctor hired to add some jokes to the film. Thus, in the film, Tars Tarkas mistakenly believes that Carter’s name is “Virginia,” actually his place of residence, leading all the Tharks to repeatedly address him by a female name, and in one scene Carter is roughly treated like a Thark baby, including having the Thark equivalent of baby powder splattered all over his face. There is also some low humor related to the fact that the Tharks have two pairs of arms (as when Tars Tarkas refers to Carter as his “right arms”); the film works the phrases “a princess of Mars” and “John Carter of Mars” into the dialogue; and one character’s advice to young Edgar Rice Burroughs is that he should “write a novel.” But it would not be fair to criticize the film in another respect – its dubious science – since virtually all its lapses in this area come directly from Burroughs: Carter’s impossibly high leaps, Barsoom’s magical “ninth ray,” and the fact that a race capable of maintaining airships and other advanced machinery depends upon torches for lighting and swords for armed combat. The only questionable addition in the film is an extended sequence when Carter essentially must teach himself how to walk again in the lower Martian gravity, which seems illogical since we now know that the Apollo astronauts, in the even lower gravity of the Moon, had no trouble walking around the moment they set foot on the lunar surface.
The main lesson to learn from John Carter is that even in big films, little things matter: all of the issues I have noted together involve only a fraction of the film’s running time, and every infelicity could have been removed or revised without significantly affecting the film. But the overall effect of these added touches is a film that is overlong, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying, and while I have no power to predict box office receipts, I suspect that this film will fail to earn back the 250 million dollars that it cost, dooming any efforts to produce additional adaptations of Burroughs’s Mars novels or his other science fiction novels. All one can hope for is a DVD release with a “director’s cut” of this film that might address some of its flaws; or if that is not forthcoming, perhaps someone could emulate the fans who crafted the re-edited, Jar Jar Binks-less version of The Phantom Menace (1999) and come up with a better version of John Carter. Or someday, when the excellent special effects that this film paid 100 million dollars for are available for one million dollars, a group of Edgar Rice Burroughs enthusiasts might pool their resources and, unencumbered by the pressures of big-budget filmmaking, finally produce the definitive film adaptation that A Princess of Mars deserves.