Saturday, February 8, 2014


So, I've now finished reading Michael D. Sellers' book JOHN CARTER AND THE GODS OF HOLLYWOOD,* an account of the making of the disastrous 2012 film JOHN CARTER (a.k.a., unofficially, "John Carter of Mars"). It's an interesting read, though for it to have it's full effect you have to agree with Sellers on several points:

(1) Burroughs was the most awesomest author ever.

(2) A PRINCESS OF MARS is the most awesomely awesomest of all Burroughs' awesome books.

(3) the JOHN CARTER movie was a great film that shd have established its own 'franchise'. In particular, there shd have been at least two sequels (he devotes a section towards the end laying out a blueprint of how even at this late date a package cd be put together to fund said sequels).

(4) the whole project was sabotaged by internal politics and ineptitude at Disney, who didn't bother to promote the film, having written it off as a failure before it was even released.

The first problem with this is that Disney did promote the film, spending $100,000,000 on it. It's hard to reconcile a hundred million dollars spent on ads with the theme that the studio abandoned it. And this was above and beyond the $250,000,000 the director spent making the movie.

The second problem is that Sellars has a tendency of overstating claims. For example, he says that

"In 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us the gift of modern science fiction" 

What, you may ask, of Verne and Wells? Apparently they're either not influential enough or not "modern" by his reckoning. His belief that Star Wars was heavily influenced by Barsoom seems valid but overstated; the claim that Flash Gordon was created as a Barsoom clone seems improbable.**

The part that interested me most was his discussion about whether or not this was a faithful adaptation of Burrough's original book. You'd think, given that he self-identifies as a lifelong Burroughs fans who's longed for decades to finally see A PRINCESS OF MARS put on screen, that the issue wd be an important one and that he'd devote a significant portion of his book to discussing it. Such is not the case. He does acknowledge in passing that some people had objections to the scriptwriter (Michael Chabon) and director's complete re-writing of Carter's character,*** but downplays this, apparently in an attempt to unite the Burroughs-fan community behind this film and its potential sequels. Thus he lets pass with little or no comment what seem to me red-button warning signs in the form of the following quotes from various people associated with the film:

"pleasing the core fan group was not high on the list of priorities"

"Be respectful, yes. Let them dictate the treatment of the story, no."

"the fans of the books are always the hardest to please"

The third of these is simply a truism, the first two shd make chills run up the spine of anyone who is a fan of a book being adapted.

One thing I'd hoped he wd spend more time on was exploring the thought processes behind the idiots who were responsible for the film's title.  Apparently the logic went something like this:

(1) You can't use the word 'Princess' in the title, because then no guys will go to see it.

(2) You can't use the word 'Mars' in the title, because then no women will go to see it.

(2a) Besides, movies with 'Mars' in the title don't do well at the box office (a dubious maxim showing post hoc propter hoc because Disney had just released a flop called MARS WANTS MOMS)

(3) The target audience is 10 to 14 yr old boys.

Hence A PRINCESS OF MARS became JOHN CARTER OF MARS which became just JOHN CARTER -- as neutral and unevocative as they cd have come up with. Pity they didn't go w. Burroughs' original title, UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS.

In the end it all came down to the expectations games: a movie that cost this much cd only be judged a success by Hollywood accounting if it made back double its costs. This one made a boatload of money -- $280,000,000 gross -- but they'd spent so much making and promoting the movie that this wasn't even enough to break even, leaving them at least $70 million in the hole. The studio cut their loses and announced a $200,000,000 'write down' just days after the movie debued. The general impression seems to be that the Powers That Be at Disney had a bad feeling about this one from early on but cd neither bring themselves to intervene and fix the problem nor to pull the plug, instead deciding to hope they were wrong and it might be a surprise hit. It wasn't.

But hey, it wasn't a total loss. I loved the use of the old Led Zeppelin song "Kashmir" in the trailer -- in fact, that's the main reason I decided to see the movie (in a typically wrongfooted move, it was left out of the actual film itself). Lynn Collins, who played the Princess of what shd have been the title, does a great Gemma Arterton impersonation. And she has the one good line in the film, when she spots her doppleganger making a break for it: "Stop me! I'm getting away!" But that's a pretty slim return on two hours plus of movie.

--John R.

*a play on the title of one of Burroughs' books, THE GODS OF MARS, second in the John Carter/Barsoom series.

**as Sellars tells the story, Burroughs was in negotiations to launch a Barsoom comic strip when the publishers he was dickering with pulled out and launch a John-Carter clone called "Flash Gordon" instead. The problems with this are (a) Flash Gordon is space opera and bears v. little resemblance to the John Carter books and (b) Flash Gordon's obvious template was Buck Rogers (making this a rare case where the imitation is better than the original), which again is space opera w. little resemblance to Barsoom.

***like Jackson's Aragorn, they made the movie John Carter a man filled with self-doubt who hesitates to commit himself, not the confident and self-assured figure of Burrough's book.


Unknown said...

I generally agree with you on the book, however I feel I need to point out a couple of things.

> What, you may ask, of Verne and Wells? Apparently they're either not influential enough or not "modern" by his reckoning.

They're not, really. Both Verne and Wells are almost Victorian in their writing, and while it's fantastic through and through, Carter is arguably the first fully integrated modern action hero and (planet-bound) space opera.

> His belief that Star Wars was heavily influenced by Barsoom seems valid but overstated;

It depends a bit on what you mean. The prequel trilogy is much more than the original trilogy, but even that has many of the trappings that Carter set off (Burroughs lifted his stuff wholesale from earlier writers, but put his own twist on the material, which is what made it spark).

> the claim that Flash Gordon was created as a Barsoom clone seems improbable.**


I've written at length about this (start at the bottom and work your way up for the best understanding).

ATMachine said...

I have to concur with the above comment re: the relationship of Flash Gordon to the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs' influence on the early comic is quite vast.

It's certainly true that Flash Gordon was created as a direct response to the popularity of Buck Rogers (a space opera if there ever was one). It's also true that by the 1950s the Flash Gordon strip, then drawn by Mac Raboy, had become a space opera itself.

But in the 1930s, when original creator Alex Raymond was still drawing the strip, it wasn't a space opera but a different genre: a planetary romance, like the Barsoom series. Flash and his girlfriend Dale Arden traversed the cities, vast deserts, jungles, seas, caves, and snowy tundras of just one single planet--Mongo, the domain of Emperor Ming the Merciless.

Mongo's many species included "lion-men," "shark-men," and "hawk-men"--bringing to mind the multi-hued sentient races and fantastic many-limbed creatures of Burroughs' Barsoom.

Flash Gordon also aped Burroughs by throwing in highly sexualized women of color, such as Ming's voluptuous daughter Princess Aura. All of the Mongonians were initially depicted with yellow skin, though this was dropped later in Raymond's run. (However, what Burroughs could get away with in a novel, in regards to nudity and inter-species relationships, a family newspaper could not--thus the existence of Dale Arden.)

There are very few spaceships in the Alex Raymond years of the strip--Flash goes back to Earth just once, and then only briefly. However, Raymond's original proposal for the comic seems to have been something much more in the Buck Rogers space-opera vein, but this approach was rejected before its print run began.