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John Carter of Mars: A Much Needed Character Evolution

John Carter of Mars. The one time that Disney took something and made it better. And then they squandered it.

The John Carter (2012) * movie with Taylor Kitsch somehow almost missed me. Retrospectively we know that Disney killed the box office success of this movie and the reasons for that have been documented elsewhere and will not be rehashed here. (If you’re curious, here’s a video I found very informative.)

Given my history with Edgar Rice Burroughs‘* works, I can’t help but wonder if this excellent film (yes, I said it) would have been something I would have bothered with when it was released. They say that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but I did nevertheless give this character a second chance.

Some background:

First, so you understand where I am coming from, I was never a 13-year-old boy or a young man for that matter. I don’t think I was ever the intended audience for this and not just because ERB published this in 1917 and the writing is so dated that the story is painful to read. And I know that it inspired a lot of people. That does not change that it is dated, and I’m not talking about the prose.

But I loved the movie and a friend’s post on Facebook got me thinking about why the movie spoke to me in a way that ERB’s writing never could. I will admit that while Taylor Kitsch is easy on the eyes I do in fact consistently reject eye-candy-based movies if they are poorly done. And while the production design and special effects were excellent, again, plenty of other movies with the same window dressing fail to make my list.

“Oh, Gary-Stu, you saved me!”

So, I subjected myself, once more to ERB’s writing, confirming, once again, that it was his writing that did not appeal. Now, when we speak of writing, we are talking about two things. One is prose. The other is everything but the prose, i.e. the characterization, pacing, description, and so on. (And please don’t rail at me about giving the book another chance; I’m a writer with limited time and since what I’m reading can have a detrimental effect on my own writing, that is not a bullet I’m willing to take for you).

It is the characters in the book that are lacking. This review of ERB’s version is right on:

Amazon review

ERB’s John Carter is a Gary-Stu, an infallible character, a piece of animated cardboard lacking in depth. And I also realize that for some people, that is the appeal. Why else would Hollywood and Disney be tripping all over themselves for the last decade or more to bring us the female version of Gary-Stu, the Mary-Sue character? (If you’re one of those, you may want to stop reading here because I’m about to piss you off.)

Here is the one time that Disney took something and made it better. And then they squandered it.

Why the movie is so much better:

So, what made it better? What did Disney do right? Well, for one they made the Powell character an adversary (in the book he was Carter’s mining partner). By doing so, the movie reset the tone to one of high stakes and character complexity. As I said, I couldn’t make myself re-read all of ERB’s story, but I did re-read this part and it struck me as an excellent move in revamping the characters.

The other thing they did was make John Carter a real person, not someone who struts around thinking about how (or showing off how) utterly perfect he is. And I admit a prejudice against such characters, whether ERB’s or not.

To wit… One of the things that absolutely makes me put a book down is the Retief character (Laumer’s BOLO series.) Laumer’s character is fresher in mind than John Carter (I had to re-read him more recently) but I remember thinking of John Carter when I read Laumer and just groaning when Retief takes out an alien using some clever method that only he knew but didn’t reveal until it was time to congratulate himself for being oh-so-clever.

Let me be a bit more explicit here with an example:

Gary-Stu, our intrepid hero finds himself at the bottom of a pit. The author actually has Gary-Stu going “Oh no! However will I get out?” Gary-Stu may or may not have more thoughts about how incredibly high the walls are, or how dangerous it is for him to remain here. Then the author leaves us hanging.

So off we go, waiting a whole week for the next installment, or the next chapter, or like today, it’s just a matter of turning the page. And when we do, Gary-Stu flexes his muscles and just leaps out of that pit like he was planning on doing all along, because he knew he could do it (he is Gary-Stu after all) so him wondering “Oh no! However will I get out?” wasn’t a genuine thought at all, but the author jerking off on the page.

And if you just went, “Ewww….” then you know exactly how I feel every time I read one of these contrived gotchas, and then how I feel when I have to read the vomit-inducing follow-up that includes some self-congratulatory drivel started by some other character. “Oh, Gary-Stu, you’re my hero. Thank you for saving us.” or better yet, “Oh, Gary-Stu, you’re my hero. I’m all yours. Take me. Take me here, take me now.”

It’s always about characters:

By making John Carter a widower who had lost his wife and child, who had lost his soul, whose outlook of life and humanity was grim, Disney took ERB’s Gary-Stu and made him into a relatable, likable character who could be progressed. At the end of the movie he is a different person and it was that arc that made the movie John Carter someone I liked and want more of. The book John Carter would have been just as shallow, no matter the special effects or casting because he would still be a Gary-Stu, ready to go on his next adventure where he remained the same shallow Gary-Stu he was at the start.

I’m not going to talk too much about the rewriting of Dejah Thoris since I couldn’t read far enough into ERB’s text to do a fair comparison. I suspect that movie Dejah is very much unlike book Dejah, a female character written for 13-yo boys reading in 1917. I didn’t find the movie character to be a Mary-Sue. In fact, I liked her very much. She had both strengths and weaknesses, had a great character arc, and she and John working together to win is very refreshing in a world where many franchises take the male title character, gut and castrate him, and then have the female character be the real “hero.”

If you’re willing to suspend disbelief and accept that this is not the Mars we know today and was never meant to be the Mars of today, but a fantasy (rather than sci-fi) Mars, this movie is well worth your time. It has action, adventure, and romance, albeit a Disney-level romance. I loved the Tars Tarkas character (“Your spirit annoys me”), the Sola and Kantos Kan characters–all of it. The only thing I did not love about this movie is the fact that they didn’t make a sequel and that there is no Woola plushie.

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Character, Movies, Romance, Sci-fi

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker says:

    I never read the books. I liked the film better than any Star Wars film since Jedi. I thought the framing narrative was cleverly done, and Carter back in the old West was a great introduction.

  2. Jonathan Kennard says:

    A friend of mine, who like me, being somewhat wanting for books read both John Carter, and sat through the film, said the film version of her is better. A lot of her internal issues in the book, you have to pay attention for, since everything is through Carter’s perspective, and some of it he’s clearly not paying attention to. A flaw – – gasp he has a flaw – – he admits to in the second book. No, I’m not suggesting you read it. There are better books out there, go read those. John Carter is not a good series, even compared to his other works.

  3. Jeff Greason says:

    I happen to like the John Carter books, but that doesn’t make anything you say incorrect. They’re a guilty pleasure, which I can enjoy for the over-the-top creativity of the setting. But ERB has essentially one plot, the damsel-in-distress-who-falls-for-hero-but-contrived-circumstances-keep-them-apart, and it gets old fast. So I could read a few John Carter books, then no more, and a few Tarzan books, then no more (because it’s still the same plot), and was bored stiff by “Land That Time Forgot” because it’s the same plot, etc.

    Disney John Carter *was* a good movie, it was a fair take on Carter, an innovate reimagining of Dejah Thoris (giving her a role without taking Carter’s role away), and an OUTSTANDING take on Tars Tarkas.

    It wasn’t perfect — it has rather inconsistent tone, not sure if it’s a superhero movie, an adventure story, or a mystery movie. But I’d have loved to see where it went.

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