How I’d Fix It: John Carter

John Carter has received a mostly negative reaction, both from critics and movie fans. General audiences appear to have shunned the film as well, in America at least, although you can blame that on a botched marketing campaign more than the film itself.

But I liked the movie. Quite a bit, in fact. It’s infused with a rousing sense of pulp and good humor, and it’s a ton of fun for it. There’s some great character work, particularly with the animated aliens (Woola in particular amazes me by being an animal sidekick who isn’t annoying or the source of fart jokes) and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. There are some significant flaws, but the movie aims high, and I’ll always root for movies that try hard and fail over those that don’t try much at all (*cough*Transformers*cough*).

That being said, those flaws are pretty glaring. They threatened to sink John Carter for me, and I can understand if others can’t handle them. So what could the film have done differently? I have five major suggestions:

Now, I’m not going to claim that this is “the right way” to handle this material. I also don’t claim to be an expert on filmmaking or story. And I certainly will admit that I don’t know much about the behind-the-scenes deal with this movie, so I have no idea what kind of battles had to be fought for how the film turned out the way it did. All I have is the finished project, and while I won’t pretend this is some definitive solution to the movie’s problems, or that I could somehow make the movie perfect, I do think that the ideas here are an improvement over what ended up on screen.

Oh, and two more disclaimers. First, I haven’t read any of the Barsoom books. If I reference how the original story went, it’s coming from synopses I’ve read of them. Second, I’m assuming that you’ve already seen the movie here. If not, then there are some pretty big spoilers, and not much of what I say will make sense.

Cut out most of the stuff on Earth

The framing of the story, with Edgar Rice Burroughs reading his uncle John Carter’s journal, is cute but pointless. I understand that it comes from the book, but it has no reason to be there. It doesn’t tie into any of the movie’s larger thematic ideas. All it does is eat up screentime and completely drag down the story’s denouement.

All you really need of Earth is a ten or fifteen minute segment, enough to introduce the character of John Carter before getting his ass to Mars. What the movie has as it is is enough, although apparently in the book Powell was Carter’s prospecting partner, rather than an antagonist. That seems much less convoluted, but it allows for some fun exposition about Carter’s past early on, so I can dig it.

But get rid of Burroughs, and maybe even the final return to Earth. Is that part vital to the story? It does end it on an unusual, even gutsy note of pathos, which is rare for a blockbuster. But if you really want audiences to feel Carter’s sorrow, he needs to have been on Barsoom for more than a week. Give him the nine years he had in the book before yanking it away from him.

Get rid of the Therns (and improve the villains in general)

The Therns aren’t even in A Princess of Mars; they come from later installments in the series. So it makes sense that they feel completely shoehorned into this story. Let the Zodangans stand alone as the antagonists. Real-world conflict has shown that one nation can beat up another without a secretive force aiding them.

The Therns have a silly, unthreatening name. They don’t feel dangerous in the least (Mark Strong’s character claims that they are immortal long after that has been conclusively and easily proven wrong). Worst of all, they have ridiculously vague goals which seem to amount to dicking around with the less technologically advanced simply because they can.

When you already have to deal with introducing audiences to a whole world, with its own species, phenomena, and nations, villains with overcomplicated motivations are what you need least. Dominic West has proven in Punisher: War Zone that he can bring deliciously vile hamminess to a villain role. Let him loose on the main bad guy here, and save the mystical intrigue for the sequels.

Recast John Carter (and rejigger his character a bit)

Taylor Kitsch is not a bad actor. He has, in fact, consistently shown himself to be the opposite of bad. But he’s wrong for John Carter. He’s a flatly gruff presence, and he doesn’t fit in with the tone of big emoting that the other actors are going for. He’s not a “heightened” kind of guy.

Besides that, Carter needs to be adjusted a bit. First, get rid of the back story with the dead wife and daughter. I don’t know if that’s from the books or not, but it feels tired and doesn’t add much. Carter’s arc in the film is about joining a worthy cause, and nothing that happens to him really does much to tie into his pain. I thought the inter-cutting between him slaughtering Tharks and burying his family was laughable, not affecting.

All Carter really needs for his journey to work is the Confederate background. That was a cause that failed, and one that perhaps wasn’t worth fighting for. That’s enough to give Carter doubts about throwing his lot in with Helium.

Adjust the Tharks subplot

With everything else going on, the Tharks’ power struggle kills the momentum as the plot nears the climax. Apparently, it wasn’t quite as complicated in the books. The Thomas Haden Thark starts out as the chief, while Tars Tarkas is a challenger. Keep it this way, instead of giving them shifting fortunes. Let Carter play an instrumental role in helping Tars Tarka rise up through the ranks of the Tharks. To that end, put the arena scene much earlier. In fact, let that be the way that Carter demonstrates his strength to the Tharks and earns their respect.

And on a minor detail: get rid of the bitchy female Thark entirely. She doesn’t feel necessary; I don’t even know if she ever got a name. Spread out all the abuse that one character gives to Sola among the other Tharks, and it will convey Sola’s isolated state much better. For that matter, if Sola is going to be the Thark we spend the most time with, give her an arc. Let Carter and Dejah teach her to assert herself, and have her play some role in getting the Tharks to go to war. We love seeing passive characters become active.

Streamline the story

This is by far the movie’s most crippling flaw. The plot is needlessly convoluted, but worse, it jumps around, with characters getting bounced randomly from one location to the next, moving to a new place just before we adjust to the old. Now, having cut out the extraneous material I’ve already mentioned (Earth, Therns, dead family), there are a few more tweaks to be made.

No one wants to read my detailed treatment on how I would have written John Carter, so here’s my idea in brief: make the conflict about The Ninth Ray. Instead of having the Ray be given to Zodanga by the Therns, let them develop the weapon on their own, having beaten Helium to it in a sort of arms race. Give the plot a focus through Dejah Thoris’ search for a way to claim The Ninth Ray for Helium, in an effort to turn the tide of the war. The movie seems to be heading in this direction, but abandons it after the scene in the glowy cave.

Dejah can see John as the way to unlock the secret of The Ninth Ray. Let’s say that the Therns are still responsible for the technology, but that at this point they exist only as vague “ancients” who have left behind relics on Earth and Barsoom, and that Carter simply travels to Barsoom by accident. That’s appropriately vague enough to get John from Earth to Mars, and to leave room for the Therns to show up in a sequel while not leaving a loose end in the film, as it does currently (the all-powerful organization is still there; it’s only lost like two members).

Parallel Dejah’s struggle to solve The Ninth Ray and thus avoid being made a marriage prop as a way to peace with John’s struggle to find his own place in the world. Let it culminate with Dejah succeeding, and giving John the option to return to Earth. This way, John could leave without feeling too much pressure to stay and help. If the conflict doesn’t need him, it makes it all the more powerful for him to choose to remain. Of course, he would probably turn out to be vital to victory after all, leading a stampede of Tharks to save the day.

And lastly: Give it a real title

Seriously. What is it with the bland, non-descriptive, name-only titles getting slapped on movie adaptations of books? First Hugo, now this. Can you imagine if The Hunger Games was called Katniss (okay, bad example, since that doesn’t sound like a name)?

Call it John Carter of Mars. Call it A Princess of Mars. If guys won’t see a princess movie, then why is The Princess Bride so universally beloved? I like Devin Faraci at Badass Digest’s suggestion that it be called John Carter and the Princess of Mars. Anything besides what we got is much more unique and descriptive. As it is, if you swapped the titles on the posters of this film and Albert Nobbs, no one could tell the difference.

John Carter gets so much right that I wanted it to get everything right. It’s more genuinely fun than so many churned-out-by-committee blockbusters today. I repeat a cliché that’s old but true in this case: this movie has heart. It just needed a bit more brains.

  • I mostly agree. The ending part on Earth is important in the book but as you pointed out it’s after ten years on Barsoom (Mars). The Thark that causes problems for Sola is in the book and a lot – they did not do any of the Tharks justice even switching that Tars Tarkas knew who his daughter was when he did not in the book and when he challanges the chief Thark he wins – he doesn’t lose and get put in the arena with Carter. Definitely agree on the Therns though who aren’t in A Princess of Mars.

  • The Therns were the weakest part of the film for me. Even though the film’s plot is still relatively simple, including the Therns only served to make it feel more convoluted than necessary.

    Still, I did enjoy the whole idea of Therns having a presence on Earth. It reminded me of how Star Wars originally left much of its mythology unexplained, such as the Clone Wars or Jabba the Hutt.

    I disagree about the Earthbound scenes, though. They not only work as a nice homage to the type of forewords Burroughs liked to provide his stories, but also reward the viewer with a very satisying payoff. (Now made all the more so by the fact we may never see the planned sequels.)

    • I must admit that the ending has grown on me. I don’t dislike the framing device with Burroughs on principle, but it’s a pretty big momentum-killer towards the end.

  • I chuckled all the way through this, because all the improvements you bring up which I agree with are pretty much how they are in the books: more characterisation for Sola and the rest of the Tharks, no tragic backstory, no Therns, cut out most of the earth subplot.

    The only disagreements I have are in cutting out Sarkoja (the bitchy female Thark) and the use of the 9th Ray. Sarkoja is pretty important as establishing what is the status quo among the Tharks so we understand why Tars Tarkas and Sola are so different, as well as being a great character in her own right: I’d actually expand her role rather than delete her.

    I would also significantly alter the central conflict of the story: instead of some hogwash about the 9th ray, make it a battle to try and stop the death of their planet. While the Zodangans, Heliumites, Tharks and Warhoons are fighting amongst themselves, they’re ignoring the ecological threat which could destroy them all (in the books, the atmosphere plants which provide oxygen suddenly fail: I would change it slightly so that Carter’s goal is to unite the peoples quickly enough to combat the impending death). It’s timeless yet timely.

    • I really need to get around to those books.

      And I like your idea! Again, I don’t think any of my suggestions are “perfect,” but the movie as is has a muddled and uninvolving central conflict. My point is always that it could have been done so much better that it shouldn’t have been put out as it is.

  • You pretty much nailed this analysis. The whole concept of John Carter being a “flop” has been weighing heavily on me since I first heard this movie was coming out. My initial reaction to learning there would be a John Carter movie in the first place was, in fact, that no one would relate to it. It was much the same way I felt when I heard Lord of The Rings was coming to the screen. How would the audience relate? Peter Jackson solved the problem two ways. First was with a great and clear prologue followed by subsequent excellent explanations of all the goings on in Middle-Earth, such as the scene with Gandalf visiting his wizard buddy in Isengard. Second? Hobbits. Show everyone lots of laughable, merry, drinking, eating, leaf-smoking hobbits. So funny. So easy to empathize when small, vulnerable people are going up against evil baddies. And yet, LOTR is a much more convoluted story than JCM.

    That’s what was missing from John Carter. Understanding and empathy. In short, you nailed it. I read the first three books for the first time before seeing the movie, and the plot for the first movie was in the first book. Had the director and screenwriter followed that, rather than combining the first three books into one plot, along with applying the screen-writing logic Jackson applied to LOTR, we might be looking at two more JCM sequels.

    And why the cool JCM logo in the movie posters? If the rest of the advertising campaign were that cool, the movie might have blown Hunger Games outta the water. Or the sky. Since there’s no large bodies of water “on” Mars. Beneath it is another story.

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