One Straight Line…where John Carter of Mars went wrong!

As promised, I wanted to write a short blog about the 2012 Disney movie – JOHN CARTER OF MARS.

I grew up reading Burroughs. Edgar Rice Burroughs, that is – not that dude who wrote THE NEKKID LUNCH. I absolutely loved the Barsoom books, the Tarzan books, the Pellucidar books – hell, I even dug THE MUCKER.

So, when I heard that they were making a movie about Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series I was ten kinds of excited.

When I heard it was Disney that was making the movie I slid back to maybe eight point three kinds of excited – but I was still keen to see it coming.

Then, it hit the movie theatre at the very same time that I was broke. Now – I know that a lot of you people say that you are broke but the fact is I am so broke these days that I can’t even pay attention.

…what were we talking about now???

Oh yeah. JOHN CARTER OF MARS.

Well, for the first point they got the title wrong. It was A PRINCESS OF MARS. That’s what ERB – (which is what we cool hip geeksters refer to Edgar Rice Burroughs as) – originally called the first book in the series when it was published way back in 1912.

Now get this. A PRINCESS OF MARS was ERB’s first written novel. I know everyone knows the dude as being the guy what created TARZAN – (hell, he wrote more than two dozen Tarzan novels – and Tarzan made guest appearances in several other of ERB’s books) – but A PRINCESS OF MARS was the first work that was published.

That’s where it all started.

Mind you, he was writing the first Tarzan novel at about the same time – so this dude just started out chock-block full of nifty sword-swinging breechcloth-wearing ideas.

Now, I know full well why they went with the title JOHN CARTER OF MARS – rather than using the original title A PRINCESS OF MARS.

I can sum it up in one word.

Girls.

They were most likely worried that calling an adventure movie a title with the word “Princess” in it might be bad for marketing. They were afraid that all of us manly fellows wouldn’t be caught dead in a movie that might actually be based on a “kissing book” – even if just sounded like one.

I guess those marketing geniuses hadn’t heard of THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

Anyway, they settled on calling it JOHN CARTER OF MARS – even though seventy-eight percent of their target market would not have the slightest idea who John Carter was – (didn’t he used to be a president or something?) – because – let’s face it – they made this movie wanting to attract a billion pimply-faced teenage boys – as well as the occasional old fart like me who had actually READ the book.

So – first thing off is they couldn’t figure out where to start the movie. First we were on Mars – where they introduced the love interest and the head evil dude and the the illuminati-X-filish conspiracy bald-headed uber-evil-dudes behind it all. I guess they had to show us all these characters first in case any of us movie watchers were too stupid to catch on as the movie unfolded.

Then we were in Old West – which is where ERB originally started his movie – only they spent waaaayyy too long farting around in the old west trying to make John Carter look like Jack Sparrow.

Then we were with an actor pretending to be ERB – who was related to John Carter who was coming to visit John Carter.

See, this is what they call a “framing” story in which we are told a story about someone telling a story. They used this to great effect in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, starting out like they did with Peter Falk – the grandfather – telling a story to the rotten sick grandkid – (have I ever told you how much I hate kids in movies?) – who grew up to act in THE WONDER YEARS. That framing story worked because Peter Falk was a freaking brilliant actor and William Goldman (the dude who wrote THE PRINCESS BRIDE) and Rob Reiner (the dude who made THE PRINCESS BRIDE) are both freaking brilliant in their own right.

Unfortunately, the dude who played ERB in the movie I was watching was NOT freaking brilliant.

Eventually – it took about fifteen or twenty minutes, as I recall – John Carter finally figured out how to get to Mars. He stumbled across one of those Illumati dudes in a cave that he’d been hunting for.

Okay – so when they finally get to Mars the movie does turn pretty freaking brilliant – by spells. Who ever was responsible for the special effects had REALLY, REALLY, REALLY read the ERB books. The green four-armed Martian Tharks and the umpteen-legged ugly-dog Woola and the White Apes and the whole look and feel of it was amazing.  But every time they kept sticking in that evil dude Sab Than and that whole X-File conspiracy theory really muddied up the fishing hole.

I kept asking myself why didn’t they just start with Carter finding his dead family, riding out looking for vengeance and falling into Mars. We could have got that whole story up off the ground in the first two or three minutes. It felt almost as if they had been afraid to lose some early footage that they had shot.

Think about THE WIZARD OF OZ. We got Dorothy, we got Kansas, we got a tornado and then we got Oz. They knew not to fart around too long getting start. One straight line, that’s what they drew –  one straight line that took us from Kansas to Oz. We didn’t need to see Dorothy growing up. We didn’t need to see her getting pushed by a bully or molested by a drunken vagrant field hand.

One straight line.

If they had shaved off about eighty percent of all of that needless back story – if they had lost the unnecessary elements of steampunkery – if they had forgot about including the spare-me-dear-lord illuminati over-story – if they had just stuck with one clean straight line this movie would have sung!

I enjoyed it but I don’t see me sitting up nights waiting to watch it again. Wouldn’t own it and I’m glad I didn’t pay movie prices to see it.

yours in storytelling,

Steve Vernon

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10 responses to “One Straight Line…where John Carter of Mars went wrong!

  1. If only is a lament of a lot of book adaptations.

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    • Amen. They get special effects, location shots, star actors, great promotional buzz – but far too often they forget to get themselves a writer. This particular movie felt as if it had been touched by far too many fingers – fiddled and poked and over-baked one too many times. It is a shame – because there were so damn many things they got right…

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  2. If I’d been in a theatre, I probably would have watched and enjoyed the movie, but I was at home, and 10 minutes in I still wasn’t sure who the protagonist was. That’s not a good thing. I give my Netflix movies and rentals 12 minutes. If I’m not into it by 12 minutes in, off it goes, because experience has taught me that movies rarely gets better.

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    • Well, in all fairness, you did miss some good film making – in that the scenes involving the Tharks were very close to perfect – but you didn’t miss much in the way of storytelling. There was a lot going on – that, if a viewer hadn’t read the book ahead of time, they wouldn’t have known what the hell was happening.

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      • That’s mostly what I’ve heard as well. I bet that one day we’ll see a fan-made revised version. It would be great if the studio re-cut it, actually, but I’m guessing that’s not something that happens that often.

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    • A re-release, recut? Wish in one hand…

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  3. Some advice I heard recently about writing a novel, in terms of the story, get in as late as possible, and then get out as soon as possible. Sounds like the film makers could have used that advice.

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  4. Another problem, I think, was that the movie title is, in fact, just plain old JOHN CARTER – specifically *not* JOHN CARTER *OF MARS*. They didn’t even get the Mars part in there. I suppose it was obviously SF if you saw the previews, but who can get excited about some guy with a plain name like that? Hell, even Flash Gordon was at least FLASH! (And, in the reboot, at least, he had Queen backing his fight scenes. That’s how I try to live my life – with Queen rocking out during all my fight scenes.)

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    • Holy smokes, you’re right. I had been making up that “OF MARS” part of the title.

      All right. So I give up. I don’t know WHAT they were thinking when they titled that movie.

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