Tuesday, January 08, 2013

John Carter and the modern Victorian

John Carter, the movie, was considered a flop when it was released early in 2012. If you believe these numbers it cost an astonishing $250,000,000 — which translates out to a quarter billion, about what Mitt Romney has floating around in offshore bank accounts* — and according to the Internet Movie Database it earned worldwide around $285,000,000. In Hollywood terms that means it failed. I wonder if the same people who figure out the national debt and all of those astronomical dollar figures thrown around by economists do the same accounting for movie studios. Because of that, what was to be a major franchise with sequels died after the first movie.

I watched it today for the second time. Except for some annoying things like the portrayal of John Carter’s literary creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, as a wimpy fellow (the real-life ERB** was anything but), I thought the action and special effects were excellent. It wasn't perfect. It was 20 minutes too long, and the framing device with Burroughs could have been cut down quite a bit, as could most all of the whole Wild West sequence.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original story was published in 1912 as “Under the Moons of Mars” by “Norman Bean” (a misspelled pen-name: Burroughs wanted the name “Normal Bean,” a pun for normal being) in the All-Story Magazine. The exotic locale placed it on Mars, but the story was deep in the Victorian tradition. Dejah Thoris, the princess that John Carter falls in love with is straight out of old-style novels where virtue is guarded, and death is preferred to dishonor. The movie perpetuates this sort of melodrama with an exchange between Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), Jeddak of the city of Helium:

Speaking of Sab Than, Jeddak of Zodanga, Tardos Mors says to his daughter, “He will spare Helium — if you will accept his hand in marriage!” How could any actor nowadays say that line without cracking up with laughter? To his credit, Britisher Hinds does it straight-faced, and if you know Hinds, you know his straight-face is straighter than most.

In those days even the most evil-intentioned villain was demanding to marry the maiden rather than just take her to bed (to bed an unmarried woman would take a special kind of cad).

Taylor Kitsch (and by Issus I love his last name!) plays Captain John Carter, and he seems a good fit for the part, as does Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris and even Ciaran Hinds as her father. Dominic West as Jeddak of Zodanga seems miscast, or maybe it’s because (and forgive me for saying this, because I believe West is a fine actor) I have him typecast in my mind as McNulty, the flawed cop in the HBO series, The Wire. Other actors are hidden behind CGI effects. Willem Dafoe, for instance, is the 15-foot tall Thark, Tars Tarkas. For what it’s worth, although I usually see CGI as just computer images, in this case I was able to shake it off and see the characters as the filmmaker intended them to be seen.

A Princess of Mars, the story’s book title, has been filmed before in a cheap 2009 video starring Antonio Sabato, Jr. as John Carter. The story itself is in public domain, although Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., a company formed decades ago to license Tarzan and other works of the popular author, has trademarked words like “Barsoom,” “John Carter of Mars,” etc., so anyone making a movie would have to pay. Very smart, and they are just doing what the John Carter producer, Walt Disney, has been doing for years, trademarking iconic characters.

The fact that no more of the John Carter series will come from Disney was a big disappointment to the people of Southern Utah where much of it was filmed. The desolate but beautiful red rock country probably looks more Martian to our earthly eyeballs than the real-life Mars.

As a kid I loved the John Carter novels by Burroughs, and still own all of the paperback editions. I have moved on in my literary tastes, even though as a young teen I was a member of the Burroughs Bibliophiles and a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I found these pictures of the dust jackets of various early editions, and covers of magazines online. I still love the dynamic artwork, which looks magical to me and takes me back to an era past.***

*A cheap shot, I know. Kick a loser when he’s down. I’m sure Mitt's wealth is comforting to him.

**The movie places ERB in New York in 1881 as an adult. ERB was actually born in 1875.

***Frank Frazetta did some great illustrations from this series in the 1960s and '70s, but they are easier to find than these I'm showing.

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