AN EMPIRE OF ONE

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John Carter (of Mars)

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John Carter of Mars poster by Mondo recalls the paintings of the Hudson River School.

Last night my family and I were lucky enough to see an advance screening of John Carter hosted by Hero Complex in Burbank. The screening was followed by a Q & A with the film’s director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) hosted by Geoff Boucher.

Here are some of my thoughts on the film.

1. My father has been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creations, including the John Carter of Mars series, for longer than I can remember. He has not yet seen the film, but he’s been griping about one thing ever since they announced it: the title. He does not like John Carter. Does anyone? In my mind, the name “John Carter” conjures up images of a doctor (such as the character Dr. John Carter on the television show, E.R.) or a detective (Get Carter) rather than an adventurer who travels between worlds.

Burroughs’ novel was published in book form as A Princess of Mars, and a princess of Mars is indeed a main character. However, this was not the work’s original title. According to Wikipedia, Burroughs “struggled to find an appropriate title for the novel: My First Adventure of Mars, The Green Martians, and Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess were all early attempts to solve this problem.” It was eventually published in The All-Story magazine as Under the Moons of Mars before being published in book form as A Princess of Mars. This publication history probably makes justifying the movie’s title change a bit easier. However, regardless of this, the question remains: Is John Carter is a good title? The film was originally titled A Princess of Mars, then John Carter of Mars, and the actual film concludes with the latter title. According to Stanton, the film is “about a guy becoming John Carter of Mars.” This makes sense. The film plays on his name and where he’s from. At first, the Tharks, through a misunderstanding, call him Virginia. At another point in the story, the princess calls him John Carter of Earth. Finally, he realizes that he has become John Carter of Mars and calls himself that. The film, in effect, has two titles that book-end the film: John Carter at the start; John Carter of Mars at the end. The change in title reflects the change in the character. However, none of this changes the fact that the official title, John Carter, is more boring than John Carter of Mars. Note that the poster above reads “JCM,” i.e. John Carter of Mars.

2. The film is not a “faithful” adaptation. During the Q & A after the screening, Stanton said that the relative obscurity of the source material made it easier to make changes. It’s fine to make changes if they lead to a better film, but I don’t know if that is what we are dealing with here. Many of the changes involve incorporating material from the later novels, especially the second one, The Gods of Mars. The original story is already confusing. There are the Green Martians, Tharks, and the Red Martians. Then there’s a war between factions of the Red Martians. Barsoom, Tharks, Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas. It’s like taking a course in a foreign language. But the film makes this already confusing story even more confusing by adding parts dealing with Red Martian religion, and a mysterious group of bald headed priest types who appear to be the puppeteers behind everything that happens. I suppose they’ll be explained in the third film.

There’s enough intriguing elements in the film that there will probably be a large number of people who, not catching all the plot elements during a first screening, will be lured back to the theater a second or third time, hoping the confusion will be replaced with clarity and revelation. However, it seems more likely that nothing will be understood completely until the final installment of the series.

3. If the source material is going to be approached with an idea that one does not need to be faithful, I think the best approach would be to aim for less, not more. The best part of the film is the Tharks. I would have made Carter an unmarried millionaire, bored with his life. When he’s thrown in the Thark society, he must start from scratch again, while all the time trying to get back to Earth and his mansion. As he slowly becomes accustomed to the Thark society, he moves up in status as well until he finally ends up top of the heap. In the film, Carter more or less follows this path, but it comes a bit too easily and quickly because they want to move the story along a different path. For example, he doesn’t have to learn the language because a female Thark gives him a magical potion that enables him to understand everything everyone says, both Green and Red Martians. In my story, the story would become a version of Brigadoon. Just as he is accepted completely by the Tharks, and finds love among the Tharks, he’s transported back to Earth. The film would end with him looking up at Mars in the sky, vowing to find a way to return.

4. Was John Carter the source for Superman? When Carter is transported to Mars, he finds that because of the lower gravitational pull, he has super powers. Besides super strength, he is able to jump very high and very far. Superman’s powers were originally explained the same way, but instead of being the Earthling who travels to another planet, he’s an alien from another planet who travels to Earth.

So, is there a connection? According to Wikipedia:

Siegel and Shuster have themselves discussed a number of influences that impacted upon the character. Both were avid readers, and their mutual love of science fiction helped to drive their friendship. Siegel cited John Carter stories as an influence: “Carter was able to leap great distances because the planet Mars was smaller that the planet Earth; and he had great strength. I visualized the planet Krypton as a huge planet, much larger than Earth”. (Source.)

5. During the course of the film, the princess, Dejah Thoris, goes from being mostly covered by armor, in the style of a warrior princess, to being rather scantily clothed, which is more than a little reminiscent of the costume change Princess Leila undergoes from Star Wars: A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back. Stanton, in the post-screening discussion, said this was meant to represent the character rediscovering her “vulnerability.” Whatever. Even Geoff Boucher made a joke about some guy in the audience enthusiastically nodding in agreement.

6. It’s interesting to compare the setup of John Carter to that of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (I wrote about the latter here.) Both films are about fish out of water Earthmen, characters who find themselves held captive by strange aliens on a strange, alien planet. Despite being among everything alien, in POTA Mark Wahlberg escapes and is leading a group of natives to a place he’s never been within 24 hours of his capture. In JC, Carter attempts to escape, but fails several times, in part because he doesn’t know which way to go. He gets lost, as you would expect when you are on an alien planet with alien customs. When he’s finally released, he needs the help of native guides because he has no idea where to go. But the film goes further than this. When Carter first gets to Mars, he cannot even walk, much like a baby. Carter’s baby status becomes even more obvious when he’s thrown into the Thark nursery along with the other Martian babies. At this point in the story, Carter is like a newborn baby which sees everything as strange and alien. In effect, he has been “reborn,” and the rest of the story is going to show Carter “growing up.” Stanton said that at first he thought Taylor Kitsch was too young for the part, but a younger John Carter actually fits a coming of age story such as this better than the thirty-ish Carter Burroughs envisioned.

It’s also interesting to note that both Planet of the Apes and John Carter have their hero helped by a female alien who is a misfit among her people, yet at the same time the daughter of a high ranking male. Perhaps Pierre Boulle, author of the source novel for POTA, was influenced by JC. But my main point is that JC, despite the cheat of using a magic potion to allow Carter to understand all Martian languages, gets it right whereas Burton’s POTA gets it very wrong. Walhberg acts as if he’s taking little more than a trip downtown; Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, acts and reacts like he’s on an alien planet.

7. At some point the princess admits to Carter that she ran away. It’s a bit more complicated than usual, but it still comes down to a classic situation: she ran away because she does not want to marry the man that her father has arranged for her to marry. (We don’t see her run away and we get the impression that something was cut out. Perhaps one of the six deleted scenes that Stanton mentioned that will appear on the home video version will cover this.) This part of the film begins to resemble It Happened One Night, as the hero and princess show how incompatible they are while on the road, but we know where they will eventually end up. At this point, I would rather have been watching Colbert and Gable in Capra’s film. But Woolah partially redeems it.

8.  This is Woolah, John Carter’s dog-like friend, who can move extremely fast.

Woola

This is Lockjaw, a bulldog-like character, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, that first appeared in Fantastic Four #45. Among his powers is the ability to teleport himself, which is sorta like moving very fast.

Lockjaw

Could Burroughs’ Woolah have been the inspiration for Lee and Kirby’s Lockjaw?

9.  Jumping is what John Carter does best on Mars, but I wasn’t impressed by how it was handled. I wanted to feel like I was there jumping with Carter instead of admiring him from a safe distance, but the film did not convey to me how it must feel to jump like a superman. However, there is a film that does a pretty good job of this. Here it is, Osamu Tezuka’s “Jumping.”

10. There’s nothing to suggest that in addition to traveling through space, Carter travels in time. However, if it proved to be the case that his trip was possible only because he did travel backwards in time, and he were to discover than present day Mars is as dead as any planet can be, it would make his loss, which he experiences after returning to the same Earth he left, even more poignant.

11. My Dad likes to talk about how the only time he was with an audience that applauded at the end of a film was when he saw Star Wars in 1977.  If he had been there with us to see John Carter at the Hero Complex screening, he would would not have to change his story because the audience did not applaud at the end, at least not until Andrew Stanton appeared. Whether this bodes ill for the film’s prospects remains to be seen, but I would not bet in favor of the film.

12. Why didn’t Disney bring John Carter to Comic-Con last year? I propose my theory here.

13. People like to think of stories such as this as nothing but escapism. You open the book, read the story, then close the book. End of story. The book has no long lasting affect on your life outside of its affect on the imagination. However, I think it’s more interesting to see this story as a metaphor. It’s not so much a wish-fulfilling power and sex fantasy as a story about a guy who discovers his true powers in the course of discovering his true identity. This is the story of every one of us. The limit of this story is not so much its escapism, as its ignorance of the limits of the actual world of its readers and viewers. The story was called  A Princess of Mars, not The Princesses of Mars. In other words, there can only be one John Carter. The upper levels of society have a limited number of slots. In theory, the same cave that transported Carter to Mars could transport millions of others. But there would still be only one Princess for all of them, despite all of them having super powers. Someone such as Andrew Stanton identifies with Carter because he found that when he jumped, there was a place to jump to. But for millions of others who can in fact jump just as high as Stanton, there is no place to jump. The slots are already filled. The Princess already has her Prince.

14. Some might see Carter as a Christ figure. Of course, Christ lies behind many American heroes, including Superman, which was heavily influenced by the John Carter stories. And yes, the two share initials. However, there is at least one significant aspect of the film’s story that is not part of the Christ story and that is Carter’s “I stick my neck out for nobody” attitude. He demonstrates this attitude on Earth as well as Mars. The film shows Carter growing beyond this egotistical stage and deciding that it’s worth fighting for the Princess’  and her city’s cause. In other words, the film identifies maturity, or growing up, with helping other people as opposed to thinking only of oneself. Carter’s initial egotism separates him from Christ (and Superman). However, it aligns him with many other American heroes such as Spider-Man and Han Solo. It’s called the Refusal of the Call (in Joseph Campbell’s terminology.)

The ending also separates Carter from Christ. Yes, after Carter marries the Princess, he leaves, involuntarily, returning to Earth. But only for awhile.  The film ends with him returning to Mars and the Princess, which is a very un-Christ-like thing to do, as well as a bit unusual for an American hero: think of all the broken hearts left behind across the universe by Captain Kirk.

What’s really going on is the shaping of the original material by Burroughs into a form that most resembles the currently popular “Hero’s Journey,” based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. Here’s the short version in the words of David Brin:

…the hero begins reluctant, yet signs and portents foretell his pre-ordained greatness. He receives dire warnings and sage wisdom from a mentor, acquires quirky-but-faithful companions, faces a series of steepening crises, explores the pit of his own fears and emerges triumphant to bring some boon/talisman/victory home to his admiring tribe/people/nation. (Source.)

What’s interesting about Carter is that Carter begins with no allegiance to a nation. He fought for the South in the American Civil War, but refuses to fight for the United States against the native Americans. He does not want to fight at all. It’s an interesting story, but of course it’s not an unfamiliar story: Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and, a film that’s a favorite of Stanton’s, Lawrence of Arabia. (The film was pitched as Indiana Jones on Mars, but should have been pitched as Lawrence of Arabia on Mars.) These are stories about characters who come from the land of the colonialist, but end up fighting alongside, even leading, the colonized. Pretty much the story of John Carter. To reduce Carter to a Christ figure is to miss a lot.

15. Some people love to express their views on the reasons for a box office flop. (Perhaps they hope to be hired as well-paid “consultants” next time out.) Some of these people are saying John Carter “flopped” because it’s not original. That is, the books were already adapted to film, primarily as Star Wars. (Others say it was too much like Avatar, which Cameron admitted was partly inspired by the Carter stories.) All you have to do is look at the box office results of the last twenty years to prove how absurd that is. As we know, sequels and adaptations dominate. Originality is not what drives Hollywood. If you must compare it to Star Wars then it’s the clarity of that film’s plot that should be noted: damsel in distress sends a message asking for help from a specific person; that person responds, but the task is completed by others he picks up along the way.  Message sent; reply received. John Carter‘s plot is already a mess, but even more so in comparison with Star Wars. (Added 3/18/12.)

UPDATE: 2/29/12

Here’s a new quote from Stanton about the title change, which is (mostly) in sync with what I had to say about it above:

At the time there was panic about Mars Needs Moms. That wasn’t convincing to me to do anything. Then they did all this testing and found out that a huge bulk of people were saying no off the title. You can’t lie about that stuff, that’s the response you’re getting. I was like ‘Eh, that’s what the movie is.’ But I don’t want to hurt people from coming to the movie. Then I realized the movie is about that arc [of John Carter’s character], and I said, ‘I’ll change it if you let me change it at the end. And if you let me keep the JCM logo.’ Because it means something by the end of the movie, and if there are more movies I want that to be what you remember. It may seem like an odd thing, but I wanted it to be the reverse Harry Potter. With the latest Harry Potter they had Harry Potter and the Blah Blah Blah Blah, but you just see the HP. I wanted the JCM to mean something. (Source.)

 UPDATE: 3/12/12

If Disney gave Mr. Stanton rope, he certainly ran with it. Accustomed to reworking scenes over and over at Pixar, he did not take well to the usual constraints of live-action — nailing it the first time — and went back for at least two lengthy reshoots. “The thing I had to explain to Disney was, ‘You’re asking a guy who’s only known how to do it this way to suddenly do it with one reshoot,’ ” he told The Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘I’m not gonna get it right the first time. I’ll tell you that right now.’ ” (Source.)

Two comments: First, it’s not unusual to reshoot stuff in Hollywood, but whenever this quote from Stanton is pulled out, the article seems to be implying that re-shoots are rare and done only when the production is “troubled.” In any case, Stanton’s re-shoots did not help. Why? The script. It’s too diffuse. His pitch to Disney, Indiana Jones on Mars (although the pitch should have been Lawrence of Arabia on Mars), implies a clear cut film, but this film is about as clear as a smoggy day in Los Angeles. Why couldn’t they come up with a good script? Were they too close to the film? Articles have appeared which talk about how the three writers were all smitten by John Carter as children. But passion does not ruin films. At the screening, Stanton spoke of how he felt free to change the story because its fan base, which would be upset if one name was changed, was relatively small, but the things he changed were the wrong things. Instead of distilling the story to its essence, he diluted it by adding even more story from the Burroughs sequels, probably in the hope of setting up his film’s sequels. The result? John Carter of Confusion. Even though they say “One area in which  [Stanton] exerted his influence was marketing, where he frequently rejected ideas from Ms. Carney and her team, according to people who worked on the film,” the reason the ad campaign was so lackluster was probably because of the film’s confusion. There was no clear concept to sell. (It is true that Stanton had a lot of power as a director, which is somewhat unusual for a first time live-action director. At the screening Stanton said that Disney pretty much left him alone, saying that they were afraid of him and didn’t want to upset the hotshot from Pixar, the one who had made films that had added billions to Disney’s coffers. However, at no time did he say something like, “If this film fails, I alone will be to blame.” In fact, he sounded a bit bigheaded.)

Here’s another quote from the NY Times article cited above:

On Sunday, Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said in a statement, “Moviemaking does not come without risk.  It’s still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of ‘John Carter.’ Unfortunately, it failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped.”(Source.)

I’ve already said that Stanton spoke of how Disney left him alone because they were afraid of making him angry, but perhaps they were also in awe of him based on his track record. I can’t help but think of certain talents of the Thirties who were likewise treated as gods when they were lured away by others, not just to direct films, but to found entire studios, that is, Ub Iwerks (co-creator of Mickey Mouse), Burt Gillett (director of the incredibly popular Three Little Pigs Silly Symphony), and David Hand (director of Snow White.) The subsequent efforts of each of these ex-Disney figures disappointed nearly everyone. Why? Probably because the ones who lured them away failed to appreciate the slippery nature of credits in the animation business as well as the collaborative process that produced their films. No one person was the auteur of these films, not even Disney himself. Likewise, whatever the credits say on Stanton’s Pixar films, there is no single person responsible for story or direction at Pixar. John Carter may have had input from the Pixar folk, but it was not a true Pixar film. Perhaps Stanton should have begun with a smaller project which would have given him time to build up a new team.

Here’s another quote to chew on:

In recent weeks, as a weak marketing campaign failed to generate audience excitement for “John Carter,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, made it clear in conversations with senior managers that he would not tolerate finger-pointing; this may be a colossal miss, he told them, according to people who were present, but it’s the company’s miss and no individuals would be blamed — including Mr. Stanton. Learn from it, was Mr. Iger’s message. (Source.)

So what should we learn from this? Don’t mix Westerns and Science Fiction? After the failure within the last year of two big budget films that did just this (the other being, of course, Cowboys & Aliens), I can imagine many Hollywood execs thinking exactly this.

Or perhaps execs will think that films having anything to do with Mars are out? We already know that Disney feared Mars in the title so much because of the Mars Needs Moms flop that they made Stanton change the title from John Carter of Mars, so you can be sure that future years will see many Mars film concepts torpedoed simply because of the Mars connection. Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova can kiss goodbye any hopes they had of films based on their Mars novels. Maybe our imaginations have dried up like the water on Mars and we are no longer possess imaginations capable of putting an imaginary form of life on Mars. Heaven help the Total Recall remake, assuming it takes place on Mars like the original version.

However, mostly, I think, the lesson will be that it’s dangerous to give a director too much power on a big budget film.  Should this be the lesson? I wonder if the problem was really the exact opposite. Perhaps Stanton had grown too accustomed to how he worked at Pixar, as part of a team. He didn’t stick to his gut convictions and was persuaded to make changes that he should not have made by his friends at Pixar who were not really part of his team on Carter. If this was indeed what happened, then it’s too bad. Stanton’s lone collaborator should have been his teenage self. At the screening, he spoke of how he wished he could travel back in time and tell his younger self not to blow it. But I think his younger self would have had more cause to say, “No, don’t you blow it.”

UPDATE: 6/7/12

It is a common practice in Hollywood to pitch stories in the form of a short, single sentence. According to  a long piece about John Carter and Andrew Stanton which originally ran in the October 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, ever since Stanton read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing he begins a project by distilling the movie “to one crisp sentence before making them. For Finding Nemo, it was “Fear denies a good father from being one,” and, for Wall-E, “Love conquers all programming.”‘ However, unlike the one sentence summary of the Hollywood high concept movie which are meant to demonstrate the commercial potential of the idea by showing how simple and brainless it is, Stanton’s sentences are meant to summarize the movie’s theme, the abstract concept behind the story’s action. For John Carter, the one sentence distillation was “We survive to fulfill our purpose for others.”

“We survive to fulfill our purpose for others” sounds like the answer to a question, that question being, “Why do we  strive to survive?” (One of Hollywood’s big themes, which is not really a theme at all in the sense that Lajos Egri meant it, is survival. That is, most Hollywood films tell stories about characters attempting to survive. They never ask why. Apparently, Stanton wanted to tell a story in which this question was asked. However, if this is indeed what John Carter is about, the theme doesn’t really come across. If John Carter is asking himself why he should go on living at the start of the film, he certainly does not act like it. When we first see him, he’s prospecting for gold, and soon after that he’s repeatedly attempting to escape from the army. If he had no reason to go on living, why would he keep trying to escape? Why would he be looking for gold? It would have made more sense to begin the story with him living happily with his family. When they die, he wants to die because he sees no reason to go on living. He goes into the mountains to kill himself, but he ends up on Mars where he finds a new purpose for his life.

However, I can’t help wonder why he would have to go to Mars to find a purpose in life. Stanton’s theme doesn’t really fit this story, perhaps because that’s not the theme Burroughs had in mind. Perhaps one solution would be to make Carter not just someone who does not want to go on living, but a misanthrope like Ebeneezer Scrooge. His Barsoom experience would then be somewhat like Scrooge’s experience with the ghosts and when he returns to Earth, he has a different outlook on his fellow humans. But in the film, after he returns to Earth, all he wants to do is to return to Barsoom because he prefers Barsoom to Earth.

The story definitely doesn’t follow Joseph Campbell hero’s journey archetype where the hero brings some sort of boon back to his home after his journey. Carter does not bring anything back from Barsoom to Earth other than his longing to return to Barsoom. In the end, the story comes across as a vague critique of American society simply because Carter prefers Barsoom. But the critique is so vague that it can hardly be called a critique. It resembles a film such as Dances with Wolves or Little Big Man, but only in a vague sense. Another film that it resembles is Brigadoon. But all of these films have sequences in which it is clear what the hero does not like about his “home.” It’s like Stanton was telling a story that he didn’t really understand or want to tell.

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Written by David Kilmer

February 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Love the article. I was puzzled too by the lackluster nature of the film too (I kept hearing about the fans at Pixar helping make this film). Your explanations about the script, marketing and direction really help explain the how “A Princess of Mars” ended up becaming “John Carter.”

    Nick

    June 6, 2012 at 7:20 pm


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