As longtime readers of this blog ought to know, I'm critical of Hollywood's inability (or unwillingness) to treat the literary source material on which it so often draws with respect. Consequently, I'm not a fan of either of the 1982 or 2011 Conan the Barbarian movies and I am even contemptuous of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies. In the minds of many, this makes me a "purist," which is polite shorthand for "Puritanical snob I want to punch in the face." At the same time, I had a lot of faith in director Andrew Stanton, who did not merely profess but actually demonstrated in interviews that he loved and, more importantly, understood Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom novels. Contrast this with Milius or Jackson, both of whom showed again and again that they had no clue what Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien were all about.
My faith in Stanton was such that, seemingly alone amongst fans of the Barsoom novels, I wasn't put off by the various trailers released in advance of the film. Instead, I was relieved -- cheered even -- when I saw that movie would use the same framing device as the novel, A Princess of Mars, right down to including a fictional Burroughs as a character. To my mind, that fact alone already made John Carter a far more faithful adaptation than any movie purportedly about a Cimmerian barbarian to have appeared on screen. And while I had doubts about his casting choices, particularly the two leads, I was willing to give Stanton the benefit of the doubt. This was a man who knew and loved Barsoom, so I figured that any changes he might make would merely be those demanded by the translation to a different medium.
Before proceeding further, I think a word about "the spirit" of a work is in order. In my experience, a great many people are willing to accept changes in a cinematic version of a beloved literary work if they believe the spirit of the original is preserved. Of course, the spirit is a fairly nebulous thing, so nebulous that talk of "staying true to the spirit" can often be used as an effective cover/justification for all manner of alterations. While I don't deny that books have spirits or that it's possible to discern them, I am wary of attempts to "stay true" to them while at the same time abandoning -- or contradicting -- their letter. I am, after all, the man who intensely dislikes the movie version of The Natural on the petty justification that it turns a tragic literary tale into a story of triumphant redemption. According to some, this constitutes staying true to the spirit of the book, so I hope I can be forgiven for being skeptical of such verbiage.
It's worth noting that, all other considerations aside, bringing A Princess of Mars (the primary book on which John Carter is based) was always going to be a difficult proposition. The 1917 novel rambles, following John Carter as he wanders from place to place, meeting people and becoming involved in various intrigues on the Red Planet as he does so. Any cinematic adaptation that wasn't three or more hours long would likely have to concentrate on certain characters and events in order to present a more coherent narrative. In doing so, other events and characters would need to be minimized or dropped entirely, particularly those that don't support the coherent narrative the director has chosen to advance. I readily accept that, which is why I don't begrudge Stanton for most of his omissions.
What I do begrudge him for, though, are his additions, not merely because they diverge from Burroughs but also because they actually make the movie's narratives less coherent than the rambling raw material from which it's drawn. The two biggest problems are its main characters, John Carter and Dejah Thoris, with the eponymous hero being the worse of the two. Here's how Burroughs describes John Carter in his foreword to A Princess of Mars:
My first recollection of Captain Carter is of the few months he spent at my father's home in Virginia, just prior to the opening of the civil war. I was then a child of but five years, yet I well remember the tall, dark, smooth-faced, athletic man whom I called Uncle Jack.
He seemed always to be laughing; and he entered into the sports of the children with the same hearty good fellowship he displayed toward those pastimes in which the men and women of his own age indulged; or he would sit for an hour at a time entertaining my old grandmother with stories of his strange, wild life in all parts of the world. We all loved him, and our slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.
He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.The movie version of Carter, though, is nothing like the one described here. He is a broken man, "lost in our world" (as the movie poster proclaims him), suffering from a (totally invented) tragic past. Movie Carter spends close to half the film seeking a way to escape Mars and return to Earth, where he believes a fortune in gold awaits him. Despite the wonders he sees on Barsoom, he cares little for the planet or its inhabitants, including Dejah Thoris, the first human-like being he encounters. He is sullen and self-obsessed, almost to the point of being anti-heroic. There is a moment in the film, shortly after he rescues the incomparable princess from the Zodangans when I thought, for a brief moment, that the real John Carter would finally make his debut. With hordes of baddies rushing at her, Carter grabs a sword -- her sword, which should have been my first clue about how this would end -- and stands in front of her, saying something to the effect of "Stay behind me, ma'am; this could get dangerous."
But, apparently, chivalry is dead, even on the Red Planet. Dejah Thoris is offended by this Jasoomian effrontery and quickly shows Captain Carter that she needs no saving. The scene is, I expect, intended to be funny and to play with our expectations, but it has the effect of further lessening John Carter as both a character and as a hero. Granted I'm a Neanderthal, who wasn't too keen to see female warriors among the Slightly-Tan Martians either, but, even given that, I do think, purely from a storytelling perspective, having Dejah Thoris upstage Carter as a warrior so early in the story does little to make me like him as a character. Indeed, it only contributes to one of the film's biggest problems: why does anyone care about John Carter? Sure, he can jump very high and is equally strong, but so what? As portrayed in much of the movie, he's a withdrawn, bitter grump, who cares more about his riches on Earth than fate of Barsoom. Why would anyone follow this guy? "Because his name is in the title" seems to be the only explanation.
Now, I understand why Stanton changed Carter's character -- to give him an "arc" -- but I hate it nonetheless. Not only does it deviate from Burroughs's portrayal of the character, but it actually made the plot of the film slower paced and less exciting than it ought to have been. When you only have two hours, give or take, to tell a story in a setting filled with wondrous and exotic things, wouldn't it save a lot of time if you don't have to waste time contriving ways to get your protagonist invested in that setting? Had the cinematic Carter been more like the adventurous Southern gentleman of Burroughs, we might have had time to see more of, say, the Warhoons or the atmosphere plants, two omissions I wished hadn't been made so as to allow for other stuff.
Which brings me to the Therns. I'm honestly not sure what I think about the Therns. On the one hand, their inclusion is justifiable, since they provide a nice segue to The Gods of Mars. On the other hand, their portrayal in John Carter sets them up to be the Big Villains of the series, which is not only a mistake, but also necessitates lots of scenes with them delivering exposition that eats up screen time better spent fleshing out characters and situations that actually are in A Princess of Mars. It's another case where I think that Stanton and screenwriter Michael Chabon were too clever by half, inadvertently creating new narrative problems in an effort to "fix" those in the original text. As a result, the whole movie has a strangely "unfinished" feel, as if it's missing scenes that, if inserted, would help make sense of the whole.
And yet, in spite of it all, I liked John Carter. It was a fun movie and, its downplaying of the Green Martians' cruelty and its liberation of Slightly-Tan Martian women to the contrary, a surprisingly old fashioned one in terms of the story it tried to tell. I could pick lots of little nits and quote lengthy sections of Burroughs's texts to show where Stanton and Chabon "got it wrong," but I won't, because I was entertained. I was also pleased to get to see on the big screen things I've imagined since I was a younger person. Were they exactly like I imagined them? No. In fact, a lot of stuff was downright unlike the way I'd imagined them. Yet, for all that, John Carter presented something that was recognizably inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom tales -- far closer than any Tarzan movie to date and light years truer to its source than last year's Conan the Barbarian.
I'd like to see John Carter again to get a better handle on my mixed feelings about it. I take it as a good sign that I'd even countenance a second viewing, despite my misgivings about it as both a movie and as an adaptation.