Thursday, October 2, 2008

Continuity and Tradition, Part IV

Let me begin by saying that, with a few exceptions, I am a big fan of Pixar's movies. Even in the wake of some truly excellent superhero films in recent years, I remain convinced that The Incredibles is the best treatment of the genre ever put to film, for example. So, I'm not a hater of Pixar's work (though Ratatouille was a miserable, self-absorbed film, but I digress).

When I heard that the studio had acquired the rights to produce a movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars books, I was elated. If anyone could do these stories justice, it'd be Pixar. Looks like I may have been wrong. Andrew Stanton, who's writing and directing the film (slated for 2012 release), recently said this about his approach to the original source material: "I'm going to do what I remember more than what they [i.e. the stories] exactly do ..." Granted, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Film is a different medium than literature, so there are occasions where changes make sense.

Indeed, slavish adaptations are often very unsatisfying. Still, you want to feel that the people adapting the stories understand and respect their sources and that any changes they make arise out of that. Based on what Jim Morris, the general manager at Pixar, added to Stanton's comments, I'm not so sure this will be the case.
"Everything that's been out there has been an attempt to kind of capture this Deco-esque [Frank] Frazetta vision of John Carter, which I think feels old and stale," he said. "And where Stanton is going--from what we've seen so far--is very different than that. And I think that the people who really love the essence of the books will really dig it, but so will audiences in general."
The "essence of the books?" That sets off alarm bells in my head. Whenever someone talks about the "essence" of something of long vintage, it usually means they're going to gut the thing of its core in the name of brand building.

And that's the thing that baffles me here. John Carter isn't exactly a household name. Compared to Tarzan, he's a nobody. There have been, so far as I know, no major Barsoom-related movies, TV shows, or cartoons. Most average people have never heard of Carter or Dejah Thoris and wouldn't know what a Thark was if it bit them. Given that, why even bother to adapt Burroughs if what you really want to do is tell something very different than the original stories. Again, don't get me wrong: there are aspects of the John Carter stories I can see some justification in changing for the benefit of contemporary sensibilities. But, really, what's the point in doing a John Carter of Mars movie if you're not going to base them on the books? It's not as if there's a dearth of planetary romance stories Pixar could mine in developing its own original story in that genre.

It's still early, so perhaps the end result will be better than I fear it will be, but I am not sanguine based on these early reports. Because Barsoom is not a household name, the Pixar film may be many people's first exposure to it; consequently, it should be treated with respect for the way Burroughs described it. If Pixar can't do that, they should just create their own story. They're clever enough to do that, right?

19 comments:

  1. I wouldn't panic yet - they seem to be objecting to the Frazettization that has previously been done to Barsoom, something I object to as well, since I think FF gutted the thing of its core in the name of brand building (or did he merely reimagine it in his own style?).

    ReplyDelete
  2. While I have no problem with not using Frazetta as an esthetic model for the look of the movie, the quotes go beyond merely that. The suggestion that the story will be based more on the writer/director's memories of the originals than on the originals themselves doesn't fill me with confidence.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Carter may not be a household name, but Burroughs is, even today. The ability to slap "From the creator of Tarzan" on a property is worth money.

    ReplyDelete
  4. No worries, James, chill.
    First off, what Richard said.

    Secondly, I'm pretty sure that by "not Frazetta" they mean "Everyone in the movie is wearing clothes."
    I mean, if I were Pixar, maker of fine family films, I'd like to assure the public well beforehand that this will still be a triple F.

    Lastly, I'd argue "taking one's memories of reading old stories and putting them to use" is exactly what Gygax did.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Lastly, I'd argue "taking one's memories of reading old stories and putting them to use" is exactly what Gygax did.

    The difference is that Gary never tried to pass off his memories under the name of the sources of those memories. There's a fundamental dishonesty in calling this movie "John Carter of Mars" if it's not actually based on the source material.

    Now, maybe the end result will be awesome, but, speaking as a long-time fan, I have to say that Andrew Stanton chose his words very poorly if his intention was to win over people like me.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The movie is never as good as the book. That said...when did Pixar last make a movie adaptation of a book?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think Stanton is saying he woun't be beholden to any weakens in the story, and I'm a Barsoom fanatic saying that.

    Go to my site www.barsoomia.org and read The mighty Tangor Speaks ! for another voice tied to the production. - Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  8. "...Deco-esque [Frank] Frazetta vision of John Carter, which I think feels old and stale."

    This alone makes me worry not to mention that it's going to be a CGI movie with a "live" cast, or so I gather.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Pixar (as a group of talented folks) knows how to tell stories and develop characters better than ERB did. The Mars books are mindless fun, not particularly well-written, and, yes, out of date given how often they have been used as inspiration. Classics in a sense, since they originated many cool ideas... ideas that have since been reused all over the place, rendered almost cliche' through overuse in other films, comics, and the like (including Frazetta's art). Re-read them without the rose colored glasses and see if they are worth all the hand-wringing and worry over an adaptation by some of the best (if not the best) movie-makers working today.

    I know... even if my sure-to-be-refuted opinions are taken as gospel (for sake of argument), why call it John Carter when they are (apparently...) not being faithful?

    I suggest waiting to see how the film shapes up first. He said it would be true to the spirit of the books. From anyone but Pixar that would be a warning flag, but since this is Pixar... I believe it.

    Pixar has proven they know what audiences want to see, and regardless of what type of film it ends up being, it will bring a massive amount of attention to the originals, the likes of which no other studio's production could bring. The books will be reprinted, will be available in every bookstore, and will be introduced to a new generation. The precious originals are about to be brought back from the brink of near-extinction and shown to today's kids. If the original works contain magic and are timeless, the kids will find it, and may grow to prefer them over Pixar's efforts!

    PS: for what it's worth, you are the first person I've ever heard (and I've heard hundreds of dedicated movie buffs and "regular folks" comment) to say Ratatouille wasn't one of Pixar's best. Not only that, you seem to loathe it with a passion. Strange, that.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think that the film is going to be just what we always wanted Barsoom to be - and to carry some of the emotional weight that will make us all cheer. I think if they stuck 100% to the the text, even I, as huge fan would it unsatisfying.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I will be the first to admit I was wrong and cheer if Pixar's efforts turn out to be respectful of ERB's creation, but, at this point in time, I am deeply, deeply skeptical, based on the information we have at present.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Fair enough, but I still maintain that they do what they do for a good reason.

    ReplyDelete
  13. You said: "Whenever someone talks about the "essence" of something of long vintage, it usually means they're going to gut the thing of its core in the name of brand building."

    Despite your specifics regarding brand building, your statement sure feels like a more general distrust of people who claim to understand the essence of something.

    If that's the case, then maybe you should rethink some of your earlier posts:

    "That's not to say that I'm opposed to tinkering, house ruling, and generally mixing it up -- those are the essence of old school play, after all! "

    ...and many of your positive reviews offer a similar sentiment: You think people who really love old school gaming wlll really dig products X, Y, and Z.

    Personally, I don't see any reason to stir the pot in response to Jim Morris's statements. Or at least I can see no more reason to distrust his assertion about that genre than I have to distrust your assertions about old school gaming.

    ReplyDelete
  14. why even bother to adapt Burroughs if what you really want to do is tell something very different than the original stories.

    Completely agree.

    Heck, I think adaptions are just almost always a bad idea. No matter how well done.

    Especially in this case. Pixar is a stronger brand than Barsoom or ERB, and Pixar has proven itself at creating original stories that draw inspiration from other works rather than direct adaptions.

    It’s hard for me to imagine not enjoying it, though. Whatever they do with it.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "That's not to say that I'm opposed to tinkering, house ruling, and generally mixing it up -- those are the essence of old school play, after all! "

    There is a vast difference between someone ringing changes on part of an established canon for their own personal use and passing off what they do under the name of the original. I objected just as strenuously to when Hollywood changed the ending of The Natural, for example. It's the not act of changing the original that bugs me; it's that the original might be changed in ways that are antithetical to source from which it's been changed. It's the same reason why I don't call Arduin -- or 4e -- D&D.

    ReplyDelete
  16. It’s hard for me to imagine not enjoying it, though. Whatever they do with it.

    I think it's very likely that, whatever Pixar does with Barsoom, it'll be well done; that's not at issue. What bothers me, though, is the way that we now treat earlier works of art: as raw materials for brand building. To my mind, it's ghoulish and disrespectful, particularly when ideas are cheap. If you've got a good story to tell, then tell it! What's the necessity is trying to tie that story to an existing work of art?

    ReplyDelete
  17. I wonder if the premise of the movie will be "what Tharks do when humans aren't around"? That would be a bold new direction for Pixar...

    ReplyDelete
  18. I think it's unfortunate that Jim Morris opened his mouth at all about this. Fans are such over reactors. Of course Pixar has never adapted anything, so they didn't know to hint at the slightest change - even it it makes it better.

    I don't know if any of you have gone over to my barsoomia.org, so I'm going to post Tangor's comments here. Tangor runs ERBlist and is a die hard barsoomian, he has also been vehemently, painfully, tediously opposed to any John Carter of Mars movie. Despite that, he's been brought in all versions for expert advice. Now, from Tangor....


    I still have inside contacts. I CAN'T tell you what I know... but I CAN tell you that EVERYONE INVOLVED is dedicated to the project, know the material, and are busting humps to get it done. I CAN tell you that Stanton LOVES the material and has great respect. I can't tell you what's going on as regards the script BECAUSE IT HAS NOT BEEN FINISHED...and even then I couldn't tell you... else I'd lose whatever little "insider/helper" status I currently enjoy.

    I can't predict when shooting will start.
    I can't predict when the film will roll out.

    But I will leave you with these numbers:

    1911: ERB WROTE and SOLD Princess of Mars.
    1912: It was published.

    Either of those years would be the 100th anniversary.

    This is 2008. Pixar generally works on a four year turnaround.

    Draw your own conclusions. Might be fun to set up a JCOM pool (no money of course, but all the glory for guessing a release date).

    Meanwhile, follow Obronski's reminder: Trash the film all you can before it is released. (Tangor of the egg-face before the DZTZ). It is what we do because we are all little mushrooms.

    Huh?

    They keep us in the dark and feed us bullsh*t. :)

    --

    Tangor

    All Things Edgar Rice Burroughs
    http://www.erblist.com

    ReplyDelete
  19. As I said, I am prepared to eat crow and publicly sing the praises of this movie if it turns out to be an amazing, respectful treatment of the source material. I generally like Pixar's work, but they're not perfect and not above milking a property to turn a buck, so, given the few public statements made to date, I'm skeptical and will remain so until there's something substantive to change my mind.

    But, as I said, my mind can be changed and I am not above admitting I was wrong. Indeed, I hope to be proven wrong. I'm just not sure I will be.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.