For those of us who are fans — and always will be fans — of the marvelous Edgar Rice Burroughs series John Carter of Mars, the news that the film version will lose somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million is depressing. The BBC critic Mark Kermode summed up the movie’s major problem:
The storytelling is incomprehensible, the characterization is ludicrous, the story is two and a quarter hours long and it’s a boring, boring, boring two and a quarter hours long.
The film cost a staggering $250 million to make and another $100 million to promote. A Disney spokesman confirmed to the Daily Mail the bad news, saying, “In light of the theatrical performance of John Carter, we expect the film to generate an operating loss of approximately $200 million.”
What went wrong? One of the most beloved sci-fi series of all time is set to become the biggest financial flop in Hollywood history.
Some critics point to the director and producers as being in over their heads. That’s one of those criticisms that is impossible to prove, but sounds like the critic knows something about making movies. In fact, the director, Andrew Stanton, was no stranger to blockbuster projects, and treated the source material with respect — even reverence.
But I agree with this notion from Rick Liebling,the Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York:
Indiana Jones on Mars? Sequels and theme park attractions? That’s why movies like this (or just about any other “blockbuster”) suck. They are viewed as franchise vehicles or cross-promotional, money-spinning opportunities. I’m not opposed to those things by the way, but when they are the raison d’etre, well all you’re going to get is a steaming turd.
Beyond the Hollywoodisms and other inside-industry explanations, there is the cultural chasm between the world in which John Carter was originally created by Burroughs and the less literate, less imaginative, more realistic world into which the film was released.
Chris Queen did an excellent job of fleshing out the history and background of the John Carter novels for PJ Media prior to the film’s release. In 1911 when the first story appeared in in the pulp magazine The All Story, the Civil War had been over less than 50 years. Almost everyone knew a veteran from that war, or saw them during parades and other patriotic events. The war was still alive for kids and young adults at that time, making the character John Carter live in ways that we can’t even imagine.
While Burroughs’ time was more literate, it was the imagination that forged a connection to the stories and characters and created such a powerful hold on our affections. In an age before film, before TV, before radio, there was only the reader, the written word, and however we imagined the world being created by the author. Burroughs’ prose could be turgid at times — to our ears anyway — but the compelling way in which he described his world of Barsoom far surpassed any attempts we might make today to translate the author’s imagined adventures to the screen. There are simply no cultural touchstones that connect the world of Burroughs with our world today. A young boy living in pre-World War I America imagined Barsoom far differently that I did in the 1960s. And it is likely that most kids today hadn’t even read the books, waiting instead for the video game.
When the first trailer came out, my curiosity was intense. What was the filmaker’s vision of what the 4-armed, betusked Green Men looked like? Did they come close to the picture in my mind’s eye of a thoat? What would Dejah Thoris be wearing? Ultimately, it was a disappointment — had to be a disappointment. That’s the sticking point: even for fans of the series, everyone had their own private and intensely personal vision of what the characters should look like. For that, we can’t blame the film makers. They actually did an amazing job in bringing Tars Tarkas and the thoat to life:
Besides, everyone today knows that there is no life on Mars, could never be life on Mars, thus destroying the premise of the movie from the outset. And since most of the potential movie-going audience had no preconceived notions of the source material, and had no treasured memories of being swept up by the narrative, most of the audience ended up at sea — caught between wanting to suspend belief and their own realistic assumptions about Mars. In the end, how could you ignore what your own eyes have shown you about the Red Planet? We’ve had rovers exploring the surface of Mars for more than a decade. Those spectacular images of utter desolation were, in their own way, far more interesting than the world that Stanton tried to create on a Hollywood sound stage.
It’s a shame that John Carter was a flop. There will be no sequels. Nor will there be any lunch boxes, action figures, kids’ pajamas, battery operated thoats, and almost certainly no talking Tars Tarkas dolls.
But we’ll always have John Carter as Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined him in his wonderful series of books. For that, they can keep their $200 million and leave me dreaming about dating Dejah Thoris’ sister while saving Barsoom from the evil designs of evil men.