Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Tale of Two Movies

To the left, you can see the recently-released teaser poster for Disney's John Carter of Mars film to be released next year. I'm not super-keen on the poster, but it's only a teaser, so I don't expect much from it. However, I am expecting a lot from the movie itself, which I'll admit I was initially skeptical about. Truth be told, I'm still a little bit skeptical about it, but I've seen enough evidence that suggests writer/director Andrew Stanton has tried to make a faithful adaptation of Burroughs's seminal sword-and-planet tales that I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Just take a gander at the IMDB listing of the cast of characters for a moment. What you see there is a listing consisting nearly completely of characters who actually appear in Barsoom tales written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, unless I am mistaken not a single named character of significance in the film is an invention of Stanton or his co-writers. Compare this to the similar listing of the cast of characters in the upcoming Conan the Barbarian, where, aside from the titular Cimmerian, none of the characters has any basis in the source material.

Let's go further. Among the characters listed in the cast of John Carter of Mars are several Apaches. Readers of A Princess of Mars may recall that Carter is attacked by Apaches while prospecting for gold in Arizona. It was this attack that led to Carter to seek refuge in the cave where falls unconscious and then wakes up on Barsoom. Apaches? Prospecting? Doesn't that suggest this movie takes place in the past? Why, yes, it does! Strangely, A Princess of Mars also takes place in the past, the late 1860s, to be precise. After all, as Burroughs describes him, "Captain Jack" is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War -- just as he is in the film! Shocking!

You'll also see that among the characters in the film is someone called "Edgar Rice Burroughs." Hmm, how odd. Now, as I recall, A Princess of Mars is presented as a true account left to Burroughs by his Uncle Jack to be published in the future. Could it be that the movie retains this narrative structure in some fashion? Why, what a crazy thought? A movie based on a book that actually takes into account not just the characters and story of its source material but even its framing device? That's madness! I mean, if John Carter of Mars does this, the next thing you know people might start expecting it of other films based on books and where might that lead?

Now, it may be that John Carter of Mars deviates in many ways, both large and small, from A Princess of Mars and I'll no doubt grouse about those changes, for such is my nature. But I must give credit where credit is due: Andrew Stanton has faith in his source material -- faith that it is not just good as a book but good as the basis for a movie that modern audiences might enjoy. Is it too much to expect that, one day, Robert E. Howard might get a writer or director who has as much faith in his stories?

27 comments:

  1. Don’t hold your breath about Conan ever getting a fair shake in the collective imagination. Arnie has compromised that space for a good generation or two. Perhaps when I am an old geezer we will see a more dynamic version of Conan. The good news about John Carter is his absence in the public imagination. There is less of a chance of misconceived ideas corrupting the source material. It will take a writer/director/producer of substantial wealth to want to produce a faithful interpretation of Conan that gets past of corrupted Arnie version most of us grew up with. Padre

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  2. James, how CAN-or that matter-WHY even be skeptical when you haven't seen one frame of the film yet? Honestly, your sounding almost like Mr. The Blog That Time Forgot. Honestly, I have more faith in this then I do with Conan simply because Pixar is producing it and they have an incredible amount of control over their films. At least remain hopeful until a trailer comes out.

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  3. Optimistically keeping fingers crossed.

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  4. I was thinking this was going to be a comparison between this John Carter and the TV movie that was recently vomited upon the airwaves.

    Hasn't the Conan movie already had a few trailers released? I remember talk about cartoon sized swords and what-not. At least with pessimism you are never disappointed.

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  5. I know one of the writers on the Conan movie, and I can assure you that he is not to blame. I've had long talks with him about this and he told me not to tell people that he worked on it because he's a bit embarrassed at what happened to his script after it went through several revisions of "the suit committee" at the studio.

    Just know that when you say "Is it too much to expect that, one day, Robert E. Howard might get a writer or director who has as much faith in his stories?" that that's not really capturing the intricacies of Hollywood politics, unfortunately. This writer guy I'm speaking of is a consummate geek like the rest of us - he plays RPGs, strategy board games, reads comics, and loves the original Howard Conan stories. I'd hate to see him get blamed for something that wasn't his fault.

    However, I agree with the rest of your premise. I don't understand why, when making movies based on other source material, why the source material can't be followed. It particular bugs me with comic-book movies, which for some reason seem to use completely made-up stories rather than lifting something directly out of the comics. It's very frustrating.

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  6. I have to say that I see little point in blaming the Conan producers for not including Howard-based characters beyond Conan: it's not like the actual Howard stories have any recurring characters. Unless you're going to actually film one of the existing storylines, you're going to need to make up a ton of characters to populate a plot. I suppose you could borrow a character like Valeria from a story, but then again it seems like a waste to extract her from Red Nails for the sake of giving Howard fans a bone.

    Since the John Carter movie is a straight-up adaptation of Princess of Mars, I agree that it needs a more-or-less direct transposition of characters.

    In the end, though, the bigger factor here is that Staunton is a greater artist than any of the folks involved in the Conan movie, and his Pixar resume gives him the clout to force a lot of fidelity past meddling studio types.

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  7. I'm cautiously optimistic about this one, and it is all because of Andrew Stanton. The man has done a lot of good work.
    I'm also a bit worried, though, because ERB and specifically the Mars stories were the first sci-fi/fantasy I ever read, and thus they have a special place in my heart. I'm more emotionally invested in this one than I am in Conan.

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  8. Its to be called John Carter...not John Carter of Mars. It is likely a series of films...

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  9. I have to disagree, I've not seeing anything to offend me so far. The new Conan looks like it will be good, at least as good as Arnold's Conan, even if it is not true to the source material. JCM looks like it will be decent and is keeping many of the characters from the book.

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  10. I haven't had too much problem with Conan so far - the original movie is no Holy Grail to me. As far as the John Carter movie I have major misgivings. The fact that Disney is in control is a bad thing for one. The preview art so far looks pretty bad as did the one costume they showed off. I suspect the comic is matching the movie script - if so there are significant deviations from the stories. I don't have high hopes.

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  11. James, how CAN-or that matter-WHY even be skeptical when you haven't seen one frame of the film yet? Honestly, your sounding almost like Mr. The Blog That Time Forgot.

    You rang, crowking?

    In any case, saying you cannot be skeptical of certain things when one hasn't seen a single frame is... Well, I'm afraid I simply cannot agree with it. By that logic, you could dismiss any criticism, to the point of absurdity. One could look at this prospective synopsis for an adaptation of Stormbringer:

    Elric of Melnibone was once the mightiest warrior of the Young Kingdoms: strong, muscular, vital, with a full head of shocking red hair and bronzed skin. But one day, the evil sorcerer Zargator sucked the life out of him, rendering him a sickly, pale albino, before conquering the peaceful kingdom of Melnibone. Together with his best friend Frou-Frou and his beloved warrior queen Quixotia, he must regain his strength and vitality by finding the magic sword Stormbringer, a black blade which restores life. Along the way he must battle the dread monster-god Tschatchatcha, the seductive Voluptua, and the brutish Grupthar: will he succeed in restoring his kingdom and youth, or fall in the attempt?

    Can you really say any skepticism about such a project would be unfounded, since "we haven't seen a single frame"?

    I have to say that I see little point in blaming the Conan producers for not including Howard-based characters beyond Conan: it's not like the actual Howard stories have any recurring characters. Unless you're going to actually film one of the existing storylines, you're going to need to make up a ton of characters to populate a plot.

    That's exactly the problem. There are plenty of longer novellas and one full-length novel to adapt. Even some of the shorter stories could be expanded. But instead of, say, tying a few stories together into a single narrative, or expanding a shorter one, the folks in charge decided "nope, let's not do that - let's make something up entirely."

    Seriously, I can't think of many other properties that do this. The best I can think of is that terrible Reb Brown Captain America TV film: it didn't have any of the characters apart from Steve Rogers (who, of course, has a completely different backstory and motivations), it didn't have any of the character arc or stories from the comics, it certainly didn't have any of the themes or hallmarks of the character.

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  12. Oh, and as for "no recurring characters": surely you mean apart from Pallantides, Trocero, and Prospero, who appear in the King stories? To say nothing of the frequent offstage presence of Thoth-Amon.

    Besides, I seriously doubt that matters considering few if any of the characters in *this* film will be recurring, so I don't know why you brought it up to begin with.

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  13. James, how CAN-or that matter-WHY even be skeptical when you haven't seen one frame of the film yet?

    Enough information has been released about these movies that I can form a tentative opinion of them, an opinion I may revise as new information comes to light, and that may or may not reflect my final judgment when the movie is released and I've had the chance to see it. I'm old enough to know that skepticism regarding Hollywood films based on beloved literary properties is well warranted. Being skeptical, though, doesn't mean I've written off the object of my skepticism -- not yet anyway. It simply means I'm being cautious in my assessment and I see nothing wrong with that.

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  14. I have to say that I see little point in blaming the Conan producers for not including Howard-based characters beyond Conan: it's not like the actual Howard stories have any recurring characters. Unless you're going to actually film one of the existing storylines, you're going to need to make up a ton of characters to populate a plot. I suppose you could borrow a character like Valeria from a story, but then again it seems like a waste to extract her from Red Nails for the sake of giving Howard fans a bone.

    I think you misunderstand. My point is not that I wish they'd throw in some random REH characters into their made-up story. Rather, it's that the story is made-up and not based on anything remotely Howardian, unlike John Carter, which, on the face of it at least, is going to be a retelling of A Princess of Mars with all the characters and situations intact. Conan has never gotten that in his cinematic appearances and that just galls me to no end. It's as if the film makers think "Conan" is valuable as a brand but that the tales in which he actually appears aren't good enough for the big screen. Oh wait ...

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  15. I suspect the comic is matching the movie script - if so there are significant deviations from the stories. I don't have high hopes.

    Which comic?

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  16. Elric of Melnibone was once the mightiest warrior of the Young Kingdoms: strong, muscular, vital, with a full head of shocking red hair and bronzed skin. But one day, the evil sorcerer Zargator sucked the life out of him, rendering him a sickly, pale albino, before conquering the peaceful kingdom of Melnibone. Together with his best friend Frou-Frou and his beloved warrior queen Quixotia, he must regain his strength and vitality by finding the magic sword Stormbringer, a black blade which restores life. Along the way he must battle the dread monster-god Tschatchatcha, the seductive Voluptua, and the brutish Grupthar: will he succeed in restoring his kingdom and youth, or fall in the attempt?

    Even as we speak, there is undoubtedly some Hollywood wordsmith cribbing your synopsis for his next project ...

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  17. OK, James, I see what you're saying, and I agree: you'd have to finesse the racial chrome of the stories, but tales like Beyond the Black River and Red Nails would make for great movies. (Especially the latter, making the failure of the attempt to animate it particularly sad.)

    Regarding recurring characters: I had forgotten about Conan's Aquilonian allies, but then again I think my forgetting of them is the point. Prospero, Pallantides, and Trocero accomplish relatively little "on screen" in Phoenix, Scarlet Citadel, and Hour of the Dragon; I don't think I'd want to hang my screenplay on them. As for Thoth-Amon, I always hated Roy Thomas's decision to make him Conan's arch-villain. I much prefer the God in the Bowl approach where Conan incidentally thwarts Thoth-Amon without the wizard ever knowing. It makes the setting more real to me that there's a major evil sorcerer out there who never really locks heads or even cares about Conan.

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  18. BTW, I'm not forgetting that Thoth shows up in Phoenix. But again he's not Conan's antagonist--he sends the demon after the villain and then leaves the narrative. That Conan has to fight the creature is incidental to Thoth's desires.

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  19. I'm pretty sure L. Sprague De Camp was the one that made Thoth-Amon Conan's "arch-villain", not Roy Thomas. Roy was merely adapting the series as it was sold to him by De Camp.

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  20. Andy, you are probably correct--I've read Thomas's run on Conan much more recently than De Camp's Ace paperbacks. (In fact, I don't think I've reread the De Camp/Carter Conan since the early 1980s--thirty years of neglect does not foster good memories.)

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  21. There has been at least one major change to the source material. Namely, the appearance of Matai Shang, a Holy Thern who does not appear until book 2 of the series.

    This makes me suppose someone thought there needed to be a "big bad guy" (and didn't necessarily find Tal Hajus or Sab Than fit the role appropriately enough?) and so has written him into the PoM storyline somewhere.

    This could be either cool or disastrous if you're an ERb purist. Cool- Shang appearing in a foreshadowing role. Disastrous - Shang being "reimagined" in some way to be pulling the strings of Hajus or Than.

    "Reimagining" characters seems to have a domino effect, creating more problems with the possibility of producing films based on the consecutive books, so I hope this is not the case.

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  22. There has been at least one major change to the source material. Namely, the appearance of Matai Shang, a Holy Thern who does not appear until book 2 of the series.

    Good catch. I didn't notice Shang for some reason in the cast list.

    A lot will depend on what role Shang has in the first film, I guess. I'm not going to worry too much just yet, since I suspect he's there just to lay the groundwork for the sequel (there are three movies planned in total, I believe), but time will tell.

    To clarify: I don't reject changes to the source material absolutely. I reject needless changes that don't bring anything to the cinematic table and that's what Howard's stories seem cursed to suffer.

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  23. The machinations of the Therns could not be part of PoM because ERB had not yet created them when he wrote it! When he did get around to imagining them, he created them as the puppet-masters of the global Issus cult. It's not too much of a stretch to make them the shadowy instigators of some of the events of PoM. To me it would a completely forgivable bit of retro-active continuity.

    After the train wreck of Star Trek 2009, I'm hesitant to invest too much emotionally in upcoming films (though Captain America looks pretty awesome). John Carter is my all time favorite adventure but I'm confident the screen writer of most of Pixar's hits and the director of WALL-E knows what he is doing. I feel even better hearing this week that the producers were using John Flint Roy's Guide to Barsoom as the production bible.

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  24. @Taranaich said "Seriously, I can't think of many other properties that do this. The best I can think of is that terrible Reb Brown Captain America TV film: it didn't have any of the characters apart from Steve Rogers (who, of course, has a completely different backstory and motivations), it didn't have any of the character arc or stories from the comics, it certainly didn't have any of the themes or hallmarks of the character."

    Huh... I made this exact same point about comic-book related movies a few posts above yours, but it seems that my posts often get overlooked when I comment on Grognardia for some reason. I've never really been sure why that is.

    But, the "Hollywoodization" of the comic-book media goes way beyond just the horrible "Captain America" TV movie. Pretty much every silver screen comic-book movie is based on a story that is not from the comics at all, but instead something made up by Hollywood Producers and Directors who think they know better than the comics writers as to what audiences want to see. Witness the debacles of "Spider-Man 3", "X-Men 3", "Catwoman", both awful "Punisher" movies... the list goes on and on.

    The same thing goes with "Conan." You can't just simply blame the screenwriter(s) and assume it's their fault. The studios and producers who bankroll these productions believe they know what's best. In the case of Conan, they have a pre-determined perception of what they think the character is, and that's what they're going to go with. If a script came back that didn't have Conan speaking like a mentally-challenged third grader and two-weapon fighting with two swords (which, as James pointed out, if de rigeur in Hollywood these days), it would simply get re-written until that's what it became.

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  25. comic? - by Dynamite I think.

    No idea if it *is* based on the movie, could be it just happened to start up at the same time as the movie was floated.

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  26. Brian Cranston of Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad fame was cast early on as a civil war officer over JC. I knew they were on the right track when I heard that. Inspiring because I love Cranston, although I do not remember a civil war officer from the book...

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  27. Martin R. Thomas: “Pretty much every silver screen comic-book movie is based on a story that is not from the comics at all, but instead something made up by Hollywood Producers and Directors who think they know better than the comics writers as to what audiences want to see. Witness the debacles of "Spider-Man 3", "X-Men 3", "Catwoman", both awful "Punisher" movies...”

    In response to Martin’s comment, I would point out that even good superhero movies cobble and invent. Witness the success of Superman 2, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man. We don’t mind the cobbling and invention when the movies are good. When the movies are bad, the cobbling and invention become targets for our wrath.

    I would argue that the principle of adapting characters that recur in a short or serialized medium, like monthly comics, TV, or pulp stories, is one of cherry picking--a supporting character here, a plotline there--rather than wholesale transposition of the kind we see when a studio adapts a novel.

    Furthermore, when movies do “faithfully” adapt a text, or a story arc, the result is that it loses the element of surprise. I’ll grant that surprise isn’t everything, but much of why we enjoy narratives is because we enjoy not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. To paraphrase Dr. Manhattan (who appeared in a loosely “faithful,” yet still fairly surprising movie adaptation), we forget the pleasures of not knowing.

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