John Carter's Greatest Challenge

By Greg Bear, March 2012

Some of my favorite movies--and likely some of yours, as well--were critical and box office failures. Too often, smelling blood, lesser critics joined in like a pack of howling dogs and crooned vicious melodies about, say, Citizen Kane, or The Right Stuff, or Return to Oz, or even the amazing, brilliant mess that is David Lynch’s Dune.

The same critics may have also gone after Star Wars or more recently, Avatar, but they simply didn’t matter. The deluge swept them away.

Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris famously panned 2001, A Space Odyssey, and then reconsidered it in later reviews--but they were not alone in reassessing.

Now, it seems that Disney’s John Carter may be joining those ranks.

I’m not saying that all these movies are equal. I’m not even claiming that John Carter is a great film. As my friend Mark Bourne has said, great movies may or may not be of the same quality as personal favorites. But all of them are worth seeing, and many of them I’ve viewed dozens of times.

I’m now going to put John Carter in that personal category. A few wretched White Apes--pardon the allusion!--at the New York Times have gone after the movie with claws sharpened and dipped in poison, playing out another kind of culture war that goes back almost a century--that is, a deep aversion to pop culture in general, and anything set west of the Mississippi in particular. (Good grief, in politics, the same sort of thing is happening--what’s bringing out the hideous trolls of our past with so much misplaced conviction?)

Back in the day (remember, film fans?) the New York Times refused to review John Ford’s westerns. They’d grudgingly take on his other movies, but his westerns--like all westerns--were déclassé and not worthy of their notice. Since then, the arts and lit pages of the venerable Gray Lady have regularly pilloried science fiction, fantasy, comic books, children’s literature, YA literature (which often tends to be fantasy or science fiction) and nearly every other branch of art or story-telling destined to appeal to the great unwashed, or the supposedly unlettered. Or the young at heart.

For the Times, irony is the ketchup of art. And now they’re back at it again, assessing John Carter as a failure both as commerce and as art, because in large part it is based on a worn-out, clichéd pulp novel, filled with sword play and monsters, oh my. No matter that Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars laid the groundwork for much of pulp fiction to come, influenced writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, and Michael Chabon, (and me!) and has been read and thoroughly enjoyed by millions of people around the world to this very day.

Without A Princess of Mars there would be no Star Wars or Avatar. There would be fewer names on the modern map of Mars--and likely far fewer engineers and scientists to build those space ships and shoot them into the outer void.

In 1911, Burroughs was happy to incorporate the latest speculations about Mars, derived from the work of the immensely popular astronomer Pervical Lowell and not thoroughly discredited until the 1960s. To those speculations he added touches of H. Rider Haggard, Kipling, and the then-popular Graustarkian romance, where a brave commoner is launched into royal complications in an exotic mythical land.

George Lucas, decades later, owed a tremendous debt to Burroughs. Tatooine is much like Burroughs’s Mars, with wonderfully strange creatures, suspended racers, and huge flying barges with swiveling deck guns. And no wonder. Leigh Brackett, co-screen-writer on The Empire Strikes Back, often wrote pulp tales herself--some set on Mars--and did it quite well. She then went on to craft screenplays based on other pulp traditions, among them, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. She co-wrote that screenplay with William Faulkner. In turn, Brackett inspired Ray Bradbury to revisit and revise Burroughs’s Mars in The Martian Chronicles, an enduring classic.

We would all be the poorer for not allowing future generations of young readers a chance to fall into Burrough’s amazing pulp story of adventure and imagination, still powerful and fun after all these years.

Elegant? In spotty fashion, sure. It has both the merits and the debits of a first novel. Vigorous, energetic, wildly imaginative? Absolutely. And filled with an overarching philosophy--racial tolerance--that many people of 1911 would have found extremely objectionable.

After all, John Carter, a gentleman and Civil War veteran from Virginia, romances a dusky, sexy, bare-bosomed, and strong-willed female of another race, another planet--and another reproductive persuasion. Dejah Thoris and her people, like most Martian species, are oviparous. They hatch from eggs. No belly buttons. Wow! The teenage mind boggles. (John Carter’s creators have restored the Princess’s navel. More’s the pity, I say.)

Marvelous, groundbreaking stuff.

But I’m not here just to defend Burroughs. He was not always so racially tolerant. His Tarzan novels present quite a few teachable moments, but no more so than, say, Thomas Wolfe. Hell, in California, they named a town after one of Burroughs’ most enduring characters--Tarzana. The New York Times can’t say or do much about his historical stature or his popularity. Nobody cares what they think on such matters. But they can whine about a somewhat troubled and poorly marketed big-budget movie, and do their best to damage its prospects, and they have--as have many other critics, inside and outside of the so-called science fiction fan community.

Criticizing a film is what critics do. We give them a pass for their opinions about the film itself. But the Times critics--and others following in their wake, including our local paper, the Seattle Times--have demonstrated a deplorable lack of knowledge about the original source material, the traditions from which it sprung, and the heirs who have borrowed from it ever since. And that seems to me to taint their opinions.

So--what’s wrong with John Carter? Quite a few small things, actually. Intro, timing, a bit of dash about the acting and perhaps not enough brio in the screenplay--though there’s a fair amount of it, if you know the roots and get the allusions.

But none of this stood in the way of my thoroughly enjoying a sincere, remarkably faithful, and often clever adaptation of Burroughs’ classic. It’s beautifully rendered and designed, the acting is just fine, the princess is bright-eyed and pretty, John Carter is handsome and troubled and just vulnerable enough to fit the mold, the Tharks are marvelous in their strange, violent sympathies, and the special effects blend almost seamlessly into a rapidly-flowing story.

John Carter’s leaping prowess on Mars comes straight from Burroughs--up to a point. But the filmmakers seem well aware that Burroughs’s example likely suggested to a pair of young science fiction fans named Siegel and Shuster the abilities of one more strange visitor from another planet: Superman. And so, they have ramped up Carter’s abilities just a tad, to reflect those early years of Action Comics.

It’s an allusion. The New York Times didn’t get it.

Furthermore, the critics seem to lack an understanding of the cultural tides of that pre-war era. While astral projection was quite the thing in 1911, our modern filmmakers rightly decided it might be better to tech it up a bit. Now Carter’s method of spontaneous travel between planets is no more unlikely or unbelievable than the mechanisms in Buck Rogers or The Fly or Star Trek. In other words, still fantastic and wonderful and scary.

To sum up, John Carter is a beautiful, relaxing, and occasionally enchanting chunk of entertainment. It deals out, with real love, many of the most interesting bits of the novel, and handles the highly colored characters with respect. The film ends on just the right note. Frankly, I’m happy with that ending. If there are no sequels, we can make up our own stories for John Carter’s return to Barsoom and his beloved Dejah Thoris.

And there is a lovely nod to Burroughs’s frame story, incorporating a young ERB himself into the narrative.

John Carter took me back, frankly, to those halcyon days when I sat in theaters watching other Disney films, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson. Bravo to Disney’s execs for recognizing their own history, and doing their level best to follow through. Puzzlement on the marketing debacle, however.

I’m going to watch this film again--possibly many times. Burroughs fans have been waiting for it to happen for at least a century. Kirk Douglas, it is rumored, wanted to portray John Carter in the 1950s! Does it fulfill all those expectations? Actually, for me, it goes the distance quite well. I highly recommend you give it a shot.

It’s time--as with all those films mentioned above--to say to the carping critics... Well, a gentleman does not resort to such language. But I finger the leather strap over my radium pistol and think dark thoughts.

When wayward critics try to score points by pillorying a classic, there’s at the very least a real need to get the historical facts straight. Otherwise, at least one stern-faced and eternally young writer out here is going to give them all an F.

Kaor!


In case you're curious which New York Times article Greg was referring to: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/movies/john-carter-based-on-princess-of-mars.html