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John Carter — _OF MARS!_


Going into this you have to understand that I adore A PRINCESS OF MARS.  It was the first science fiction book that I ever read all by myself.  When I was a miserable 7th grader I’d dream about being transported to Mars and riding across the dead sea bottoms and exploring the vast ruined cities, and maybe a handsome Martian prince would love me the way John Carter loved Dejah Thoris.

And that is why, at the most basic level, the Disney movie failed.  There were a whole lot of other reasons why it failed and deservedly so, but this failure to understand the heart of this book, and the following three books culminating in WARLORD OF MARS, is why it didn’t work.

So, let’s start at the beginning.  But which one?  

First we have the inexplicable opening on Mars with people babbling about Zodanga and Helium, and a voice over trying to explain that this weird walking city was some kind of big threat to the planet, and that Sab Than is a bad ‘un.

Next we’re in New York City with (apparently) our hero being followed, but we don’t know why.  They then Edgar Rice Burroughs shows up, and there’s all the stuff about the mausoleum, and the journal.

Which takes us to beginning number three in the Arizona desert which goes on and on, and I guess the point of it was to show us that John Carter “don’t-wanna-practice-war-no-more.”

But finally we get to Mars, and there’s a running and not very funny joke about how they think his name is Virginia.  Cut back to Dejah Thoris who is told she has to marry Sab Than to save Helium.  Then suddenly we’re back in the desert with the Tharks, and there are airships, and now Dejah is running away and there was no transition at all.  I got whiplash.  I’m betting there is a scene or two that shows that, but it didn’t make the cut.

So then there’s a lot of running and fighting, and the mysterious Therns keep showing up, and they seem to have all kinds of amazing powers, but can be killed with a Colt revolver.  And there’s some kind of big threat to Barsoom, except I have no idea what it is.  The Therns want the walking city to eat… the essence… of…Barsoom?  I guess?  Maybe?

More fighting.  Good guys win.  Hooray.  John and Dejah marry.  Carter gets swept back to Earth.

Where Edgar and Carter defeat a Thern and then Carter lays down in the crypt and goes back to Mars.  And I still have no frigging idea what was threatening Barsoom aside from Sab Than’s army jewelry. 

The casting was weak.  Especially John Carter.  Taylor Kitsch had no charisma, very little charm.  He looked like he’d escaped from the set of 90210.  They really needed a young Salma Hayek for Dejah.  Lynn Collins got better as the film went on, but everybody was overacting like mad.

Finally, Carter’s abilities on Mars just made me giggle.  In the books he can leap a long way.  30 feet, maybe a few hundred, but in this film he can damn near fly, and land without breaking every bone in his legs.  It ended up looking silly.  

Also, there is a lovely subplot in there between Tars Tarkas and his daughter Sola, and the power of love.  In my script I played that up because it is a perfect echo to the main story.  Here, it was lost in all the gibberish about ninth rays, and Therns and Zodanga eating the essence of Barssom….. huh?

The script really was the biggest problem, though the acting didn’t help.  The script needed to establish clearly and quickly what was at stake.  What was threat?  It needed to pick one opening and start the damn movie.  Finally, the writers never grasped the theme.  I don’t know if Burroughs had any idea this was what he was writing.  He may have just thought he was writing a swashbuckling adventure story, but A PRINCESS OF MARS, GODS OF MARS and WARLORD OF MARS encompass the story of a love so great that a man will fight his way across the length and breadth of a world for the love of a woman.  During this course of this epic undertaking he will end centuries long wars between the peoples of Barsoom, unite the planet, solve the problems that threaten the lives of everyone on Barsoom.  (In the first book it’s the failing atmosphere plant), but all of it is driven by his love for this woman.

Lose that and it’s just another action flick with a whole lot of CGI.  Maybe there was a story in JOHN CARTER, but I never understood it.  I needed to understand the nefarious plot of the Therns and Zodanga.  Yes, it’s just the red herring on top of the real story — how John Carter wooed and won the love of a Princess of Helium — but I needed to see the threat to that love story, and I never did. 

I don’t mind Dejah being a scientist and kick ass warrior woman, we need that for a modern audience, and I like kick-ass heroines, but I needed to feel the heat, the passion between these people.

When I was brought in to work on the script everyone kept trying to find an “arc” for Carter.  In one version of the script I read he was a coward, and only because of Dejah does he find his nerve.  In another he’s an alcoholic, and only because of Dejah does he dry out.  This one he seems to be unwilling to “fight for anyone again”.  This search for an arc really was beside the point, because it was a story about a love that transcended millions of miles and vastly different cultures.

I thought the dead family back in Old Virginia had promise, but they never really developed it. Bottom line, the writers and director needed to make me care, and they never told me why I should.




0 Responses to John Carter — _OF MARS!_

  • Stephen Smoogen says:

    In re-reading the books, it is hard to figure out how far John Carter can jump. At first I thought, 40 feet but then looking at some of the things he gets in and out of.. we are talking “over a tall building (ala Superman)”

    In watching people’s reactions.. the people I have found hated the movie the most have been the ones who read John Carter as one of their first science fiction books. People who come to John Carter years later may not like the movie but don’t have the visceral reaction I have noticed in true John Carter fans.

    To me the movie was watchable but pained in many parts. However what got me was that behind me was a 12 year old girl who clapped at the end, and asked her dad if she could finally read his books on it. [My son started reading it on the Nook after the movie also which is more than I can say for any of the other movie/books we have watched.] That to me is its saving grace.

  • MelindaS says:

    I’d always figured 30 to 50 feet. It just ended up looking so silly on film. I’m glad to hear that kids like it enough to want to read the books.

    Disney and the writers just missed the point. It’s a Romance in that old 19th century use of the world. A grand adventure, and a man who will fight across an entire warring planet to save the woman he loves. That’s compelling. Since I didn’t understand the threat to Barsoom in this film nothing was compelling, and the love story starts too late for me to give a damn.

  • JaniceG says:

    You might be interested in this story about Andrew Stanton and the making of the movie — apparently there were many changes of heart about where in the story the film should start: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/17/111017fa_fact_friend

    (BTW, in preparation for seeing the film some time this week, I downloaded the first three Mars books to my iPhone and have been reading them during my commute. At least twice, John Carter specifically says he jumps 30 feet in the air. Other times, he seems to talk about distances jumped rather than height (“”I cleared a good one hundred and fifty feet”)

  • MelindaS says:

    Interesting, Janice, I’ll go read the article after I finish my morning pages. I thought I remembered Carter mentioning 30 feet. You’ll see in the movie it’s just crazy. Oh, and the way Woola moved really made me nuts. So silly. Like a wily coyote cartoon.

  • rand says:

    Ms. Snodgrass, if I may ask, what happened to your work on the movie? While I must admit I haven’t seen the movie yet (don’t really plan to), if there is a writer who is incredibly adept @ getting to the intellectual AND emotional core of a story, it’s you. I cite 2 scenes (among many) from “The Measure of a Man” as examples: where Picard & Guinan discuss slavery & when the JAG asks the question, “Does Data have a soul?”
    I doubt they used any of your material considering the reviews.
    Hollywood decision making is such a mystery to me. How can these executives have such remarkable source material, an incredible talent pool (writers like you), scads of cash (I read the movie cost $200M), an eager audience ready to enjoy the realization of a classic, & they come up w/… THAT?
    I would really appreciate any insight from your experience in the trenches on how this happens. & it happens a lot.
    Thanks so much.

  • MelindaS says:

    George and I were pulled off Princess years ago when the project got yanked out of live action and put in the animation division. Then Disney let the option lapse, and Paramount picked it up. They never made the movie and the option lapsed again. Disney reacquired the option, but people in Hollywood never go back. They always try to find the hot new thing. The director had done great work for Pixar, and he was a huge Burroughs fan so he got the project. Unfortunately the story got lost in the clutter. I still not have a clue about the threat to Mars. What were the Therns up to, and it just wasn’t very romantic. It should have been a grand love story. It was just Meh.

  • rand says:

    Shame. It seems to be another project killed by committee. Andrew Stanton is a great director. If this is his 1st live action assignment, or 1st 1 outside of Pixar, hopefully he’ll learn how not to let this happen again.

  • JaniceG says:

    We finally saw this last night. My review up at http://smofbabe.livejournal.com/812885.html

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