Sunday, March 11, 2012

The difference between the books and the movie: John Carter

Yesterday, I wrote what I hoped to be a fairly unbiased review of the new John Carter movie. If you are new to my blog, I should reveal that I am a lifelong fan of the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the source for John Carter. Today, I want to look at the movie again from what I am jokingly referring to as the fanboy perspective, from the point of view of someone intimately familiar with the original story, with an eye towards describing the differences in the two versions of the stories and trying to understand why those changes were made. There may be spoilers in what follows, but I don't imagine they will be so severe as to ruin either the movie-going experience or the joy of reading the novels.

I should note also that I am not going to talk about every difference between the books and the movie. I expect there to be differences—books can't be adapted verbatim, for reasons of time and storytelling. For instance, in the movie John Carter is given the name Dotar Sojat meaning "my right hand" by Tars Tarkas. In the books, Dotar and Sojat are the names of the first two warriors Carter kills and thus his Barsoomian name. There is not a lot of value explicating this; the writers used a name from the source, which often is enough to get a giddy sigh from the fans of the original work, and they are able to suitably adapt the name to add more meaning to the story they are trying to tell. In this case, we don't have to have pages of Carter and Tars Tarkas fighting together to see that they build up trust and friendship between them, the movie spares the viewer time by having Tars Tarkas announce his dependence on his new comrade, by naming him "my right hand."

One detail in the books that make even their fans grimace is the method by which John Carter travels from Earth to Mars. Frankly said, the reader has no idea how it happens and neither does John Carter:
As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination—it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron.
My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of though through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness. (A Princess of Mars)
…and John Carter opens his eyes on the planet Mars. But using this method in the movie would bring hoots of derision and monumental eye-rolling from critics—Carter got to Mars by wishing himself there? Instead, the screenwriters take other elements of the story and expand them to fill their need: the priest class of Barsoom has the ability to travel between the planets and Carter stumbles across one of their way stations in the Arizona desert and is accidentally transported to Mars. This method is more palatable to a mainstream audience and also opens the door to further plot development, allowing this priestly class, the Therns, to become the overarching villains of the story and provide a threat that could support a franchise of movies. Also, by couching the plot change in terms familiar to the audience familiar with the books, the screenwriters placate that same audience somewhat. Thus the story change maximizes the benefit to novice viewers and minimizes the pain for fans of the books, deriving the most advantage overall.

Of course, it could be argued that the movie could have remained true to Edgar Rice Burroughs's original vision, but that would have pushed the movie closer to an independent sort of movie, one suitable for art houses. Filmed that way, John Carter could have become a cult favorite on the art house circuit though the odds on that happening are pretty long and the profits pretty small, especially when compared to a potential movie franchise. Just by choosing to go the blockbuster route, the crew narrowed down the parameters of the kind of story they could tell.

Another fairly big change which worked pretty well for the movie was in the character of Dejah Thoris. Bearing in mind that the original novel, A Princess of Mars, was published in 1912 and was generally intended for an audience of boys and young men, Dejah Thoris as written is really not more than a plot point. She's beautiful and in need of rescuing, giving John Carter a reason for his subsequent actions. Burroughs makes it clear that she is smart and well-trained in swordplay, making her something more than just an ornament, a model of the strong woman that Carter needs by his side, but she isn't developed very far as a character in that first book. In the movie, however, Dejah Thoris is not only smart but something of an academic (Carter refers to her regularly as "professor") and still also a swordswoman, capable of not only defending herself but engaging in witty banter as she does so. Modern audiences would have been disturbed if Dejah Thoris was as flatly portrayed as she is written, and given that a potential franchise needs support across all demographics, a solid female role model can only help, especially in the young girl and teen girl segments. And frankly, it's pretty hard to read Dejah Thoris without wincing at the stereotypical portrayal of her from the time period. This updated version seems a much better match for John Carter, especially to audiences with experience with relationships, which the intended audience for the books surely never had. I freely admit to being totally messed up into my 20s about how men and women relate in part because my first impression of it came from the Burroughs books.

But on the other hand, the attempt to make John Carter himself more accessible to mainstream audiences doesn't work so well. In the books, Carter is a stoic warrior, a man of few words and little humor, but generally radiating charisma. He is the greatest swordsman of two worlds, unbeaten and unbeatable. But that sort of uber-competence doesn't work with movie-going audiences; for some reason, we want to see our heroes with flaws. The plot goes out of its way to demonstrate his ability as a fighter and his ability to strategize in its time in the Arizona desert, but then, somehow, Carter seems to forget most of it when he gets to Barsoom. The movie's John Carter is somewhat impatient and selfish, traits that belong nowhere near the character as he is written. The books' John Carter fights on Barsoom because he sees injustice and because he can make a difference, and while the movie's John Carter ultimately arrives at the same determination, it takes a lot of work to get him there. And while it may make his character more accessible, it also makes him weaker and distinctly less heroic.

One difference that was somewhat mixed in its success was the portrayal of Woola. The novels make it clear that Woola, a beast called a calot and the Barsoomian analog of a dog, is perhaps John Carter's most steadfast companion on Barsoom, the archetype of the doting watchdog. When John Carter shows appreciation, even affection, when Woola originally leaps to his defense, Woola commits himself to Carter's protection, never wanting to leave his side. The movie does a decent job of showing this, but then takes it perhaps a bit too far by making Woola a comic bit. First, Woola is ugly, described in Burroughs's writing as nothing so much as frog the size of a Shetland pony but with ten legs. The movie plays up the ugliness by letting us see often into Woola's hideous mouth, wherein is hidden his huge blue tongue. Being a faithful dog, the movie pulls out the stereotype that dogs apparently are incapable of life without drooling and slobbering over their owners, and it is made that much funnier by the dog using its huge blue tongue to show its affection for John Carter. And while calots are fast animals in the books, in the movie, Woola runs at ridiculous speed, leaving trails of dust behind it as though it were more Barsoomian roadrunner than dog. I understand why this relatively minor change was made—Woola offers some levity and appeal to a younger audience, and cynically, if it succeeds, then perhaps every child will want a stuffed Woola—but the actual carrying out of this change becomes grating to the adult audience. But the vision and conception of the beast feel dead on; the movie just pushes what passes for personality a trifle too far.

There is one fairly large change that I have no explanation for; I can neither figure it out from a writerly point of view nor from a marketing one. The main conflict of the movie is between the two city-states of Helium and Zodanga. For some reason, the plot of the movie requires that Zodanga be a mobile city, basically a city that walks on tremendous legs all over the planet. While it has a gee whiz factor and is impressive in the idea of it, the fact that Zodanga is a walking city has no bearing on the story of the movie at all, and very little time is spent there, so that there are no long scenes of the city to wow the audience. This one just feels like change for change's sake.

So, ultimately, I generally understand why the writers changed what they did to make the movie more accessible. I can accept them though in some cases I don't really like them very much. That's the trouble with the devoted (some might say "obsessed") fan; I really wanted to see the books that Burroughs wrote in cinema. But that movie would have even worse reception than what the one we have has received. And it is the very rare moviemaker who can ignore cost and income in pursuit of a vision.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for you examination and explanation. Well received, informative and appreciated from this humble reader

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  2. Very well analysed, i agree with all of your points. I appreciated the chance to see my favourite books transposed into a movie, expecting it to be different. I accept the disney humour, the modern Dejah Thoris (maybe sometimes a little too laracroft-ish) and the talisman/portal. Two things I found disturbing were the godly Therns (nothing like the original false prophets)and the hi-tech Iss temple. Thanks again for the review.

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  3. Interesting review. I couldn't understand why they changed the first part of the film with Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) capturing Carter, and them both running from the Indians, rather than keeping that more similar to the book, as you said, it seemed change for change sake. Though I was somewhat familiar with the book, heck, even I got lost at times.

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  4. Thank you very much fFor this illuminating view on the differences between the two works. Very informative!

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  5. Thank you. This was a good blog.

    I read 'Princess of Mars' and am reading the 'Gods of Mars' now. But i did not find the - 'Ock ohem ocktei wies - Barsoom' the magic saying which transports John.

    That was made in the movie, huh?

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  6. Good analysis. I agree with most of your points. It's disappointing that there only appear to be 2 cities on the entire planet, and each of them is about the size of few city blocks. For $250M, they should have done some bigger shots. The "walking city" thing was silly and unnecessary. The White Apes were way too big, which made an earlier comment about Carter being a possible hybrid of white ape and red man completely ridiculous, but they did make good arena monsters. Woola was a little too cute, but I loved him all the same. After all, there was not much humour in the books.

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  7. Somehow, the writer morphed "My right armS" into "My right hand".

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  8. I recently (after 75 years) decided to read the Barsoom series. And of course I watched "John Carter" the movie. I have to say I see ERB as a sci fi/fantasy genius of a hundred years back. I am now a fan! Of course, you can't reduce a novel into a two-hour movie without lots of plot changes and story line cuts, but I think this movie fit the bill about as well as it could have. I agree, though, that substituting the cavalry officer for Carter's prospecting companion made no sense, except to create a little initial tension in the script. Movies made fro novels almost always disappoint ("Raise the Titanic" and a couple of the Jurassic Park books, for example.) Although I found "Field of Dreams to be more enjoyable than the book "Shoeless Joe." But I digress. I am a fan of ERB, long may his novels be read! (I just downloaded his complete works onto my Kindle, although I might not like the Tarzan series as much as Barsoom.

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  9. He imagined many things that we have since developed, but one that really impressed me was how he imagined--100 years ago--invisibility as bending light rays to obscure an object and show what lies behind it instead. Right on with current technology of invisibility cloaking!

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