John Carter As It Should Have Been Done

Well, I guess it’s officially a flop: Disney announced yesterday that it expects to lose $200 million on John Carter, all but guaranteeing that the first big-screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic Barsoom novels is also going to be the last. And what a damn shame, too, because I really liked it. The pacing was a little uneven, and I disagree with some of the changes that were made in adapting the story from the source material. (I could’ve done without the formulaic Hollywood backstory and character arc that was pasted onto the title character, i.e., the man who’s lost everything learning to live again; in the original stories, he was simply an adventurer who had to adapt to a new world, and then fell in love. Also, the books were filled with enough conflict between Barsoomian races and city-states without having to elevate the stakes to the would-be epic, survival-of-two-worlds-in-the-balance stuff that nearly every summer tentpole flick of the last 15 years has beaten into the ground. And I prefer the book’s conceit that JC was the only person who was capable of moving between Earth and Barsoom, and that he did it through mystical means rather than technological, as in the film.) But overall I was very pleased with the filmmakers’ fidelity to the details and spirit of the books, and I loved the fun, escapist tone that neither took itself too seriously nor played the material for campy laughs. And I thought the casting was spot-on. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins aren’t John Carter and the lovely Dejah Thoris as I have imagined them for 30 years of my life… but they could be cousins to the people who live in my imagination, and that’s pretty damn satisfying.

I recognize that I approached John Carter with a certain predisposition to like it, and also viewed it through a particular filter, i.e., how well did it adapt the books I’ve loved since childhood? But I’ve also spoken to several people who admit they wouldn’t know Edgar Rice Burroughs from William S. Burroughs, so they had no preconceptions whatsoever, and they liked the movie, too. Based on their testimonies, I’m convinced the movie had the potential to appeal to a wider audience than it obviously has… which suggests to me that what I wrote a couple weeks ago about the weak marketing was right on target. Fingers are now being pointed in all directions, with some gossips blaming the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, for mistakenly believing this character was as well known as Tarzan and insisting on the vague, uninspiring ad campaign. Others are saying the movie fell victim to internal politics at Disney, with the execs who greenlighted the movie departing midway through its production and their replacements just wanting to get it out the door and over with. But again, whatever the cause, there’s no question in my mind that the marketing on this film stank worse than fresh calot droppings, and that had a tremendously negative impact on the movie’s performance. And it’s so deeply frustrating to me, both as an ERB fan and simply as a lover of good Saturday-matinee adventure flicks, because this movie so easily could have been handled differently, and with far happier results.

Consider this: Two clicks of my mouse this afternoon turned up a fan-made trailer that uses the same footage as the official ones, but is so much more reflective of what this movie is about, who John Carter is, why these stories matter, and how frickin’ awesome they can be:

Now that’s how you do a trailer for a rollicking planetary romance based on a seminal but no longer well-remembered literary work. This trailer makes me want to run out and see the film again, right now. So why couldn’t anyone at Disney figure out how to do something that good? Why didn’t they care about nurturing something that could’ve been major for them, instead of setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure? (I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess; I’ve been asking the same questions for 20 years in regards to The Rocketeer, another great little movie with lots of franchise potential that Disney essentially dumped into theaters with very little support.)

Someday, somebody’s going to write a very interesting book on this debacle. In the meantime, I really hope this movie finds its audience on home video, and eventually comes to be recognized as something more than it was initially taken for.