My wife and I went to go see John Carter last night. It’s not exactly a film that’s faithful to the plot of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, but it is quite faithful to the spirit, except in one major deviation: the character of Carter himself. In the story, Carter is (as my wife put it) an “immortal badass”— he isn’t very sure of his history and his real relationship to his nephew, Burroughs, is left unclear. Carter is given a tragic backstory in the film, and there is a definite explanation of his arrival on Barsoom. The latter is somewhat understandable; I don’t know if film audiences would have tolerated Carter’s mysterious transportation to the Red Planet or not. The melancholy end to the story is also changed, but that also is a change that makes sense for the film audience.
The adventurous feel of the source material remains. Michael Chabon (yes, that Michael Chabon), one of the script’s authors, says that the goal was to make a classic Hollywood adventure story, and I think Stanton’s film has largely succeeded. The mixed reviews seem to come from a confusion about what sort of movie John Carter is supposed to be, or what sort of book its source was. Ebert wonders why the technology wasn’t explored, but the technology was always essentially no more than Carter’s swords or the pistol he would have used in the Civil War. The Barsoom stories have more in common with Burroughs’s Tarzan stories than science fiction, and to confuse them with science fiction is a mistake. They are proto–space operas or space–fantasies, not genre mates of the contemporary stories of H.G. Wells.
Is the movie a success at reviving the adventure genre in the same way Star Wars was? No, not at all. But it’s a refreshing, loving and seriously done addition to the genre, and there hasn’t been a movie like that in a while.
When I attended the movie, there was an older man down the row from me who was by himself. He was enraptured by the whole thing— clapping, cheering, crying. I suppose he probably loved the stories as a boy. That a movie could bring that back for him… I guess it’s a success, even if it fails at the box office.