"I've talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon." -- Ray Bradbury, Listen to the Echoes, 2010.In my morning ghosting about the interwebs, I happened upon an article forecasting a disaster come March 9 and the release of the first tentpole movie of the year, John Carter. The Daily Beast (story here) first describes the doubts about the picture's success, then goes on to talk about its troubled history and clashing expectations. Followers of this blog know that I am trying to maintain optimism about the movie (first and second posts), but finding an article like this eviscerates the hopes that I have and strengthens my convictions that the production and marketing of the movie didn't have a unified vision of what they wanted to accomplish. I readily admit to not having much background in marketing, especially in Hollywood, but if the inside view that The Daily Beast describes is accurate, then it fulfills the worst of my ruminations about the decisions being made for the movie.
But also in my daily interwebs search, I found the quote by Ray Bradbury at the top of this article, describing something that I knew in my heart of hearts but didn't have the evidence to defend—John Carter and the Barsoom books are wildly popular…to a certain set of people. Maybe even two sets of people. The first are folks with connections to the sciences and thus perhaps already predisposed to enjoying science fiction, a genre to which the Barsoom books tangentially belong. Unfortunately, fans of science fiction don't necessarily make up a large proportion of the paid audiences of movies. For John Carter to be considered a success, it has to find a mainstream audience beyond those stereotypically referred to as geeks (even if geek is currently chic). Think of the biggest "science fiction" movie successes—Star Wars and Avatar. There are many similarities between those movies and the story behind John Carter, so the potential has always been there to make a strong movie. But you have to convince a mildly curious audience to care about the characters and their worlds, or else the movie is going to flop. And that kind of distinction requires a unified effort on the part of everyone involved with the movie.
The second audience that the Bradbury quote describes is ten year-olds, and it's a telling detail. I first read A Princess of Mars, the first Barsoom book, when I was seven or eight years old. I promptly fell in love with it and had to have all eleven books in the series. And because of my love for it, I often talk about it with people I meet who profess an interest in science fiction. Those conversations raise a fascinating pattern—people who approach the books between the ages of seven and twelve really love the book in the way that everyone loves the best memories of their childhood, but people who try to read the books as adults are put off by its childishness and simplicity. And perhaps even more striking is that the women I've talked to generally don't like the books much at all, at any age.
It's the very nature of the sub-genre of planetary romance to be relatively simplistic. In another post, I described the subgenre like so:
Planetary romance is a sub-genre of speculative fiction that deals with exotic planets and attempts at human interaction on them. The standard plot of planetary romance is that the traveler spends about half the story learning about life and survival on the exotic planet and then is faced with a crisis, usually having to do with his continued existence in the exotic locale—sometimes the protagonist must fight to remain at his new home and sometimes the hero must fight just to survive. For the reader, the strength of these stories is the detail that goes into the world-building, the creation of an alien biology that is both marvelous and consistent at the same time. Often, the exotic environment becomes a character in its own right.The plots of these kinds of stories are almost interchangeable, but the best of them spend more time with world-building than with character development and interaction. Fans of Barsoom are fortunate that the series is eleven books long, giving John Carter space to become a more fully rounded character than is usual with his sort. But we can't confuse breadth of experience with filling out the character—Carter and his family have amazing adventures on Mars, but he remains essentially very flat.
I think the problem is that, at his root, the protagonist John Carter is nothing but a ten year-old boy in a man's body. He leaves Earth in a strange fashion only to arrive on Barsoom completely unclothed, naked and ignorant as a newborn babe. He succeeds madly there not because of intelligence or wit or charm, but because Barsoom's gravity makes him that much stronger and faster than the inhabitants. Every ten year-old boy dreams of physical superiority, and John Carter lives that dream. Nothing makes the point about Carter's puerile character better than his halting relationship with Dejah Thoris. His desperate desire to be near her but complete inability to say anything in her presence is a pinpoint description of when a boy first notices a girl he likes.
I'm pounding on these details because it emphasizes the issues that anyone making a movie out of the novels has to deal with: ten year-old boys and people who used to be ten year-old boys love the stories. And that kind of audience is not going to justify the huge amounts of money put into the movie. Star Wars and Avatar had a similar prebuilt audience, but their marketing was fairly straightforward compared to how John Carter tries to portray itself. The first attempt was to make it a romance picture—two people from different worlds (literally!) try to come together as they wage a desperate battle against….what? And here is another flaw in the marketing of the movie. Who the heck is John Carter fighting anyway? Sometimes they appear green with tusks, sometimes they look just like him. There is no real indication of the conflict, just that there's a whole lot of it. Us former ten year-old boys know what's going on, but if you don't know the books, the trailers are a puzzling combination of images more about the grandiosity of it all without paying much attention to that little thing called plot. And perhaps that was a serious consideration in the marketing plans—special effects do seem to sell better than good stories.
My guarded optimism is waning; nonetheless, I am taking a vacation day to see the movie maybe even twice, trying to wear different personae as I view it. My problem is that I can't not see it; not only do I love the books, but in many ways, A Princess of Mars may be the most important book in my reading history, in that it was the first time I struck out on my own and found something beyond what my teachers told me to read. That simple little novel set off not only a lifelong love of speculative fiction but also of reading and books in general. In fact, when I see the movie, I'm told I'm going to have my own audience: Mrs. Speculator and a friend who intends to go with us have both said they are as interested in watching me watch the movie as they are the action on the screen itself. I'm just hoping I don't feel compelled to give them their money's worth….