Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter Sucked, or Why Hollywood Thinks too Hard

Warning, there are some spoilers ahead. Of course, if you actually care about this, you probably want to know what they are, so you can avoid this film and watch it on Netflix a year from now.

I saw John Carter on Sunday. I had high-ish hopes. I knew the plot was changed from the original Princess of Mars, but I also have an understanding of the differences between print and film and why certain changes have to be made. Unfortunately, many changes were made for No Reason At All. And this is what annoys me, folks. Hollywood buys up these classic stories, stories that have stood the test of time for generations and spawn whole genres, and then Hollywood screws with them because they fear the original idea "won't test well" or some nonsense.

This is the same major issue I had with this summer's Conan the Barbarian remake/reboot/whatever. REH wrote plenty of great material on Conan, and you could have even adapted some Kull material, or a blend of material from some of his other stories.  But no.  Despite eighty years of success and generations of loyal fans, we throw any vestige of a Howardian story out the window in favor of something completely fabricated by a committee of people only vaguely aware of Howard's works.  What you're left with is something that has little to do with Howard's Conan and more to do with, I dunno, a Hercules & Xena remake. This isn't to say Milius' Conan stuck any closer to a Howardian plot, but hey, how about that Orchestral score by Basil Poledouris? Badass.

While John Carter in theory keeps a little closer to ERB's original story, the changes that are made make it, if anything, even more frustrating to watch. Rather than just throw out the entire plot and come up with something completely different, the moviemakers decided to shuffle a deck of plot points and, seemingly at random, throw them out in favor of new or altered ideas.  Here is where the spoilers come along, folks.  You've been warned.

First, the need for a magical techno-amulet gizmo to send Carter to Mars was stupid. In the book, its a creepy cave, with a strange property that sends him to Mars. Why? Who knows? Who cares? That it is some sort of mystical place, shunned by the Indians, is good enough for me. But no, we have to create some kind of McGuffin in the form of this teleportation amulet, which becomes this laborious plot point throughout the movie.  Who has it? How does it work? How do we get ahold of it again? Precious minutes wasted.

Which, if I can digress, is my major problem with all these changes. If you want to change something and have a good reason, fine. But to A) change something for no good reason and B) have the change take up precious minutes of film that could be filled with more awesomeness, I get angry. There are a lot of cool adventuresome moments in A Princess of Mars that could have been put in / left in the film, but aren't, and instead, we have long, boring explanations as to how the "telegraph machine" works, or the Thern's aeons-long plan / habit of destroying world after world. Long, boring explanations that just add needless plot hooks that need to get sealed up later on in the film, wasting even more precious time.

Guess what folks! There's only one plot hook you need. John Carter, Chivalrous Southern Gentleman and Celebrated Fighting Cavalry Officer, meets Beautiful, Defiant, Spirited, Intelligent Dejah Thoris and falls in love with her, and she reciprocates that love.  Carter then battles anyone and anything that gets between him and Dejah because, you know, that whole LOVE thing. This is a formula that has worked time and time again in classic Hollywood films for generations, and yet, for some reason, we throw it out. The only thing that motivates Carter is a need to get back home, and his relationship with Dejah Thoris is, through 90% of the film, more one of annoyed quips and banter than actual fondness. Perhaps Hollywood didn't think the actors or the script could pull off a believable love story? Guess what - GET NEW TALENT. Superman fell in love with Lois Lane, right? Spider-man loves Mary Jane, so on and so forth.

Instead, we have to introduce, out of the blue, some plot element about Carter's long-dead wife and child, which prevents him from loving Dejah, or admitting he's got feelings for her. Instead he fights for her and with her in order to find out the secret of going back home, and yet, at the end of the film, he THROWS THAT AWAY because he decides Barsoom is home to him. This all cycles back around to the techno-widget at the beginning of the film which showed him the mechanism by which he traveled to Barsoom in the first place. If we had just left it as a mystical cave with strange powers, the plot would have been streamlined considerably.

Which brings me to my next major beef - the Therns. Yes, they exist in the second book, and yes, you could have had them as an element in the movie without ruining things. But instead of the leaders of a religion that hides the lie of Issus' godhood and the secret of the River Iss, they become a needlessly hyperbolic race of galactic dicks who travel through the cosmos screwing over one planet at a time, and GUESS WHAT? When they are done with Mars, EARTH IS NEXT! BUM BUM BUMMM!

Why? Why was this necessary? Why does John Carter have to get involved in all these complicated plots and sub plots and twists and turns? The original story has more than enough adventure and derring do and enough political sophistication between the Tharks and the Zodangans and the Heliumites. There doesn't need to be Yet Another Player In The Game to confuse the issue, but not only do we introduce one, we have to waste more Precious Screentime in long, drawn-out explanations of the Thern's master scheme.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

A Princess of Mars has been around for almost a hundred years, and it's probably been in print every year since it was published, and probably will continue to be until the written word dies out. The John Carter stories inspired a whole subgenre of science fiction and fantasy, the "Sword & Planet" genre, and if they aren't he best example of that genre (which I think they are), they are pretty damn close, and certainly the most epic of the Sword and Planet stories.  Like Howard's Conan, if such stories can remain popular and stand the test of time for generation after generation and spawn whole genres of fiction, why Hollywood needs to go in there and screw with things is beyond me.  Yes, sometimes changes need to be made.  Making the Green Men only a foot or two taller than Carter, rather than 12-15 feet tall, made sense for the purpose of making a film. Trimming down or finding another way to handle a lot of the explanation scenes that take place in the first third or so of A Princess of Mars was probably necessary, although you could debate the way they did it.

But there was nothing at all wrong with the basic plot of the novel, and not only was it changed for no good reason that I could see, the changes that were made not only made the story more complex and confusing, the changes wasted time because they needed to be explained. Without the amulet, there was no need for them to travel down the River Iss, there was no need to waste all that screentime with the magical map of the solar system, there was no need to involve the Therns, there was no need for the pretty stupid "bait" ending to the film. You probably could have harvested back a good 40+ minutes of the movie (oh, yes, the beginning of the film with the Cavalry and the Indians, also needlessly complicated), which could have been used to show more ass-kicking adventure. Instead, everything felt so rushed, so briefly touched upon, that even the more kick-ass moments were rushed past because there was another plot element we had to get through.

So at the end of the day, we're left with a movie that does a half-assed job of not really adapting one of the founding works of interplanetary adventure science fiction. The movie will fail at the box office, and no one will touch the idea again for who knows how long, since Disney will have taken such a stinking dump on the whole idea.

Way to go, Disney. Way to go.


Indyguy said...

Before I finish reading your post I wanted to share this link to an article I read earlier today. Crappy adaptations have been a bugbear with me for ages, as has the super corporate H'wood system with the teams of 'creative' suits. Things seem to frequently go really bad when it comes to the pulpy book to screen movies. I've too many theories to list in this space. Now I'll read your post and prepare to be thoroughly disgusted.

Dan O. said...

Despite occasional moments of silliness, the old-fashioned sense of adventure and brilliantly rendered aliens elevate this above other derivative big-budget sci-fi fare. I still wished that Kitsch did a lot better in this lead role but he was only there for eye-candy really. Good review. What also stinks is that this flick probably won’t make back any of its 250 million dollar budget. Give my review a look when you can.

pete medina said...

Liked the look of the movie and the actors. Wished the story had been better, had to work at liking the film. Still think they should try another.

pete medina said...

Good Review.