Monday, September 26, 2011

Andrew Stanton's John Carter - Barsoom finally comes to the big screen

Dickens, Dumas, Austen, Bronte, Kipling, Blake. These names conjure images of stories from bygone era’s that are well known, and have been printed, reprinted, annotated, reprinted again, and fawned over by generations of readers and teachers. What do they all have in common? These are authors that lived a very long time ago, and wrote stories that captivate even today, but while they wrote stories of a mostly contemporary nature (Dicken’s and Kipling arguably being the most “genre” of all those mentioned) there is one man who wrote something…a little different.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. The man who invented a legend called TARZAN, first came up with a little story about a displaced Civil War soldier who, while prospecting for gold in the Arizona wilderness, is wounded by Natives. Instead of dying, he leaves his corporeal body on earth and travels to Mars (known as Barsoom to its inhabitants) where he has super strength and superhero leaping abilities. Written in 1917, the trilogy A PRINCESS OF MARS, THE GODS OF MARS, and THE WARLORD OF MARS, is not only great pulp fiction, but also a seminal Planetary Romance.

Having only read them for the first time about 2 years ago, I fell instantly in love with them. They have become a favourite of mine (that I am currently re-reading) and continue to astound me for books that were written almost 100 years ago.

I wanted to talk about the series today for one major reason. Disney and Andrew Stanton (Academy Award winner, director of films like FINDING NEMO and WALL*E) have shot a film version of the first book, which is to be called JOHN CARTER. Let’s leave aside my own preliminary thoughts on that for a moment and focus on the reaction of the fickle, fickle Internet.

Back in July, various news and rumour sites were given access to some behind the scenes creature maquettes, rough footage and even the proper trailer (which has been released to us lowly serfs as well now). They had unabashed access to the director himself who answered their questions as best he could (without spoiling things). The moaning that began after these reports and the subsequent trailer dropping, the audience reading these articles or watching this footage fall into 3 categories:

1. People who have never heard of John Carter or Burroughs work before.
2. People who HAVE heard of his work before, enjoy it, know the books and are objectively viewing the trailer.
3. People who are die-hard fans of his work, and are more than a little disgruntled.

Let’s talk about People 1. These people are the kind that I saw commenting on Movie Rumour sites that posted the trailer, or straight up YouTube commentors. These people are too busy (read: silly) to look up anything about a movie before they open their maws. They haven’t the foggiest clue that this is based on a book series written nearly 100 years ago, nor that any subsequent movie since then (AVATAR coming clearly to mind) about a human being displaced into an alien society is a crib of Burroughs' idea. So you can imagine the amount of people saying idiotic things like, he looks like He-Man, or wow this looks like a rip-off of AVATAR, or what is this Conan? He-Man’s (invented in the 1980’s) outfit is a clear copy of the classic John Carter outfit on Barsoom, and even better it has a purpose within the story. The outfit Taylor Kitsch is wearing actually looks like a fair representation of the outfit in the book series. The AVATAR rip-off comment is my favourite form of idiocy demonstrated by the uninformed, simply because AVATAR cribbed not only from Burroughs work but also a number of other sources. The Conan comment is ridiculous and just showcases the fact that some people on this planet see sand and barbarian and can only think of Conan. Their brilliance knows no bounds. I’m not asking for deep knowledge of the subject matter, but if you are going to make off the cuff comments about a piece of media, you should probably inform yourself enough to not make an ass of yourself by not having a clue what you are disparaging.

People 2. Now these are the ones that I belong to. I love the books, and yet I understand the daunting task of bringing them to the big screen. I have seen enough movies based on books to know that “homage” is not only proper, but required in some cases. When a movie follows a book’s source material too closely, you get films like SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, or THE LINCOLN LAWYER which may be technically achieved, but are ultimately a complete narrative mess. Books and Movies are completely different animals and always should be. What’s the major complaint about the first two HARRY POTTER films, aside from being more child-like to its successor films? That they were a little too slavish to the source material and the resultant films, while good, are by no means anywhere near the quality of films 3-7. Films 3-7 took a lot of liberties with the source material. While they didn’t change major plot points, they changed certain character arcs or ideas, or even designs. They got rid of things that messed with movie pacing (movie pacing and book pacing are completely different) and added other sequences to ramp up the action and spectacle. A film should based on a book should always be “homage” and should never follow the source material slavishly. If you want the source material to make its way onto the screen EXACTLY how it is in the books, then why not just READ THE BOOKS.

This brings me to People 3. The die-hard fans that are acting disgruntled. I have been to no less than 4 websites with column writers who commented on the various behind the scenes things, and the trailer. Those were the sites that prompted me to write this post. These “fans” claim that there is no one who wants to see the films succeed and be awesome more than they…while they piss on the preliminary footage for not being EXACTLY like the books. One site mentioned that Barsoom looked too much like an earth desert, that the added “realism” RUINS the backdrop of the books outlandishness. I’m not sure what books they were reading, but in my copies the desert of the Barsoomian landscape looks reddish but is still very much like ours on earth. It’s not like Carter looks around when he first awakens there and thinks “My god! Everything is red and the foliage is yellow, and this is so strange!” No. He notices the yellow foliage, but other than that he just goes about his investigation of the landscape. The yellow foliage which BTW makes an appearance in the trailer. These “fans” complain about things like the shortening of the name to just be JOHN CARTER (it was originally JOHN CARTER OF MARS)…a complaint I can’t fathom at all, since the original source material is titled A PRINCESS OF MARS anyways. Is it that they think JOHN CARTER doesn’t put the right point across? That’s an odd thought, since I am a fan I know what the movie is about, and non-fans will see the trailer and know it is about a guy named John Carter who ends up on an alien planet. That’s probably the silliest complaint I’ve read. Over at io9 the poster of the article about the name change called it a bad idea and started to talk about he movie distancing itself from a sci-fi sounding name. That’s LUDICROUS…why? Because the trailer shows that it is in fact sci-fi 10 seconds in, so it would make zero sense for that to have been the reason Disney changed the name. Beyond that:

Newsflash to these so-called “fans” IT’S A MOVIE TITLE. It will NOT effect the final product WHATSOEVER.

These are the same moaners who are saying things like the Helium hovercraft’s don’t look right, Dejah Thoris has red tattooing instead of being actually red, it looks too much like Arizona and not Mars, or it’s doesn’t look alien or outlandish enough ect. These nitpicking complaints drive me right around the bend. The hovercraft are an homage (and everyone seems to think they are covered, they aren’t, you can see the open deck of one in the trailer if you pay attention). The backdrop looks like a desert because…hey it’s a DESERT. What would you rather? You want them to digitally paint the backdrop in every scene? Yes, because that would look realistic and not silly at all. I think my favourite complaint from this sect of “fan” is the Dejah Thoris complaint. But how much stock ought I put into a movie website where the newsperson who posted the complaint about the body tattooing charmingly (and no less ridiculously) called it a “full body tramp stamp”. There is so much wrong with that statement, beginning with the definition of such a term not fitting into a tattoo that covers the body, the derogatory nature of even using the phrase, and ending with not understanding the idea of cultural body tattoos (which we have here on earth as well). Or how about the fact that the preliminary art shows the rest of the red martians (males and females) from Helium having similar red tattoo art on their bodies. Again a person claiming to report accurate notions and not having the first clue of what they are speaking. As to the complaint about her skin colour, in the books her skin is described as being having a copper/burnished hue…so let me say this loud and clear…she’s NOT REALLY RED. In fact every illustrator or artist who has ever drawn her has shows her as simply being a scantily clad, tanned hottie, in some cases she’s even shown as pale for some reason. The amount of so-called “fans of the books” that think that the red martians are actually RED astounds me. So here we have Lynn Collins playing the role of Dejah, dressed in the proper functional attire, tanned with a red tattooing on her body, and you know what? I think she looks FANTASTIC! A realistic, slightly tribal or imperial look with an outfit that - whilst not the non-functional, totally unrealistic metal nipple covers and crotch covers we are used to seeing in the art of her in the past - still looks quite sexy, whilst being functional and still getting across the point that Barsoomian’s don’t look at clothing as anything other than a little functional. It’s a silly complaint, and I’m convinced that SOME of these “fans” would only be pleased if Dejah Thoris was mostly buck naked and wearing the Franz Frazetta get-up (skimpy metal covers mentioned above) from her classic depiction. It would be nice if they realized that outfit is certainly not going to show up in any film that shows in a theatre that doesn’t have three x’s on a sign outside, but they won’t.

I consider myself a fan of the series, but I am not so blindly set in my ways that I can’t understand what might need changing for pacing, realism, or even character arc modifications. In fact this solidifies the name change for me as a happy accident. Since this is an homage to the source material it is JOHN CARTER, and not A PRINCESS OF MARS, so it’s quite fittingly named methinks.

Sidenote: By the way, a movie version of A PRINCESS OF MARS exists. It’s a straight-to-DVD movie that stars Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords. Yeah, you read that right, I think we should all be glad no one saw that abomination.

Basically my final thoughts are that the people who don’t know that it’s based on old source material should probably educate themselves before talking. Those that consider themselves “fans” but can’t seem to find anything to get excited about who would rather, it would seem, piss and moan about what’s NOT being DONE RIGHT in their eyes need to just relax. Continue to read the source material for the story you love, whilst trying to understand the simple notion that movies ought to never copy books exactly, as you will end up with something atrocious, incoherent and not enjoyable. The best you can hope is that a director loves the material enough to do it justice, while still behaving like a movie, not a book.

That leaves those of us - like me - who are actual fans who like what they’ve seen so far, and enjoyed the trailer and the few peeks behind the curtain. Personally I loved the trailer, the look and feel of the book series is there for me, the characters look really right to me as do the sets and props. The use of the cover of Arcade Fire's My Body Is A Cage by Peter Gabriel as the music is a stroke of genius as it perfectly lines up with the beats in the trailer.

Beyond that, I’d like to clear one thing up. The Thark that we see holding the gun at the end of the trailer is NOT Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, who’s voice we hear at the very end of the trailer) as a lot people have thought it is. It is actually the female Thark character of Sola (which is why she’s not as beefy or big as the male Tharks) who will be voiced by Samantha Morton. I'd like to point out that I absolutely LOVE the character design of the Tharks, they look EXACTLY how I imaged they would look.

I honestly don’t think I am as excited about anything else coming out next year as I am for JOHN CARTER. I hope that it will be a fitting homage to the books I love so much and I hope it succeeds enough that the two sequels are also warranted to be made down the line. Beyond all this I know that Andrew Stanton is VERY adept at telling a compelling story if his previous Pixar films are any indication.

If you haven't seen the trailer yet, please have a gander at it below:


  1. Why is He-Man fighting on Mars? And is that an Arcade Fire cover over the trailer?

    NERD RAGE!!!!!

  2. I'm in category one, but I had the good sense to Google it before I commented on the videos :P My only concern is Taylor Kitsch in this film (after Wolverine, who wouldn't be?) but I'm very much looking forward to it.

  3. Meh, I actually liked him as Gambit, but the Creole accent was bad. Still, he was one part of WOLVERINE I kind of liked.

    Glad to hear you googled it first Jaime. LOL, thus are you not a proper People 1. You can now belong to your own group of informed soldiers. :D



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