What Could Have Been...
Where do I start? I have one major disadvantage in writing a review of 'John Carter'. I'm biased. 'John Carter' is based on the first of my favourite series of books, the 'Martian Tales' written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Who is probably most famous for being the original author of Tarzan). The first book is called 'A Princess of Mars' (First published as 'Under the Moons of Mars' in 1912).
The wonderful thing about Burroughs' 'Martian Tales', is that although never before put to film, they have probably had far more influence on science fiction literature and cinema than anyone realises. Many of the greatest science fiction writers of the last century quote Burroughs' as a great inspiration, from Ray Bradbury to Arthur C. Clarke. A number of the most successful science fiction directors also cite them as major influence on their work, from George Lucas with the 'Star Wars' movies to James Cameron with 'Avatar'. 'Star Wars' especially stands out. Tatooine is where you can feel the most clear influences, alongside Geonosis in Attack of the Clones, with it's deadly amphitheatre games and wild creatures.
Having recently re-read the first three books, I can honestly say they have aged wonderfully. His writing style may not stand up to critical analysis, but which is more important, that people enjoy reading his stories or that critics can't pick any holes? I have seen interviews with teenage readers who have been shocked at how modern and exciting the books are in comparison to other famous novels half their age.
Personally, I always felt Burroughs' writing had a lyrical flow, almost poetic. It may be a hundred years old, but it is as easy and enjoyable to read as any modern book. They crack along at an incredible pace, full of adventure, excitement, romance and outlandish wonderful imagination. There are eleven Mars books overall.
To get back to the film... Book adaptations are always a tricky thing. Film and literature are two different mediums that require different methods to tell a story. I don't think anybody would expect a film maker to slavishly reproduce the exact story of a book whilst turning it into a film. On the other hand, change too much and you cease to be making a true adaptation.
Where does 'John Carter' stand? Personally, I found it an extremely loose adaptation and an otherwise mixed bag. Names of characters and places are the same, many individual scenes have their origins in the books, and the creatures and overall world are reasonably accurate. Unfortunately it sort of ends there. The story has been changed so much with Hollywood clichés that it only vaguely resembles the general thrust of the original novel. If you boil them both down to “Boy travels to alien world, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy fights to save girl from forced marriage to evil villain.”, then yes, they do have the same overall plot. Go beyond that, and things start to systematically fall apart.
The worst of all, is the complete loss of the characters themselves. Names and general background may be the same, but they are otherwise often different. John Carter himself is utterly changed. In the novel, he is an individual clearly searching for meaning and purpose, never quite at home on Earth. When he ends up on Mars (Or Barsoom, depending on your preference), it is as though destiny has taken a hand. You always feel he and the Princess of the title (Dejah Thoris) were always meant to be together and that Barsoom is his true home even if not his literal one.
Carter is also a hero who loves the thrill of battle. Not that he goes out of his way to find it, but he does not shy from it either. If he must rush into battle to save the ones he loves or to fight for his principles, then he will wholeheartedly jump in against impossible odds. He is an ex-soldier of clear-cut principle and nothing will stop him rescuing his one true love.
John Carter of the film is a different creature altogether. He has become a cliché of the modern film world. The ex-soldier who has lost his family in some unknown tragedy and become cynical about life and humanity and fights for no-one. These are attempts to shoe-horn in some unnecessary 'emotional' back story, but in the process lose the core of the character. Give him a tragic past romance to overcome and you undermine the depth of the 'always meant for each other' romance. Give him a cynical lack of desire to fight for anything and you lose the sense of heroic and noble selflessness.
The writers and producers apparently wanted to give his character more of an arc, and turn his story into one of redemption. This is the first big mistake, in my eyes. It was already, in a subtle way, a tale of renewed life. John Carter found love and purpose on Mars that he lacked on Earth, but never in so typically contrived a way. I have no problems with the type of character described for the film, often perfect for many stories, but in this case it seems like a needless tacked on extra. Not to mention, in the world of modern cinema the literary John Carter is in fact a more original and rarely used heroic character, rather than the stereotypical brooding and grudging hero.
The director of 'John Carter' is Andrew Stanton, known for directing Disney's 'Finding Nemo' and 'Wall-E'. This is his first live action film, and unfortunately it shows. With real actors, you can't make the broad and general strokes that work with animation. Here things feel rushed for the action scenes, and it sorely required more time to establish the characters.
His portrayal of the lead character is also marred by going over-the-top. Yes, John Carter was meant to be incredibly powerful and capable of jumping great heights in the books, due to the lower gravity of Mars. However, in the film these elements are taken to absurd extremes. Carter is able to practically fly and can be thrown around with barely a scratch. It stretches the story from being about an incredibly skilled but very human hero with a few advantages that save him from time to time, into a bouncing superman.
Stanton is supposedly a huge fan of the novels, but you wouldn't know it from the film. He appears to be one of those film makers who believes they know better than an author who's work has been popular and loved for a hundred years. Some of his statements in interviews imply that because the novels weren't considered Pulitzer prize winning works of greatness, they are open for drastic alteration. Forget the fact that these novels have out-sold and out-lasted any number of prize winners for a hundred years, and also influenced many of the greatest science fiction authors and film makers of the past century.
I'll try and stop myself going off on a tangent about all of the alterations, suffice to say they lose much of the impact of the novels. There are two major points I will make, though. The first three books form a trilogy with two key themes. Race and Religion. These are not at the first book's core, but would become prominent if sequels were made.
Stanton has changed the Red Men of Mars to people with silly red tattoos (He claims, in an era where they can do practically anything with CGI, that the red make-up was too difficult). In the books, Mars has a variety of skin colours which all have their own agendas and beliefs. The Red Men are seen by John Carter to be, in many ways, the most noble and wonderful race of humanoid Martians because they are meant to be a mixture of all colours, exemplifying the greatness of the other races combined.
Then we have the Therns. The film has turned them into planet-hopping shape-shifting aliens, and as such they can no longer serve the purpose they had in the books. Not only did they contribute to the themes of race, but also religion. The Therns were worshipped by the Red Martians, but revealed by John Carter to be false gods and in fact merely another race of mortals. The changes not only negate these points, but negate another overall storyline involving a different race in the second and third books (Which is when the Therns were introduced anyway, not in book one).
So Stanton's changes have not only altered less important elements, but rendered the core themes either impossible or at the very least drastically limited their potential impact and meaning. As for the replacement-plot, removing the elements that were borrowed from Burroughs, it makes what should be straight forward feel contrived and vague.
What, you may ask, actually works? Woola, John Carter's faithful Martian hound, is probably the closest character to the original, such as he is (Though he should look less cuddly and cute). Tars Tarkas, the leader of the Green Martians isn't too far removed. Other than that, the characters are either quite unlike their originals, or get so little screen time that they have no chance to shine anyway.
Parts of the opening scenes, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs reading his uncle's journal and John Carter discovering the Thark (the Green Martians) hatchery are extremely good, and give a real inkling of how the film could have been.
The design work is excellent in places, often visually at least capturing the correct atmosphere. The acting is for the most part quite good, although the lead, Taylor Kitsch (X-Men Origins:Wolverine, The Covenant), is unfortunately the worst actor and rather uncharismatic. Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins:Wolverine) neither disappoints nor impresses as 'the greatest beauty of two worlds', Dejah Thoris.
The soundtrack by Michael Giacchino (The new Star Trek, Super 8) is functional but forgettable. He is not a bad soundtrack composer, but he is yet to create anything that I have found noteworthy, even for films like 'Super 8' that I greatly enjoyed. You certainly won't come away humming the theme tune.
The direction and script are serviceable for the most part but rarely capture the grandeur or epic sensibilities required. For all his perceived flaws, George Lucas could run circles around Andrew Stanton in these departments. It just goes to show that directing animated movies does not always translate into an ability to direct real people and real action.
Stanton has created not so much of an adaptation, as a film 'inspired by' the book, and it is all the weaker for it. Some critics have complained about the convoluted plot and strange names and species. I had not such problems, as there is nothing that complicated going on. Unfortunately, understanding the plot is not its biggest problem.
The most frustrating and disappointing thing about this film is not so much what it was, but what it could have been. I think that if I had never read the books, I would have enjoyed it more, without being especially impressed. Unfortunately I know how amazing this could have been. I suspect Stanton enjoyed the books when younger, but was one of those people who sits there thinking “If I'd written them, I'd have done this, and changed that...” That's fine if you go away and use that enthusiasm to write your own story. Stanton didn't.
I'm giving this a five, mainly for the sometimes excellent effects and design work and the hints of what could have been. For anyone interested, I would seriously advise reading the original book/s.
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