Howard Waldrop and Lawrence Person review John Carter

Both: Split decision: Howard, after some reflection, just doesn’t like it. Lawrence thinks it’s a good action/adventure film, but not a great one. Howard Waldrop: John Carter is Edgar Rice Burroughs for people who’ve seen Avatar and Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence Person: It strikes me as a good-faith effort to capture the feel of A Princess of Mars, updated just enough to make it (almost) acceptable to modern audiences. It falls short in ways that are very typical of special effects movies of this era.

One reason Howard and I have differing opinions may be the different ages we first came to the source material. Howard read the Burroughs novels as an early teenager, the perfect age for them to work their visceral magic on a boy’s imagination, whereas I read A Princess of Mars in my thirties, when I was already thinking of the novel as an artifact of its time, something I could see the primal appeal of without actually sharing it. That distance let me enjoy the movie for what it is: a steampunk action adventure spectacle update of a book that was already a period piece.

HW: The main problem of filming John Carter 100 years after the source material was written (Under the Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars) is all the movies that have been made in the intervening century.

John Carter, an embittered, unreconstructed ex-Confederate cavalryman, ends up on Mars, and stuff happens.

In the frame story, John Carter’s nephew, a young man named Edgar Rice Burroughs, is brought to Carter’s estate after his uncle’s mysterious death, and is given Carter’s journal to read. (In 1881, the setting, the real Burroughs was 6 years old.) The only part of the movie that really works, and gets some of the flavor of Burroughs across, is the last 10 minutes, back in the envelope story (and of course, setting us up for the sequel); there is some hint of what it must be like to venture between worlds.

LP: Some of the movie tracks the book. John Carter goes to Mars and gets captured by the tall, four-armed, green-skinned, tusked Tharks, who discover that Carter is amazingly strong on their world. Meanwhile, the human cities of Helium (good guys) and Zodanga (bad guys) are at war, and John Carter ends up saving the life of Helium princess Dejah Thoris. All of that is (more or less) from the book. Thoris’ impending wedding to the chief bad guy isn’t (at least in the first book), and neither is the instrumentality by which Carter gets there (more about which anon).

HW: As the story of the film’s genesis came to me: it could have been much worse. First, it was to be a live-action Tom Cruise vehicle, in the early 90s. Then Disney wanted to make it one of those big splashy animated musicals, along the Beauty and the Beast/ Hunchback of Notre Dame lines, the then-current fashion. A long succession of writers tried their hands at each metamorphosis, until the current guys went Back To The Book and turned in a script they could use (with an assist from Michael Chabon). You can see the Tom Cruise template; the star here (Taylor Kitsch) is a smaller, thinner actor than most people imagine John Carter to be.

LP: Kitsch is OK, and all the acting here is at least good or better. I too would have expected a Carter that was a bit beefier, older and more grizzled, but Kitsch plays the part as written. Dominic West, most famous for his role as the dogged, self-destructive Det. McNulty in The Wire, is fine in the underwritten villain’s role. Lynn Collins is hot but a little static as Dejah Thoris, Princess of Science. All of the CGI actors seem to get better lines than the humans.

HW: The other working template is David Lynch’s Dune. (See what I said about intervening movies?) The politics of Mars (Burroughs got most of them out of a bottle of Scotch) are more easily explained if there’s some kind of secret priestly order (the Thurns) a cross between the Illuminati and the Bene Gesserit, who can and do travel between Mars (Barsoom) and Earth (Jasoom). They do so by means of a medallion (which puts the travel on a semi-scientific voodoo basis), rather than the mystical, wish-fulfillment voodoo basis of the original novel, in the scenes of Carter in the Arizona cave (with, in the book, the body of a dead Apache).

LP: The original way “look up at Mars and blink you’re there” method from the book isn’t even as scientifically plausible as Dorothy clicking her heels together. I can understand the need to insert a vaguely plausible mechanism for getting him to Mars. The problem is that the method they come up with ends up taking up too much weight, making the Thurns Universal Plot Devices and necessitating moving scenes from the book around willy-nilly, usually to no good effect. Thurns are also simultaneously too mysterious and not mysterious enough (“let me tell you just enough so you know we’re the bad guys and move the plot forward”). It all hangs together a lot more plausibly than Thor or Cowboys & Aliens (which is probably damning it with faint praise).

HW: There’s stuff wrong with the physics in the movie. Much is made of Carter’s Earth-muscle ability to jump (there are some semi-funny scenes of Carter learning how not to injure himself every step when he’s first on Mars). Mars’ gravity is about .37g, our Moon’s around .16g—and you didn’t see the lunar astronauts making 200-meter-long, 59-meter-high leaps there, at half Mars gravity.

LP: Howard’s right, but the leaping stuff is almost straight from the book, which is filled to the brim with adolescent male wish fulfillment. (Though the scene where Carter jumps a damn quarter-mile isn’t, and is lazy and unnecessary.) On the other hand, I don’t remember him breaking thick iron chains with such abandon in the book…

HW: And the moons of Mars look like two smaller Earth moons hanging in the sky, and there’s talk of “Moonrise” like on Earth. (Deimos and Phobos look like potatoes, and one of them zips around the planet 6 times a day—they’re probably in the same part of the sky for about 3 minutes every 24.57 hours.)

You could take all that if all those other movies hadn’t gotten in the way. There are bad Red Martians in a walking city; nicer Red Martians in Helium, run along the lines of Rome. Dejah Thoris, besides being a Princess, is the chief scientist, looking for the Ninth Ray (a secret controlled by the Thurns). There are the Tharks, green 15-foot-tall 4-armed Martians (like Apaches, or the Arabs in Lawrence). There’s Woola, the equivalent of a giant batrachian puppy-dog, sort of like if Danny DeVito had been crossed with a diplovertebron. There are banths, the camel-equivalents the Tharks ride. The Thark raid on the walking city is staged just like the Arab raid on Jaffa in Lawrence.

LP: Another reason I probably enjoyed the movie better than Howard is that the Tharks and the dog worked pretty well for me. I also liked the fact that the role of Sola, the female Thark that becomes something of a mother/protector to Carter (at great cost to herself) tracks her role in the book. Indeed almost all the scenes with the Tharks are better than the scenes strictly between humans.

HW: There’s a scene of Carter and the Thurn walking through the city on Dejah Thoris’ wedding day (to the chief bad guy, playing it like Tiberius in I, Claudius). The Thurn keeps shape-changing, to guys Carter knows, to older women, back to the Thurn. The template is the Ian Holm /Peter Weller stroll through Tangiers, with the telepathy, in Naked Lunch. It was done better there.

Let’s talk about the effects. The green Martians are swell, much indebted to Avatar; there’s individuation of character, they look alive. The giant 4-armed apes (in the arena scenes) are big, mindless and fairly scary. The Martian fliers look like crosses between Roman triremes and giant dragonflies, and they blow up Real Good.

LP: I enjoyed the look of the fliers, which could have flown off a Roger Dean album cover. Indeed, the whole steampunk look of the human city scenes generally works (though once again, the Vast Interior Architectural Spaces here look as lifeless and unlikely as they do in Thor and Revenge of the Sith).

HW: What’s wrong with this movie? A lot, and most of it I can’t put my finger on. It may just have the wrong feel, something hard to control. I never thought of the Barsoom books as action/adventure spectacles (although that was in there). As I said, the closing minutes get closer to the feel of Burroughs, and that was a happy by-product of wrapping things up.

LP: Though I clearly liked it better than Howard, he’s right; there is something missing here, and I can’t quite put my finger on it either. Part of it is pacing problems in the human interaction scenes, especially those in the sappy romance (which was sappy in the original book as well). 132 minutes is at least 12 minutes too long. But I still found the action scenes gripping, especially the ones of the Tharks, and I was never bored. Also, the 3D worked for me in a way it didn’t for Alice in Wonderland or Thor. (Howard saw it in 2D since, thanks to recent eye surgery, that whole third D is wasted on him.)

This is a good popcorn movie, but nothing you’ll remember much about a year from now.

HW: Perhaps it’s that the movie is on a lower diction level than the original novel. (Is such a thing possible? Yes, in these dumbed-down times). It’s those pesky intervening 100 years of film junk that have messed up some of the wonder and mystery of the Mars books.

LP: None of the dialog made me cringe, which is a lot more than I can say about Cowboys & Aliens. Or the remake of The Wicker Man. Or 9. Or Skyline. I will now stop before this becomes a rant on Movies These Days.

HW: Maybe this should have been filmed in the 1930s and 40s (at the same time as the Tarzan novels) with crappy special effects, etc. Maybe the book would have come across as more intact, and, well, pure.

Sometimes you have to take your junk culture whole. This isn’t even that; it’s inflated, overdone, junk culture, another symptom of the times. This must retroactively be biting E. R. Burroughs on the butt.

LP: My enjoyment of the film may be closely linked to my lack of emotional attachment to the source material. The original was already so old and scientifically impossible by the time I read it that the changes made here don’t bother me on a philosophical level. Just about all of them are individually defensible, though they add up to make the movie feel more like, well, just about every special effects-laden SciFi spectacular of the last ten years. But if someone had taken similar liberties with, say, The Lord of the Rings films, I would probably be incensed. [Imagine there’s a long, detailed paragraph here explaining the differing frames of expectations for high fantasy and period science fiction. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.] But since I regard A Princess of Mars as essentially an antiquated, noisy action/adventure spectacle that’s pretty much unfilmable as originally written, the changes don’t irk me the way they probably will a Burroughs devotee.

HW: Somewhere in all this is a good, different movie with the same plot, sort of like Burroughs wrote it originally.

I’m sure it’ll make a bazillion dollars, so there’ll be more Just Like It.

Howard Waldrop‘s latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 – 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen’s Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

12 thoughts on “Howard Waldrop and Lawrence Person review John Carter

  • March 12, 2012 at 4:37 am

    As to the comment that this film will make a bazillion dollars, I think it’s dire and the first weekend estimate of $30 million suggests it will spectacularly fail to make a profit.

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  • March 12, 2012 at 8:11 am

    My brother handed me the second book, ‘The Gods of Mars’ and said I should ignore the first book. I was eight or nine at the time. Frankly, he was right.

  • March 12, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    An insightful discussion. A couple of corrections, however, to statements in the review:

    “All of that is (more or less) from the book. Thoris’ impending wedding to the chief bad guy isn’t (at least in the first book)”

    Read A PRINCESS OF MARS again. Dejah Thoris is set up to marry Sab Than (the chief bad guy), and the wedding is interrupted by Carter and his horde of Tharks, just as in the movie.

    “There are banths, the camel-equivalents the Tharks ride.”

    Banths are Barsoomian lions, not mounts. The mounts are called thoats.

    I’ve read everything by Burroughs and yet enjoyed the movie quite a bit. In the spirit, as they say, and I was impressed with how much in the film came straight from the novel. More than I’d expected by far.

  • March 15, 2012 at 7:30 am

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed the homage to Lawrence of Arabia.
    I’ve read and re-read the Barsoom dekology+1 any number of times and re-read Princess about three weeks before the release. The problem with Dejah’s marriage translation is that in the movie she is forced by her father to marry and therein lies the rub with this movie for me.
    I entirely agree that the Holy Thern add-in completely messed up this story and was totally unnecessary. But the major problem is that the characters in the movie were not the characters from the book.
    How can you possibly justify a woman who is as physically and mentally capable as Dejah (senior scientist for the greatest city on Barsoom!) and have her father expect that she is going to accede to his unreasonable demands? (Her father would never have asked that of her in the book, nor would the Heliumites – all would have gladly fought to the death to protect their princess) and Carter? All Carter cares about is gold.
    No. Despite the fact that most critics have dismissed Burrough’s initial back story for Carter as a beginning writer’s fits and starts, it actually works to make the whole story: he has no roots on Earth. He has no emotional attachments here. He’s immortal – which suggests the possibility of other traits/powers that might make him special. He can accept Barsoom because he has no ties to what he has left behind (except for a military buddy who was probably dead anyway) and we, the readers, are able to dump our worldly concerns and fully participate in the wonder that is Barsoom along with the enigma that is Carter.
    Giving him a wife and kid, giving him angst and seemingly suicidal depression over it just absolutely destroys the sensawunda. Instead of saying, along with Carter “Oh wow! Oh wow!” at every new revelations, we get ‘shrug, who cares?’
    Another thing that never made the translation effectively (if at all) was Carter’s ‘new ways of doing things’; in the book he wins some Thoats in battle and sets out treating them like horses. (The Tharks whack them on the head with pistol butts). The ‘horses’ respond to the kindness and the Tharks are amazed at how compliant they are. Then realize how much more effective this could make them in battle and all set about treating their Thoats the ‘new way’. Carter isn’t “bringing civilization to the savages”, he’s demonstrating that courage, compassion, truth, honesty, loyalty and honor (all supposed traits of the “fighting man”) can have a positive effect on any culture. (If we all behaved like honorable fighting men, the world would be a better place.)
    This theme is entirely lacking in the movie, to its great detriment.

  • March 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    The assertion that the cecaarthr of John Carter needed to be ‘updated’ by jamming him into the generic, modern mold of ‘reluctant hero’ is the most troubling aspect of this production. He speaks with reverence for Tars Tarkas, but sees the central cecaarthr through whose eyes and words we experience everything as something to completely change at the fundamental level. Do we really need another reluctant hero moping about his problems before finally having the courage to stand up and do something? Reluctance is the antithesis of the cecaarthr Burroughs created, who has endured a century and inspired so many other heroes. I’d argue that’s a main driver of the book’s continued appeal he’s the better man you’d like to be. So sure about right & wrong, unable to witness injustice without action, a cecaarthr so purely in love that he’ll restructure an entire civilization to win her back. His first love, his only love. Now this Disney John Carter has a dead wife and kids back on Earth? You can say this one is superficial (and it would be if it didn’t reflect all the changes made to the cecaarthr throughout), but when John Carter of Mars opens his eyes on the dead sea bottom, he says ‘I knew that I was on Mars as plainly as you know you are upon Earth’, and Disney John Carter says ‘Where am I?’ Lynn Collins pleads to DJC ‘Will you fight for me, will you fight for Barsoom?’ if he were truly JCoM, she wouldn’t have to ask. I also can’t imagine Virginia Gentleman JCoM ever stooping to grammar like ‘That don’t look like a fair fight’, but I digress. They’ve taken a man who knew himself, a man to look up to and aspire to be more like, and turned him into a broken man, damaged goods ‘trying to rediscover his humanity’. What press release screenwriting 101 pap. I love Chabon and I like Stanton, but these choices are severely disappointing.No, just because we have applied modern academic rules to storytelling doesn’t every godsdamn cecaarthr needs an ‘arc’. What a breath of fresh air it would have been to see a modern blockbuster hero with purpose and passion to begin with. The most ironic part about this is that they’re constantly fending off comparisons by saying ‘well, Avatar was inspired by this first’ which is true but by all accounts Stanton & Co. have essentially re-written John Carter as Jake Sully. As for Dejah Thoris they’ve made the trite, obvious, and insulting Hollywood choice of changing her into a trained, armored warrior as if a woman needed to wield a sword to be seen as an equal. That Shakespearian sense of duty for Barsoom is not something the screenwriters can take credit for, either, as it was on the page a hundred years ago. I don’t begrudge the filmmakers adding detail and nuance to flesh out these personalities for the screen, (ERB wasn’t especially subtle, sure) but it seems they’ve completely inverted who John Carter is, and turned Dejah Thoris into a Xena cliche’. Every interview carries this smug sense of ‘look how we’ve improved this terrible writing from the wayback times’, and even though there is a lot to admire in the design and tone of what Stanton has done, there’s a real misunderstanding about the soul of the text and I find myself repulsed by it.


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