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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Second Coming of John Carter

Sometimes recreating an existing story can actually improve it.  Take the Bond movies, for example.  The Broccoli family’s recreations often shared little more with Ian Fleming’s original story than the title.  Rather than cleaving to the original plot and setting, each movie is set in the present day, and portrays how current (or potential) technology might be used by those who police our world, as well as those who would use such tools to the detriment of others.  Yet despite making wholesale changes to plot, character, setting, and style, nearly each of the company’s twenty-two films excited and entertained cinema-goers, and created new generations of fans who eagerly awaited future installments.  Many claim that the Broccoli-produced James Bond movies constitute the greatest film franchise of all time.  

It goes without saying that any potential reworking of a popular story must be carefully and thoughtfully constructed.  Even a novelist rewriting his own story must steer his pen with great precision to avoid smashing his improved version against the rocks.  Not only does any recreation risk offending fans of the original material, but any changes, no matter how minor, plunk into a pond like a thrown stone.  Each change ripples through the work, disturbing all the previously settled interrelationships.   While the reconstruction may look enhanced, beautiful, and more logically constructed to the writer, fans of the original may feel like their cherished Mona Lisa has been transformed into The Bride of Frankenstein

Cards for Disney's new movie "John Carter"

I must admit, I’m conflicted with regard to the new Disney movie, “John Carter.”  Or at least I am after returning to my bookshelf to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novel, A Princess of Mars.  While I sat in the movie theater, I could follow the story well enough.  I didn’t really pick up everyone’s name, or understand how many of the characters related to each other, but the story in Andrew Stanton’s recreation seemed to make a certain amount of sense.  I certainly found it more entertaining than the recent adaptation of the Janet Evanovich novel One for the Money, the first in another franchise of twenty-two installments, this one concerning the exploits of bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.  But unlike the James Bond movies, John Carter doesn’t seem like the central character in the film named after him.  In bringing the war between Zodanga and Helium to the forefront, the scriptwriters shine more light upon characters that appear infrequently (perhaps only once or twice) in the episodic novel.  By recasting John Carter as a widower who refuses to accept his present, and refuses to join any worthwhile cause, the character becomes more of an antihero.  Likewise, the motivations of Dejah Thoris grow murky.  While she spends much of the film leading him on a quest so he can discover how to return to Earth, he will still have to return to her city of Helium to escape Mars (also known as Barsoom).

The novel that started a series,
and an author's career

Regardless of the film’s correlation to the original novel, Disney has an interesting way of advertising its recent creation: “Please see the new movie that’s going to lose us $200 million in the next fiscal quarter.”  To further signal their desperation, they sent a representative to Condor this year; he gave away T-shirts, posters, and other movie paraphernalia.  For a convention that boasts a couple hundred attendees each year, that’s an unprecedented move for a major studio.  The uninspired artwork, and the billboard-style T-shirts, didn’t exactly make them leap off the fan table.  Neither have I seen affordably priced “John Carter” toys, either in the stores or in kids’ meals at any of the fast-food chains.  For a movie Disney is reportedly spending $100 million promoting, I find the situation perplexing.  When children can purchase action figures from R-rated movies such as “Alien” and “Predator”, shouldn’t they be able to play with characters from a more kid-friendly adventure?  At least Disney has a website fans can check out.  I particularly enjoyed the previews of the prequel comic books they’ve issued.  

As I mentioned at the beginning, I enjoyed the movie while I was in the movie theater.  It was only afterward, when I returned home, and started reading A Princess of Mars, that I began to question some of the scriptwriters’ choices.  If “John Carter” had been an original production, it might have reaped greater critical and popular acceptance.  While it may not excite a new generation of cinema-goers, or launch another long-running franchise, it’s only in comparison with Burroughs’ original story that it really suffers.

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