Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter Sucked, or Why Hollywood Thinks too Hard

Warning, there are some spoilers ahead. Of course, if you actually care about this, you probably want to know what they are, so you can avoid this film and watch it on Netflix a year from now.

I saw John Carter on Sunday. I had high-ish hopes. I knew the plot was changed from the original Princess of Mars, but I also have an understanding of the differences between print and film and why certain changes have to be made. Unfortunately, many changes were made for No Reason At All. And this is what annoys me, folks. Hollywood buys up these classic stories, stories that have stood the test of time for generations and spawn whole genres, and then Hollywood screws with them because they fear the original idea "won't test well" or some nonsense.

This is the same major issue I had with this summer's Conan the Barbarian remake/reboot/whatever. REH wrote plenty of great material on Conan, and you could have even adapted some Kull material, or a blend of material from some of his other stories.  But no.  Despite eighty years of success and generations of loyal fans, we throw any vestige of a Howardian story out the window in favor of something completely fabricated by a committee of people only vaguely aware of Howard's works.  What you're left with is something that has little to do with Howard's Conan and more to do with, I dunno, a Hercules & Xena remake. This isn't to say Milius' Conan stuck any closer to a Howardian plot, but hey, how about that Orchestral score by Basil Poledouris? Badass.

While John Carter in theory keeps a little closer to ERB's original story, the changes that are made make it, if anything, even more frustrating to watch. Rather than just throw out the entire plot and come up with something completely different, the moviemakers decided to shuffle a deck of plot points and, seemingly at random, throw them out in favor of new or altered ideas.  Here is where the spoilers come along, folks.  You've been warned.

First, the need for a magical techno-amulet gizmo to send Carter to Mars was stupid. In the book, its a creepy cave, with a strange property that sends him to Mars. Why? Who knows? Who cares? That it is some sort of mystical place, shunned by the Indians, is good enough for me. But no, we have to create some kind of McGuffin in the form of this teleportation amulet, which becomes this laborious plot point throughout the movie.  Who has it? How does it work? How do we get ahold of it again? Precious minutes wasted.

Which, if I can digress, is my major problem with all these changes. If you want to change something and have a good reason, fine. But to A) change something for no good reason and B) have the change take up precious minutes of film that could be filled with more awesomeness, I get angry. There are a lot of cool adventuresome moments in A Princess of Mars that could have been put in / left in the film, but aren't, and instead, we have long, boring explanations as to how the "telegraph machine" works, or the Thern's aeons-long plan / habit of destroying world after world. Long, boring explanations that just add needless plot hooks that need to get sealed up later on in the film, wasting even more precious time.

Guess what folks! There's only one plot hook you need. John Carter, Chivalrous Southern Gentleman and Celebrated Fighting Cavalry Officer, meets Beautiful, Defiant, Spirited, Intelligent Dejah Thoris and falls in love with her, and she reciprocates that love.  Carter then battles anyone and anything that gets between him and Dejah because, you know, that whole LOVE thing. This is a formula that has worked time and time again in classic Hollywood films for generations, and yet, for some reason, we throw it out. The only thing that motivates Carter is a need to get back home, and his relationship with Dejah Thoris is, through 90% of the film, more one of annoyed quips and banter than actual fondness. Perhaps Hollywood didn't think the actors or the script could pull off a believable love story? Guess what - GET NEW TALENT. Superman fell in love with Lois Lane, right? Spider-man loves Mary Jane, so on and so forth.

Instead, we have to introduce, out of the blue, some plot element about Carter's long-dead wife and child, which prevents him from loving Dejah, or admitting he's got feelings for her. Instead he fights for her and with her in order to find out the secret of going back home, and yet, at the end of the film, he THROWS THAT AWAY because he decides Barsoom is home to him. This all cycles back around to the techno-widget at the beginning of the film which showed him the mechanism by which he traveled to Barsoom in the first place. If we had just left it as a mystical cave with strange powers, the plot would have been streamlined considerably.

Which brings me to my next major beef - the Therns. Yes, they exist in the second book, and yes, you could have had them as an element in the movie without ruining things. But instead of the leaders of a religion that hides the lie of Issus' godhood and the secret of the River Iss, they become a needlessly hyperbolic race of galactic dicks who travel through the cosmos screwing over one planet at a time, and GUESS WHAT? When they are done with Mars, EARTH IS NEXT! BUM BUM BUMMM!

Why? Why was this necessary? Why does John Carter have to get involved in all these complicated plots and sub plots and twists and turns? The original story has more than enough adventure and derring do and enough political sophistication between the Tharks and the Zodangans and the Heliumites. There doesn't need to be Yet Another Player In The Game to confuse the issue, but not only do we introduce one, we have to waste more Precious Screentime in long, drawn-out explanations of the Thern's master scheme.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

A Princess of Mars has been around for almost a hundred years, and it's probably been in print every year since it was published, and probably will continue to be until the written word dies out. The John Carter stories inspired a whole subgenre of science fiction and fantasy, the "Sword & Planet" genre, and if they aren't he best example of that genre (which I think they are), they are pretty damn close, and certainly the most epic of the Sword and Planet stories.  Like Howard's Conan, if such stories can remain popular and stand the test of time for generation after generation and spawn whole genres of fiction, why Hollywood needs to go in there and screw with things is beyond me.  Yes, sometimes changes need to be made.  Making the Green Men only a foot or two taller than Carter, rather than 12-15 feet tall, made sense for the purpose of making a film. Trimming down or finding another way to handle a lot of the explanation scenes that take place in the first third or so of A Princess of Mars was probably necessary, although you could debate the way they did it.

But there was nothing at all wrong with the basic plot of the novel, and not only was it changed for no good reason that I could see, the changes that were made not only made the story more complex and confusing, the changes wasted time because they needed to be explained. Without the amulet, there was no need for them to travel down the River Iss, there was no need to waste all that screentime with the magical map of the solar system, there was no need to involve the Therns, there was no need for the pretty stupid "bait" ending to the film. You probably could have harvested back a good 40+ minutes of the movie (oh, yes, the beginning of the film with the Cavalry and the Indians, also needlessly complicated), which could have been used to show more ass-kicking adventure. Instead, everything felt so rushed, so briefly touched upon, that even the more kick-ass moments were rushed past because there was another plot element we had to get through.

So at the end of the day, we're left with a movie that does a half-assed job of not really adapting one of the founding works of interplanetary adventure science fiction. The movie will fail at the box office, and no one will touch the idea again for who knows how long, since Disney will have taken such a stinking dump on the whole idea.

Way to go, Disney. Way to go.


Lagomorph Rex said...

Every movie that involves Mars has done precisely the same thing. Mission to Mars, Ghosts of Mars, Mars needs Moms, Red Planet, Tank Tank Tank Tank Tank.

I don't know the exact reason for this, but it's likely because for the last 60 years everyone's had it drilled into their heads that Mars is lifeless, uninteresting, unimportant. If Disney had really wanted to change something to make it more PC, they would have made Carter Union instead of Reb, they would have likely brought it forward into the present, and they would have probably cast Jack Black to play him.

The movie was great, in my theater, it got a near standing ovation at the end.

Sorry you didn't enjoy it, but this film is worlds away from the hackjobs done to Conan or Transformers or G.I.Joe.

Bighara said...

I'm with LR, I loved the movie. I'm a big fan of the books, too. I liked the change with the Thern widget. It held water plot-wise and tied in with the whole puppet-master villaiin aspects.

As far as changing JC's character (the tragic past, etc.), it was a tad Hollywood. However, Burrough's major failing as a writer, IMO, was that almost all his protagonists are so disgustingly noble that the plot's conflict is usually just them unwilling to do the easy thing. That's OK in a book where you're getting lots of internal narrative, but on screen? It's either mystifying or a bunch of boring exposition.

A few seconds of footage showing Carter's family and his rings, that's all we needed in the whole film to know tons about that character. Was it Capt. Carter exactly as written by ERB? No, but he was still an interesting –and believable– character.

The movie rocked. I'm sorry if everyone doesn't enjoy it.

Jack Badelaire said...

@LR: Sci-Fi author John Scalzi has a good article on the Curse of the Mars Movie Here:

@Bighara: "I liked the change with the Thern widget. It held water plot-wise and tied in with the whole puppet-master villaiin aspects."

See, that's just it. We didn't need "puppet master villains". There's plenty of good and evil and conflict and adventure in the story already.

As for making Carter "less noble", it doesn't do anything of the sort - it makes him more of a whining little bitch who, halfway through the movie, throws a slaughter-fest temper tantrum and then decides, y'know, this red-skinned chick is bangable, so I'll marry her.

I'm not saying it's an unwatchable movie, and I agree that it's better than many other literary adaptations if only because of production values and a great visceral look and feel, but I think the story could have been adapted by far defter hands.

Anonymous said...

I expect that you are in for a lot of flak, but I agree with you 100%.

Sure, it is fun to watch.

At the same time it is brain-dead & insulting.

I guess if a movie isn't going to get a "R" rating, the wisdom is to write it for a twelve year old.

And not the precocious kind, either.

Jack Badelaire said...


It's weird how, in an attempt to make things more "accessible" to the audience, they will actually add elements the story doesn't need, thereby complicating matters.

Fenway5 said...

JB I have to agree, the needless plot complications and story additions served to ruin and drag out the film. I often wonder if screen writers, who love the source material, often feel they have to put their own stamp on this classic tale...PS NO YOU DON'T! Write your own stuff skippy and quit fixing what is not broken. Just like the cluster frak that was Conan, John Carter of Meh stinks on ice. Here is a tip--Game of Thrones is incredibly popular...and it shows what is well written nedd only be adapted for the screen, not re-written. Just give a screen adapted version of the tale..or move on and do your own thing!

Anonymous said...

Lagomorph Rex: Total Recall was a Mars movie that did very well. At the time it was made, it was the most expensive movie ever, and it still was a hit and made money.

Herb said...

I realized I wouldn't bother when Amazon recommended the movie novelization to me.

If you can do a movie novelization of something in theory adopted from a novel that's a hint you've changed too much.

richard said...

It seems to be popular wisdom in hollywood that lead characters must have Dramatic Arcs - that is, they must be changed by the events during the movie: they must start out as one sort of person, be challenged by what happens, have a revelation and then demonstrate the value of the revelation by overcoming the challenge posed in reel 1. So all that backstory is JC's arc; he's depressed having lost what he loved, he is challenged, he decides DT is bangable, he gets his groove back. JC in the books is an iconic hero: he has a method for overcoming challenges and he does that to a succession of challenges.

Here's what I don't get; I can see that the iconic hero doesn't look very interesting when you're pitching a script, but we know they can sell just as well as dramatic ones - Bond, original Indiana Jones, Terminator, Ripley, Flash Gordon, and the grandad of all of them, JC. So why does the studio go along with de-iconizing them?

Anonymous said...

One word: Incompetence.

I concur 100% with Jack Badelaire. It's a damn shame that the moroni cscreenwriters destroyed what could EASILY have been a great movie. What the hell has been going through Andrew Stanton's mind? It looks like a desperate and amateurish patch job, utterly lacking any kind of character development whatsoever. I'm disgusted and deeply disappointed.

GarM249 said...

This has been the best review on why John Carter failed. Disney or any Hollywood producer could have done this tale much more justice by following the time tested work as it was written. Look at the LOTR success which for the most part has followed the tale as Tolkien wrote it. I read the mars series as a child and loved it, hoped but never believed it would make it to the film screen, went to the movie with high hopes but some reservation knowing just how bad Hollywood can make an adaption. I wanted so badly to love this movie, and I did enjoy many elements but in the end resented the things they did to the story.

Anonymous said...

Reading is for fagots and this is the best movie ever made-up

Anonymous said...

The movie hurt so hard it sucked! What's interesting is that a lot of non-Carter fans seemed to have liked the movie a lot. I am a Carter fan and I just felt it was convoluted in a way that needed some simplification. What I saw as befuddled attempts to keep the narrative from falling apart and skipping from one plot point to the next, others saw as an "unpredictable narrative" that kept you on the edge of your seat. Well, in the end, only a handful of people liked this movie. "The Mummy," starring Brendan Fraser, was something of a mishmash rush job too, but despite its flaws it still connected with a large audience. I'm not so in love with my heroes and stories that I can't admit their faults, but it seems a lot of people are.

Gordon Cooper said...

Thank you for writing this review. Very often, after seeing a terrible adaptation, I would be comforted by the thought that at least they hadn't defiled the Martian tales of Burroughs. I miss those days.