It wasn’t until 1980 that Disney acquired the rights to the book and approached John McTiernan (Die Hard) to direct and Tom Cruise to star as John Carter. Realizing that the current movie magic still wasn’t up to the task of bringing Barsoom to life McTiernan exited the picture and John Carter went into limbo again.
This could have been John Carter.
Disney Studios re-acquired the rights and Pixar director Andrew Stanton was given the task of once again trying to bring this Martian epic to life. Stanton was a professed Burroughs fan and always wanted to see the Barsoom stories on the silver screen, so what went wrong?
The lame title for one.
publishing company decided to later collect the stories in novel form and title it A Princess of Mars.
And here begins the first problem in adapting A Princess of Mars to film. The book is basically a travelogue of adventures with no main plot or story structure, John Carter arrives on Mars, has exciting adventures and that’s about it. That’s a pretty simple format and as a monthly serial this works great but as a two hour movie not so much, so Andrew Stanton and the folks at Disney had their work cut out for them. How do you remain faithful to the source material but still make a structural coherent movie out of it. It’s a balancing act that many have tried and more have failed.
Another difficulty in translating a story written back in the early Twentieth Century is that audience sensibilities change, things that were wildly acceptable in 1912 may not fly so well 2012. The biggest change the movie John Carter made is that of the lovely Martian princess Dejah Thoris who in the book is your standard damsel in distress but in the movie she is a kick ass action hero and a scientist. I whole heartedly agree with this change, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris was damn awesome and she gave us a character I think worthy of starring in her own movie.
Dehah Thoris, Badass!
The movie John Carter starts off with a prologue giving the viewer a crash course history of Martian or Barsoomian politics, of how only the city of Helium stood against the evil world conquering forces of Zodanga and how for a thousand years they kept them at bay until one day the Therns, led by priest Matai Shang (Mark Strong) stepped in to offer the Zodangan’s villainous leader Sab Than (Dominic West) an ultimate weapon and a plan to marry the Princess of Helium (Lynn Collins) thus ending this destructive conflict.
The movie then jumps to Earth and we get the Forward that was in the book with young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) inheriting his Uncle’s estate and receiving the manuscript of his adventures. This section uses some elements from the book while introducing the idea that there are villains on Earth that were pursuing John Carter.
Able to leap tall plot devices in a single bound.
“Come with me if you want to live.”
John Carter: In the book John Carter is a bit of an enigma, he states he has no memory before the age of thirty and has always appeared the same, without ever aging. When we later learn that the humanoid races on Barsoom are basically immortal we start to wonder just where John Carter originally came from. That he and Dejah Thoris are able to have a child together is another clue. As to John Carter’s character in the book he is your standard stalwart hero that cannot stand by when he says an injustice, he will fight against incredible odds if he thinks someone is being wrongfully treated. His superior strength and fighting skills keep him and his friends alive on more than one occasion.
Taylor Kitsch is John Carter.
Deja Thoris: As mentioned earlier this is the one great improvement Disney makes as in the book she is your standard damsel in distress and her beauty and unbridled love for John Carter her only real character traits. In the movie she is shown to be an incredible fighter as well as a scientist, not something common in science fiction heroines. Movie Dejah Thoris is being forced into marriage with Sab Than by her father and she tries everything to get out of it, while book Dejah Thoris agrees to marry Sab Than to end the war even though her people would rather die than see their beloved princess marry for any reason other than love. I kind of like the book better here as it gives her a nice noble aspect in what was mostly a generic heroine, but overall action movie Dejah Thoris is the fuller, richer character in the end.
Lynne Collins is Dejah Thoris.
Sadly movie Tars Tarkas is given no backstory, he does have a daughter that he has kept his parentage a secret from his people as well the girl herself, but because the movie spends very little time explaining how Thark society works it doesn’t come across as that big of deal. In the book Tars Tarkas eventually challenges the Jeddak who murdered is true love and when he defeats him Tars Tarkas becomes Jeddak of the Tharks, while in the movie John Carter kills the evil Jeddak who usurped Tars Tarkas giving his friend his throne back. So basically we get another “White man is better at everything” moment.
Willem DeFoe is Tars Tarkas.
Dominoc West is Sab Than.
Matai Shang: The character of Matai Shang as portrayed in the movie has to be the greatest departure from the books, in the movie the Therns are this mysterious bald race of manipulators that move from planet to planet, controlling things from behind the scenes. They had discovered the Ninth Ray which powers their weapons and teleportation devices and its Dejah Thoris’s discovery of the Ninth Ray that has the Therns so eager to see her dead. This is not at all how the Therns operate in the book and the Ninth Ray isn’t a weapon but the very thing that operates the Atmosphere Factory which keeps Barsoom alive.
Mark Strong is Matai Shang.
White Apes in the Garden of Eden.
Fighting the plant men in the Valley of Dor.
This certainly would have made a better movie; sure a plot about generic evil guys wanting to remove smarty pants princess so they can continue to play puppet masters with a bunch of one note villains isn’t terrible, but wouldn’t an adventure where the hero exposes the world’s religion to be a giant fraud be vastly more interesting? Or maybe that’s just me.
I liked John Carter, it pays better homage to Burroughs than Lucas did in his Star Wars prequels, and it certainly didn’t deserve the box office drubbing it got, but if they had just trimmed up that terrible opening, and maybe gotten a little ballsier with the script, we could have ended up with a great franchise. As for the cast I liked pretty much every actor in their perspective roles with the possible exception of Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, now he wasn’t terrible but he just seemed a little young for the part and when standing next to James Purefoy who played the Helium soldier Kantos Kan I couldn’t help but think that Purefoy may have been the better choice to play Carter. I’m sure the writing of the characters had something to do with it but it just seemed that Purefoy was having a lot of fun with his role while Taylor as John Carter was not.
Woola, man’s best friend.
There you have it, my rather long winded diatribe on John Carter and A Princess of Mars, I hope you found it if not educational at least a little entertaining.