Page to Screen: John Carter (2012)

John Carter
based on
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My father and I have this tradition—we go see big, loud, action-adventure films together. My mother can’t stand the noise (she brings earplugs to films! Adorable) and she doesn’t like science fiction, so off we trot to Avatar and the like. And this is why we ended up seeing John Carter; I’d planned on seeing it anyway, and while my dad wasn’t too enthused by the prospect, there wasn’t much else among the early spring films in the theaters. Luckily, my dad ended up really enjoying it, to the point of wanting to show it to my mom. (And thus the cycle continues…)

John Carter, set in the 1880s, is the story of John Carter, adventurer, explorer, and recently deceased. When his beloved nephew Edgar arrives for the funeral, he discovers that John has left him everything—including his personal journal. In it, John tells the story of his journey to Mars (or Barsoom, as the native population calls it). Mars is a dying planet, whose remaining civilizations are at war, overseen by the mysterious and priest-like Therns. The princess scholar Dejah Thoris fears there is no way out (especially considering an impending arranged marriage), but John’s arrival might bring this dying world its only hope.

While I had been initially gung-ho to see John Carter opening weekend, Anatasia’s link to Rich Juzwiak’s thoughts on the film gave me pause. So let’s deal with the obvious—as Genevieve Valentine says in her thoughts on the film, “this film has not done much of anything to interrogate, update, or handle the racism that coats everything in the Barsoom novels”. The screenwriters seem paralyzed with their discomfort over the novel’s racism; while they take pains to distract us from Carter’s status as an ex-Confederate soldier by pointing out that he speaks Apache, his relationship with the Tharks is still reminiscent of Dances with Wolves or Avatar (although I would argue it doesn’t take that turn initially, although it definitely does later). Andrew Stanton has mentioned that he tried to avoid the subject. So there you go. If anyone has stumbled across any thoughtful, long posts on this, please let me know.

But while the racism has been awkwardly ignored, the sexism has actually been addressed—this movie even passes the Bechdel Test, when Dejah calmly surrenders herself to Sola in the middle of a battle. Dejah Thoris herself is a wonder; a scientist warrior princess who discovers a new source of energy that could help the dying Barsoom, she’s calm, capable, and intense. (There is one stumble when, trying to plead her cause to Carter, she breaks down in the middle of the desert, but that’s more a lack of build-up than a misstep.) She carries herself brilliantly, and she feels like a real, separate, whole human being. Sola, although a supporting character, is much the same; she’s Carter’s nervous friend, and she even gets her own storyline about her father to herself. They’re wonderful interpretations of the original characters, and I was delighted to see it. The rest of the cast is efficient; Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas is fantastic, and Taylor Kitsch is serviceable as Carter, although he’s the best at it at the very end of the film. Mark Strong is, as usual, mysterious and creepy. And I would be amiss if I I didn’t mention James Purefoy as a friend of Dejah’s, as well as Woola, who was a crowd favorite at my showing.

As an adaptation, Chabon, Stanton, and Andrews happily pull from the first few Barsoom novels to create a swashbuckling hero story that’s a shade or two more complex. I was delighted to discover that the Therns aren’t bad guys dying to destroy Mars (the fact that the planet is literally dying is treated with remarkably nonchalance here), but rather beings that thrive on destruction and manage warfare. It’s a smart move to pit John Carter, a man of violence, against villains that treat violence and war so off-handedly. I will admit to spending most of the movie squinting for any significant signs of Chabon’s hand in the script, which comes out in the remarkably neat and clever end. The pace clips along nicely, although it gets a bit episodic in the middle. Mostly, the movie wants to get to its ambitious and splashy action sequences, which are genuinely thrilling. The superjump, however, does kill the drama of a montage where Carter finally resolves his guilt over the death of his family by sacrificing himself to save Dejah and Sola; as the film cuts between burying his family and Carter tearing through an army of Tharks, the superjump seems a bit… silly.

For the most part, it’s a solid action picture with incredible production design. Despite the fact that the works Barsoom have influenced are already writ large in the speculative film imagination, it doesn’t look or feel like anything else. The deserts of Barsoom are gorgeous and starkly bright; the costume design downgrades the nudity of the original to scant armor; and the cinematography occasionally takes a chance or two. It’s a very attractive film to watch. (Of course, Lynn Collins’ arms certainly help—I walked out of that theater feeling more noodle-armed than ever…)

Bottom line: A solid action picture with incredible production design, but while it does deal with the sexism of the source text, it tries to sweep the racism under the rug and doesn’t really succeed. If you’d like.

You can read my review of the novel here.

I saw this film in theaters.

8 thoughts on “Page to Screen: John Carter (2012)

  1. I think you said it perfectly on every front. I was quite taken by Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, enough that I felt this movie should have used the book’s title: A Princess of Mars.

    Good review.

  2. Rich Juzwiak’s thoughts on the film were, frankly, nonsensical, overly emotional, and reactionary: exactly the sort of thing I hate when it comes to discussing racial aspects of literature and subsequent adaptations. I cannot list the number of things he either interprets in the worst way, or outright misrepresents. When it comes to such a sensitive and difficult topic, the last thing that should be brought in is an emotional response.

    One can easily look to the example of Robert E. Lee when dealing with the fact that Carter was a confederate cavalryman. Not only was Lee against the idea of secession, he approved and endorsed his wife’s emancipation of slaves. The Union actively persuaded him to join even during the war. Yet Lee fought for the Confederacy because Virginia was his home: Virginians were his people. Sometimes you have to fight for the people and land you love even if you don’t agree with their policies.

    That could SO EASILY have been applied to Carter: a man who doesn’t believe in slavery or the Confederate Cause, but fights for Virginia because some men just fight for their country, right or wrong. To say that every single confederate fought for white supremacy is insulting and unrealistic.

    As for Dejah Warrior Princess: frankly, I find it more frustrating to turn her into a competent hero, because when the time comes that she needs to be rescued, I just have to ask “why the hell does she need JC at all when she could kick everyone’s arse earlier?” She was already a top scientist and charismatic leader in the novel: making her a warrior robs her of a key weakness while making her look stupid whenever she gets captured or needs rescuing. She was still great, excellent performance by Lynn Collins.

    • I don’t want to undermine your argument, but it’s just as likely that Carter was a man of his time. I feel we’re petrified of trying to understand people from the past who hold views that are offensive and downright wrong, and there is a way of rendering them as they were without glorifying them. I particularly notice this with women in historical fiction who hold radically advanced views about gender, because it hurts the believability.

      In the film, she’s presented as not terribly charismatic (although I found her magnetic!), and I think why she needed Carter was a matter of timing and not wanting to face up to her own responsibilities.

      • I feel we’re petrified of trying to understand people from the past who hold views that are offensive and downright wrong, and there is a way of rendering them as they were without glorifying them.

        This is so true. We seem afraid of navigating value systems outside our present historical/cultural context, because somehow representing something as acceptable in one time period makes it seem we’re passively condoning the same practices in this one. But trying to “clean up” the past is a deeply dishonest form of representation that denies the legacy of certain less savoury aspects of history in our own time.

        Short version: Writing historical fiction is hard.

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