No, Virginia

John Carter is not a movie adaptation of A Princess of Mars, and that’s my biggest problem with it.

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John Carter is a much, much better movie than last year’s Green Lantern, but watching it, I felt the same frustration: why take a perfectly compelling, time-tested pulp story and then choose to tell it in the most convoluted way possible?

A former Confederate soldier, now prospecting in the west and on the run from Apaches, stumbles into a cave. He’s mysteriously transported to Mars, where he’s captured by a tribe of Martians and kept as a pet. He earns the respect of the Martians, rescues and falls in love with a beautiful princess, and then leads his former captors in battle to save the princess’s people. After his victory, he’s unwillingly transported back to Earth and forced to find a way back.

That’s gold. It’s what’s kept a story relevant enough to want to film it almost one hundred years later. It’s what inspired a direct rip-off character that has itself become a classic. I’d pay to see that story. In fact, I did pay to see that story.

What I got, though, was: an airship battle between warring city-states, interrupted by a trio of weird god-like men with a magic weapon. Then a tedious and unnecessary narration. Then a spy chase through the streets of 19th century Manhattan. Then a needlessly drawn-out version of Edgar Rice Burrough’s original framing story. Followed by an extended sequence that over-complicates the set-up of Carter’s trip to Mars, which I’m guessing was intended to introduce Carter as some type of post-Civil-War bad-ass.

When we finally get to Mars, the rest of the movie is an attempt to combine A Princess of Mars with its sequel, The Gods of Mars. That means introducing the Tharks, infighting and family intrigue among the Tharks, a friendly dog, an ongoing war between Zodanga and Helium (the spray-tan humanoid species of Mars, distinguished only by red or blue flags), the Therns, the goddess Issus and the river Is, blue light, white apes, arena battles, airships, a wedding, and a final bit of subterfuge at Carter’s tomb.

And since that wasn’t quite enough, they added a bit of backstory in the form of Cowboys and Aliens-style flashbacks to Carter’s wife and daughter.

I’ve read reviews that called it “confusing” and “incoherent.” It’s not really confusing, since the story’s easy enough to follow once it settles down into a linear narrative. It’s just that so much of it is unnecessary. It tries to tell too much story, which results in none of the story having enough time to make a significant impact.

In A Princess of Mars, the lack of explanation for how Carter traveled from Earth to Mars made it intriguing, and it made his relationship with the princess Dejah Thoris and his new homeworld of Barsoom more poignant. Using characters from the sequel to try and explain it just takes all the mystery out of it, turning it into a typical hero vs. villain story.

In the original, there’s a real sense of discovery as Carter adjusts to life on Mars and his new “powers” there. Carter proves himself a hero for learning the ways of his captors, not just for being able to jump really high on account of the reduced gravity. He learns their language. The green Martians Tars Tarkas and Sola become genuine characters with interesting relationships. The movie, though, just skims over all the development of the green Martians, jumping from one moment to the next as if to get back to the Gods of Mars as quickly as possible. Because, I guess, a bunch of bald white guys in silver suits are more interesting than 15-foot-tall, six-limbed green aliens? Later, though, the movie presents what are supposed to be dramatic moments of resolution with the green Martians, but they all feel hollow since none of them were earned.

Also most of Rome is in the cast, for some reason. I suppose casting Caesar and Mark Antony made practical sense, since we already knew they looked good in Roman military uniforms. (I’m guessing that Posca came along as a cast-two-get-one-free deal). All it did for me was remind me how well Rome was able to compress so much history into a miniseries and still have the dramatic moments feel meaningful.

I’m not sure why filmmakers would take a pulp story or comic as their source material and then attempt to change up the narrative. Embellish it, streamline it, or make it more contemporary, sure. But these stories are long-lasting because they work as narratives, not just as concepts or jumping-off points.

And incidentally: I’d like to plead with filmmakers to stop using narration already! If you have to have someone narrating the setting and premise of your story, then that’s a sure sign you’re just not telling the story well. It always does more harm than good — even if you don’t trust your audience to follow what’s going on, how can you possibly expect 60 seconds of a guy talking about Barsoom, Zodanga, and Helium is going to help?

I hate being dismissive of John Carter. It doesn’t deserve the beating it’s getting from critics, many of whom are going in biased against a pulp story. And it definitely has its moments. The arena scene is impressive, as is Carter’s battle against an army of green Martians. Every scene with the dog is fantastic. There’s genuine humor throughout. The costume and set design are extremely well done. The creature CG is believable, even though none of Carter’s jumping shots work. The airships are impressive, and there are moments of genuine excitement in a couple of the battles as Carter leaps from one ship to the next. And the finale is a satisfying reversal that improves on the original.

In fact, there are enough scenes in John Carter to make a couple of really good movies. The problem comes from trying to mash them all together into one. I’m guessing that they wanted to beef up the story with enough action and battle scenes to launch the franchise with a bang. The problem is that by trying to mash together Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars into one movie, instead of letting them play out as sequels, they’ve all but guaranteed that a sequel won’t get traction.

2 thoughts on “No, Virginia”

  1. Long live pulp! I’m still waiting for a version of Conan thats true to Robert E. Howard’s barbarian. Revenge for killing his father…I don’t think so.

    1. I guess that’s even more unlikely now after the last Conan movie (deservedly) tanked.

      It’d be a shame for it to happen to the Barsoom franchise, since there’s still a lot of good stuff in John Carter.

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