Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Ignominious and Perhaps Constructive Return

So I accidentally took a couple of months off from updating this blog. I had lots of things to write about—seeing Captain America and not seeing Green Lantern for instance. I've still got a rough draft describing my discoveries after watching four seasons of Babylon 5 for the first time. I've read some absolutely brilliant stuff and some other that wasn't quite so great. And of course, there's the great changeover at DC, as a new universe is about to be born and I find myself at a dreadful crossroads as I consider giving up on comics altogether or, if I keep getting them, going to an electronic format. In fact, two weeks from today, DC's new universe starts and, for now, I'll be participating in it.

At the highest level, I needed a break in order to recharge the writing cells. I found myself reading sequels of books and struggling to find something interesting to say about them. But even worse, I found that I was reading in order to write about what I was reading rather than for the pure joy of reading. I never made it to a tenure-track position at an institute of higher learning, so I can only imagine that this feeling as I was reading—this ongoing critical conversation in my mind that was sucking the joy out of what I was reading—might have been what those teachers go through. And over a month and a half, I actually read a great deal and saw some fun movies, but I just absorbed them and was readerly more than critical. And it was good. I think I learned some things in this time, and I hope that as I pick up the writing mantle again, I can try to maintain a separation between those two states, or at least tone down the critic until the reader has had his say.

And so I return with what has become known as a "WTF? moment."

If I haven't made it clear elsewhere, I am a huge fan of the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I own pretty much every book the man ever wrote outside of the Tarzan series, and the first science fiction novel I read was A Princess of Mars. I return to it every few years, and it rekindles the joy that I felt upon my first discovery of it. Those books have become a kind of touchstone for me as I use them to evaluate the readings and thoughts of fellow readers of science fiction and fantasy (I'm reminded of what became cliché in military movies, but instead of asking the potential spy who won last year's World Series, I ask them their opinion of Edgar Rice Burroughs). You can imagine that I was therefore tremendously excited by the idea of a movie based on these books, and even more so with the later reports that it would be directed by Andrew Stanton, whose movies include Wall-E and Finding Nemo and the screenplay was coming from Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Chabon. I felt certain that these big-time names would have the cachet to keep the movie true to its roots and not try to modernize it or go too far away from the source material…you know, like David Lynch's Dune or the dreaded Starship Troopers.

The first bit of worry came when they changed the working name from A Princess of Mars to John Carter. Such a move doesn't make a lot of sense to me from a marketing perspective: they took an iconic name that would resonate with fans of the books and would give some idea of what was going on to people who did not know the story and changed it to a name that has very little meaning at all. A movie entitled John Carter could be about pretty much anything at all. The next bits of worry came from the casting—the actors playing the lead roles, those of Dejah Thoris and John Carter, seemed way too young in my mind. But I had seen no pictures and I had faith in the director and writers. I just had to be patient—they were going to prove me right in my faith. And then the first teaser trailer came out--

And now my worries have become very big concerns. Granted, there are some great things about the trailer in regard to its relation to the source material. The movie is apparently going to use the framing device used in the book, that the narrator is the nephew of John Carter and is told of his death at the beginning of the story, which acts as a launching point to telling Carter's story. The time period appears to be about right, and letting the terrestrial part of the story take place in the West is good too. And honestly, using Peter Gabriel's remake of Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" is just brilliant: it perfectly describes Carter's state at the end of A Princess of Mars when it says "My body is a cage that keeps me from being with the one I love."

But the trailer seems intent on making this a romantic movie, something along the lines of star-crossed lovers who can never truly be together, a la the Twilight movies. I understand that this is just the trailer, and it may be couching the movie in those terms in order to entice a wider audience, but the original novel is actually a romping adventure story with romance as a sideplot. The color palette for Mars just feels wrong, too. Barsoom is a dying civilization but it is a glorious one, filled with rich colors and architecture and jewels despite its moribund state. Certainly events take place in the desert, but in the trailer everything is just covered in dust and not very opulent at all.

And then there are the actors; they really are far too young. For instance, the description of John Carter from the novel:

He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative.

This is the description of Dejah Thoris, his beloved:

And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

John Carter is completely off (I'd always imagined Brendan Fraser or a younger Josh Brolin in this role) and while the actress portraying Dejah Thoris is "girlish" (in the later books, she loses this girlishness and is very womanly indeed), the crew made a creative choice and changed her copper skin to a henna tattoo. I've long struggled to find someone who could play Dejah Thoris—who do you get to depict the most beautiful woman of two worlds?—but I recently saw a noir movie from the 50s starring Gene Tierney. I applied some google fu and found this picture.

That is Dejah Thoris.

It certainly appears I am not the target audience for this movie. On the one hand, I know too much about the books and am not happy with the artistic decision I see being made. On the other, I may just be too old in general. And ironically, if I actually knew nothing of the books, this trailer would be that much more appealing to me. So now I wait for another trailer, hoping to show that this was just an angle for marketing, that the movie will be so much more than this trailer makes it appear to be. In a summer when Captain America is released and proves to be tremendously faithful to its outdated source material to good effect, I find I wish the same for John Carter.

1 comment:

  1. Finally, some intelligent commentary. I have read the entire Martain series (10 books) twice and A Princess of Mars three times. I also have read a dozen other Edgar Rice Burroughs books.

    When I saw a 80's film version of the book, it was a B movie and deeply disappointing. I knew that the technology and special effects had to be at a high-level to make this film true to it's story. Today it is posible, so when I heard of the John Carter movie, I was ecstatic.

    First, the trailers did not give me a rosy feeling. Just from the two that I saw, I wasn't sure they stayed true to the book.

    Second, marketing wise, the name sucked. For those who never read the book, John Carter meant nothing.

    Third, the movie itself. The Deja Thoris actress was hot and well played and John Carter was OK, except. Deja would never show up her cheiftain. She did this several times in the movie which was unforgivable. Second, more time should have been spent on his Earthly speed and strength which gave him the ability to defeat anyone on Mars. Several other important nuisances where also overlooked. Overall, only Deja's beauty saved the film for me. I tried to think of others that may have of played the role better, but I could not. I wish the writers and producers would of had a consultant who knew the book and Edgar Rice Burroughs better. Breezing through it the first time does not mean you can do it justice, as we have seen.